Have you ever wondered how childhood trauma impacts adolescents or adults? Do you find yourself asking yourself how much your childhood has a impact on your relationships today? Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have major impact on our emotional development and how we continue to interact in the relationships around us.
Childhood is where our attachment styles are developed and our parents are our primary attachment figures. The way they respond to us in childhood shapes our worldview, or perception of the world, and how we expect others to respond, relate and interact with us. This is the foundation of whether or not a child will feel the world is safe and whether or not those around them will accept them.
Erikson called this our view of “trust or mistrust”. Is it a safe place to venture out and take emotional risks? Are all people generally good or are they out to hurt us and therefore untrustworthy? Can we trust others to support us in times of emotional need or crisis or do I need to rely on myself?
Complex trauma refers to the prolonged exposure to a stressful event, or repeated traumatic events layered on top of another. This would include children, who have grown up in physically, sexually, and/or emotionally absent or abusive households, as well as children who grew up in unsafe communities, an incarnated parent or a parent with mental health or substance use concerns.
How Childhood Trauma Continues to Effect us into Adulthood
Without the safety net of a secure attachment relationship, children experiencing childhood trauma grow up to become adults who struggle with poor self-esteem and difficulty with emotional regulation. They continue the unhealthy relationship patterns of their childhood with partners, friends and family members. These adults also have an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety.
The following are the four basic attachment styles. Please keep in mind that these descriptions are very general; not everyone will have all these characteristics. Attachment styles are relatively fluid and can be ever-changing depending on your partner’s own attachment style and the adaptations you make as you grow and learn.
Secure Attachment in Adults
These individuals usually grew up in a supportive environment where parents consistently responded to their needs. Securely attached individuals feel comfortable in their own skin, easily share feelings with partners and friends and seek out social support. These individuals have a generally positive outlook on life and seek physical and/or emotional intimacy with minimal fear of being rejected or overwhelmed.
Securely attached individuals, much like their parents were to them, are generally consistent and reliable in their behaviors toward their partner. They also tend to include their partner in decisions that could affect their relationship or life goals.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment in Adults
Children develop this attachment style when their primary caregivers are not emotionally responsive or are rejecting of their needs.
Children learn to pull away emotionally and be overly self-reliant, as means to avoid feelings of rejection. As adults, they become uncomfortable with emotional openness and downplay the importance of relationships.
These adults tend to place a high priority on their own independence from others and tend to be extremely self-reliant. They develop techniques to reduce feelings of being overwhelmed and defend themselves from perceived threats to their “independence.”
These techniques include, shutting down, sending mixed messages, and avoiding. These coping techniques end up becoming detrimental to their adult relationships.
Fearful-Avoidant Attachment in Adults
Children who have developed this style of attachment may have been exposed to prolonged abuse and/or neglect. Their primary caregivers are a source of hurt, rather than fulfilling their vital role of providing support and comfort.
These children grow up to become adults who depend on others but avoid intimacy in their relationships due to fear of rejection. As adults they have lower self-esteem and high anxiety in relationships.
As adults they see the value in having close relationships but due to the abuse they received have a difficult time trusting others. Due to this distrust, they avoid being emotionally vulnerable with others and have difficulty clearly expressing their wants and needs, as they fear it will lead to more hurt and rejection.
Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment in Adults:
Children with anxious-preoccupied attachment had caregivers ho did not consistently meet their needs, as in their responses to the child were not consistent or predictable. Their parents were nurturing, caring and attentive at times but this was alternated with cold, rejecting or emotionally detached behaviors.
This alternation between love and rejection makes it difficult for a child to know what to expect from day to day. These children then grow up to be adults who require a lot of connection, closeness and attention within their relationships, sometimes to the point of being “clingy.”
Individuals who have this attachment style may need more validation and approval from loved ones than the other attachment styles.
Neurobiology of Attachment and Childhood Trauma
As products of our own environments, adults will often find themselves repeating the same behaviors witnessed and experienced in childhood. This is because the neural pathways developed from childhood traumatic experiences shape keep us stuck in these unhealthy patterns and ways of relating.
To say all of this is not meant to place blame on caregivers for the types of relationships formed in your adult life. However, increasing awareness of your own attachment style can help you take those first steps towards recognizing patterns and improving your relationships as an adult. With newfound awareness you can move to form securely attached relationships with your partner and with your own children.
Processing those difficult childhood memories of abuse and neglect can help you to make new neural connections with more adaptive experiences in your life and thus alter that inner-voice that keeps your stuck in poor patterns of behavior.
Where to go From Here?
At Suffolk Family Therapy, we understand how complex childhood trauma affects you as an adult, which is why we specialize in EMDR and trauma-focused therapies. We are here to help guide and support you through your journey of processing past hurts and forming healthier connections.