Attachment Theory and the Developmental Consequences of Relational Trauma

Posted on April 2, 2018

Large research studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences can lead to serious health risks, including many forms of chronic illness and even shortened length of life. However, it is increasingly recognized that covert forms of relational trauma and emotional abuse can also lead to deleterious outcomes, particularly in the area of social-emotional development, for which attachment theory can explain.

John Bowlby argued that a secure attachment relationship between a parent and child creates a secure base for the child. He postulated that attachment security, and specifically a secure base, actually facilitates exploration and learning in childhood and ultimately leads to greater autonomy and social competence later in life. These social interaction patterns occur while the brain is developing and can therefore shape the way that individuals think and feel about themselves, others, and the world around them.

Conversely, relational trauma often leads to an insecure attachment pattern where the child unwittingly adopts various mental and emotional strategies aimed at obtaining or maintaining a sense of relationship security, while also protecting against loss, pain, and fear. As a way of making sense of a caregiver's repeated failures to be emotionally and physically present, the child often develops a deep sense of personal unworthiness that carries into adulthood. These individuals often experience their own self-worth as being highly dependent on the actions of others.

However, the effects of relational trauma on the attachment system and on subsequent developmental trajectories are moderated by a number of contextual factors, such as genetic and temperamental factors. Children with the DRD4 variant of the dopamine receptor gene are more negatively affected by relational trauma than those without the genetic susceptibility. Also, in light of the growing awareness of critical or sensitive periods in development, the timing and type of relational trauma are considered important variables. In other cases, the negative consequences associated with an insecure attachment to a particular caregiver can be buffered to some degree by a warm and loving relationship with a different caregiver.


Category(s):Attachment Issues

Source material from The Meadows


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