Early attachment trauma is a distressing or harmful experience that affects a child’s ability to form healthy interpersonal relationships. It includes abuse, abandonment, and neglect of an infant or child prior to age two or three. These traumas can have subtle yet long-lasting effects on a person’s emotional health.
*Editor’s note: Early attachment trauma can also occur due to non-abusive circumstances, such as when a child is separated from their primary caregivers due to medical concerns. However, this article focuses primarily on attachment trauma caused by neglect and abuse.
Understanding Infant Memory
As adults, or even children, we cannot recall narrative memory from our lives as infants. For most, the concept of memory is thought of as the ability to recall events, usually in the form of cognitions and images. In general, people cannot recall any events prior to ages three or four. Because of this, there is a pervasive and inaccurate view that infants do not recall any experiences, including traumatic experiences.
In fact, the human brain has multiple ways to recall experience. Think about it. Infants, at some point, obviously learn to walk and talk. Everything that occurs in our human experience is stored in our memory. However, not everything is stored narratively or explicitly. We have motor, vestibular, and emotional memory as well.
All incoming sensory information creates neuronal patterns which are “imprinted” in our brains. These neuronal patterns are a form of memory. We create memory “templates,” or stored patterns, the majority of which are non-cognitive and preverbal. These templates will influence us for the rest of our lives.
When Attachment Trauma Occurs
Unfortunately, when attachment interruptions (such as abandonment) occur in infancy, abnormal associations may be created. Physiological state memories, motor vestibular memories, and emotional memories are stored, and they can be triggered in later life. These triggers can manifest as mistrust or fear of interpersonal attachment.
Since the original template for how relationships work was formed in early childhood, all future relationships can be corrupted. The person may find themselves struggling with difficulties in relationships, particularly with respect to trust, bonding, and intimacy—the core elements of healthy attachment. Part of the problem may be the person having absolutely no cognitive awareness of the source of their fears or that they were betrayed in infancy. This can make treatment efforts difficult.
The brain is designed to change in response to experience, and all experience has an impact on the brain. With respect to traumatic experiences, the impact is on the parts of the brain involved with stress and fear. These would be the parts of the brain known as the limbic system (e.g., amygdala), neuroendocrine system (pituitary-adrenal axis), and the cortical systems; all of which can be altered in traumatized children.
The Inner Working Model
How a person relates to the self and others as an adult involves their “inner working model,” which consists of:
- How they see themselves (Am I worthy? Am I loved?)
- How they see others (Are they available? Are they responsive?)
- How they see the world (Is it safe? Is it fair?)
This inner working model has developed since birth and involves how relationships worked in the person’s life. Was the person attuned to and connected with? Or were they left to fend for themselves, crying themselves to sleep each day? The experiences people had with their parents and other important relationships shaped their developing inner working models.
As people progress through life, their working models can become further developed and influenced by each new experience. Remember, the brain is elastic (neuroplasticity), and neural connections can be “rewired” through experiencing all of life’s different influences.
That being said, the relationship templates people seem to draw upon the most are those created in early life. The job of psychotherapy, using the knowledge of neuroplasticity, is to create adaptive working model templates in place of maladaptive ones.
Barriers to Treatment
The problem with early attachment injuries is that while implicit memory is affected, there is no explicit or narrative memory to recall.
This can create the following constraints in therapy:
- There is no image from memory to draw upon.
- There is no language associated with the psychological injury.
- There is no cognition associated with the early attachment trauma.
- There is no awareness of the injury.
- There is no body sensation associated with the hurt.
- There is no recognition of a hurt to repair or release.
Instead, therapist and client must “work with the gaps.” Veracity need not be challenged in the process. The goal will be to process implicit memory. This is good to know, but how does one, exactly, process implicit memory?
Working with the Adult with Attachment Trauma
The psychological injuries could involve both the self as well as one’s interpersonal relationships. Perhaps victims of early attachment disruption have an “internal attachment disorder,” mirroring the emotional injuries experienced in early childhood. Perhaps victims of this type of neglect have learned to alienate from both self and others as an essential survival strategy.
A key to recovery is learning to identify the person’s various parts of self. In order to heal the “hurt inner infant,” one has to be cognizant of the fact that there are various “parts” to one’s psyche, and each needs recognition.
It is helpful to realize that unresolved internal attachment issues can surface as otherwise normal life stressors that evoke the fears and feelings of one’s disowned, abandoned inner parts. You can help your client heal by teaching them to embrace the parts of self that were unconsciously “disowned,” even as these parts are causing havoc in their current life. This process involves befriending the parts of self by listening internally and paying attention to the likes, dislikes, fears, fantasies, and habits of each one.
Healing the “Inner Infant”
This involves imagery: visualization and learning to see within. Part of the process involves learning to embrace one’s inner infant by holding it close and nurturing the part of self that is vulnerable and lacking in trust. Healing will come as the person learns how to meet their inner unmet needs from infancy. Judgment has no helpful role in this process; instead, self-compassion and acceptance are key to recovery.
The Role of Others
In addition to working with oneself, healing broken inner working models and relationship templates requires developing and nurturing healthy relationships with others. This can be done by being in relationships with people who already have a secure attachment style. It can also be accomplished through therapy and with the help of support groups.
- Fisher, J. (n.d.) Healing Early Attachment Injuries by Listening to Our Trauma: Using Sensorimotor Psychotherapy to Speak with Shameful Inner Parts. Retrieved from: https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/695/healing-early-attachment-injuries-by-listening-to-our
- Garza, N. (n.d.) Learning to See Differently: Why the Adult Attachment Model Succeeds When Others Fail. Retrieved from: https://www.fulsheartransition.com/our-program/treatment/adult-attachment-model
- Paulsen, S.L. (2017). When there Are No Words: Repairing Early Trauma and Neglect from the Attachment Period with EMDR Therapy. Bainbridge Island, WA: Bainbridge Institute for Integrative Psychology.
- Perry, B. (2014). Helping Traumatized Children A Brief Overview for Caregivers. Published by: The Child Trauma Academy. Retrieved from: https://childtrauma.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Helping_Traumatized_Children_Caregivers_Perry1.pdf
- Pietromonaco, P.R. & Barrett, L.F.(2000). The Internal Working Models Concept: What Do We Really Know About the Self in Relation to Others? Review of General Psychology Copyright 2000 by the Educational Publishing Foundation 2000, Vol. 4, No. 2, 155-175.
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