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Complex Trauma and Attachment Theory:
Understanding the Impact of Early Life Experiences on Psychological Wellbeing

Hank Glorie

Clinical Psychologist
Perth, Western Australia

Introduction

Attachment theory is a fundamental concept in psychology that explains how early life experiences shape an individual's emotional and social development. Attachment theory suggests that the quality of attachment relationships between caregivers and infants/young children influences the young child’s psychological development, including their ability to regulate emotions, form relationships, and develop a coherent sense of self. However, when these attachment relationships are inadequate, disrupted, or broken, it can lead to complex trauma, which can have profound and long-lasting effects on an individual's psychological well-being. In this article, we will explore the concept of complex trauma from an attachment theory perspective, how it affects individuals, and what can be done to help those affected.

What is Complex Trauma?

Trauma is a psychological response to a distressing or disturbing event or experience(s) that overwhelms an individual's ability to process and make sense of an experience (called coping). Trauma can occur in response to a range of experiences, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, or exposure to violence, war, accidents, or natural disasters. Complex trauma, also known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), is a subtype of trauma that arises from repeated and prolonged exposure to (often subtle) traumatic events, particularly in childhood. This complex trauma shapes our personality, whereas a specific one-off traumatic event does not usually affect our personality, although sometimes a traumatic event in adulthood can uncover a hidden complex trauma.

Complex trauma is often associated with attachment disruptions, which occur when a child's primary caregivers are unable or unwilling to provide consistent, nurturing, sensitive, attuned care. Attachment disruptions can take many forms, from chronic misunderstanding, or conditional love, to neglect, abandonment, or cruel abuse. The attachment failings can have severe and lasting impacts on a child's psychological and emotional development.

Childhood traumatization does not have to be obvious abuse, or be immediately apparent. Most often it takes the form of a child just having a loving well-meaning, but insecure, anxious, or depressed parent. That is, a preoccupied parent, who is not fully available to provide the essential ‘mirroring’ task of parental nurturing. Often, the child can receive good parenting in most areas, but may be traumatised by a family system that ignores or does not understand more vulnerable feelings, and only allows superficial contact. This produces an adult who cannot cope well with more profound feelings of emotional pain or distress because they have become disowned. The process of disowning and forgetting is itself traumatising.

The Impact of Attachment Disruptions on Childhood Development

Attachment theory suggests that early attachment relationships play a crucial role in shaping a child's emotional, social, and cognitive development. Children who grow up in secure attachment relationships with their caregivers tend to have greater emotional self-control (self-regulation), solid self-esteem, and better interpersonal and social skills than those who did not have secure, safe, attachments. Children who experience insecure attachment relationships may struggle with emotional self-regulation, social relationships, and usually have a negative self-image. Secure attachments leads to feeling safe and good enough. Insecure attachments leads to feeling unsafe and a pervasive sense of inadequacy.

Insecure attachment patterns are classified into several main types: avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganised. Avoidant attachment is characterised by the child's detachment and avoidance of contact with the caregiver, whereas ambivalent attachment is characterised by the child's clinginess and dependence on the caregiver. Disorganised attachment is characterised by the child's confusion and disorientation in response to the caregiver's behaviour.

Insecure attachment patterns are thought to arise as a coping mechanism in response to the caregiver's inconsistent, unreliable, or unpredictable behaviour. For example, a child who experiences neglect may develop an avoidant attachment style as a way of protecting themselves from further rejection or abandonment. Similarly, a child who experiences abuse from someone who should be loving and affirming may develop a disorganised attachment style reflecting the conflicting need for, and fear of, the parenting figure.

The Psychological Consequences of Complex Trauma

These learnt childhood patterns become an underlying belief system, that becomes out of awareness, and hence unchangeable. The established attachment style is then lifelong and difficult to change.

Children who experience complex trauma are at increased risk of developing a range of psychological and emotional difficulties, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, avoidant personality, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative disorders. These difficulties then persist into adulthood and can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life, relationships, and ability to function.

Adults who have experienced complex trauma may struggle with a range of symptoms, such as emotional dysregulation, dissociation, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. They may also experience difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy satisfying relationships, trust issues, and have a negative self-image.

Ultimately, the impacts of our childhood environment and experiences tend to largely become unconscious or out of awareness. We function with a whole series of beliefs that may or may not reflect actual reality. As a generalisation, the more securely we grow up the closer our unaware beliefs are to reality. The less secure we were in childhood the more we have underlying beliefs that can distort our view of reality. By way of example, the more secure, untraumatised person is more likely to see the complexity and richness of self and others, and have a better grasp of what is true. This person tends to be more optimistic, engaging, trusting, hopeful, clearsighted, able to protect themselves easily, and maintain a sense composure and balance.

The more insecure, traumatised person is more likely to struggle with fears and anxiety, to have a distorted view (overly trusting or overly suspicious) with more tendency to project and assume incorrectly the motives and concerns of others.

Treatment for Complex Trauma

Treatment for complex trauma can typically involves a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and support from friends, family, and community. The most effective treatments for complex trauma are those that are tailored to the individual's specific needs and address the underlying attachment disruptions and related psychological symptoms.

The most effective therapy that may be useful for resolving complex trauma are “psychodynamic” or “depth” therapies, that focus on exploring the underlying, often out of awareness, emotional conflicts, disowned and buried fears and terror, and memories and experiences whose significance is forgotten or not understood. In short, childhood experiences that were too much for the child to properly understand and process at the time and have led to PTSD type symptoms and problematic personality traits. These can now be explored through adult lenses and in a safer environment (the therapy setting).

Adjunctive treatments include medication, body therapies, EMDR, meditation, and so on.

Conclusion

In conclusion, complex trauma from attachment theory is a significant psychological issue that can have profound and long-lasting effects on an individual's emotional, social, and cognitive development. Attachment disruptions in childhood can lead to insecure attachment patterns and a range of psychological and emotional difficulties in adulthood, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, effective treatments, such as trauma-focused therapy can help address and transform trauma-related dynamics and improve quality of life.

To make an appointment, please feel free to contact Hank.

Hank Glorie

Clinical Psychologist

Email: hankglorie@gmail.com
Telephone: 0400 186 760

Mt Lawley Counselling
13 Alvan Street
Mount Lawely (Perth), WA 6050

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