Attachment-based Trauma

There is a growing awareness of the behaviour that can emerge from failures in the human attachment system – when babies struggle to find a sense of belonging to their caretakers.

When we are young some adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) are so substantial or persistent that an individual does not build an essential bridge of belonging or connectedness to other people. If it comes at a crucial time, that is, in infancy, then this developmental short-fall can manifest in trauma-like responses. Erik Erikson referred to this as Trust vs Mistrust stage of human development. A more modern approach to our human growth and development is available at Cycles of Power.

The neural, social and emotional bases for these outcomes are not easy to explain. The problem here is that much has been written on the subject of attachment processes and attachment styles. The origins go way back. Probably the Greeks thought of it before we did!

I do not want to offer a half-baked summary so I want you, the reader, to do your own research or investigation. This may make your safe experiments better informed and more precise to your own situation, today. The topic is not so sensitive that it cannot be the focus of safe experiments, so let’s consider a few.

For a start, remember the Road Map I introduced early on in my main blog. That’s a good beginning to safe experimentation as it will identify the route you can remember (much you will not so please let it go, for the moment).. As experiments continue you are likely to recall more detail for the Road Map. That is why I asked you to keep the results ‘available‘ for re-assessment at any time.

What I will say about adverse childhood experiences, is that any child can suffer unintended and impulse-driven harm during their upbringing. This may be a rare event or even an occasional one. However, we can suffer intended and persistent harm. We feel the hurt time after time. Then we can be hit by experiences that create the perfect storm.

Our social, physical and neural development can impede our ability to heal and ways to learn to cope or adapt. We do not develop robust affect regulation systems, as and when required. The long term consequence is that our upbringing can delay or compromise our ability to self-regulate with confidence.

For practical purposes, let’s start with the work of John Bowlby who did much of his work in the UK in immediate aftermath of World War II. There is a readable summary around this topic at:

Further, it may be helpful to consider the outcome of further research undertaken by Mary Ainsworth, one of Bowlby’s students. Her work is well-known for the Strange Situation experiment. For some background, take a look at:

In modern times, we might well consider that some of her work – very important work – was not necessarily safe. Consider the attached video taken by a US researcher in later years. This demonstrates very graphically, the impact of short-lived and seemingly small changes in the relationship between a mother and her infant. In these politically correct days, I will emphasise that the outcomes you will see in this clip can arise between a child and any close care-taker. In this film, it is a mother working with her child.

Imagine, if you would, the potential impact of this interaction repeated many times, over longer time periods.

So what is happening here? We are looking at connections that may well not be human – or even mammalian. That is, circuits at work in the bodies of this mother and child have emerged from our evolutionary history – and I do not mean our ape history. The research, say, by Stephen Porges concludes that the some circuits involved have reptilian’ origins.

There are important experiments demonstrating the differences between a human ‘immobilised by fear‘ as compared to being immobilised without fear‘. How these differences arise in our autonomic nervous system (ANS) are not easy to grasp. It is not simply ‘one’ system, but a complex inter-weaving between very ancient neural pathways ‘fighting’ against much ‘newer’ strands of the Vagus nerve.

You may find Peter Levine’s commentary helpful.


Ignore this complication if it seems to indigestable, but it is too important for me to leave out. There is a useful account taken from The Guardian newspaper that might be helpful. Alternatively, let me know what you’d like to know.

Alternatively, come back to the point at some later time.


I should say, for the record, that there is a large difference between a post-trauma symptoms mentioned often on this web site – and a post-trauma disorder (PTSD). The latter requires very specific conditions to be met. These are governed by books classifying mental health diagnoses. Sadly, those classifications tend to minimise the issues of childhood neglect. Consequently, many people experience trauma symptoms without qualifying for a diagnosis.

This would not be a problem for me but some treatments funded by insurance schemes can require a diagnosis. I may be little concerned with labels, but that does not wash when you need treatment and private therapies are expensive.

If labels help you, and some people tell me they do, then consider much of what I have summarised here as part of (Early Years) Attachment-based Trauma.


The topic of ‘attachment’ lies at the heart of other threads contained on this web site. If you read a few of my pages, can you use your curiosity to explore some other connections? Let me know what you find or get frustrated by NOT finding!

Return to:


How to give yourself a nudge

Polyvagal Theory

Flight and fight