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The faces of early attachment injury: How to recognize and begin healing childhood wounds

Recovery isn’t about changing who you are, but letting go of who you are not.~Pia Mellody

To know how to heal, we must first be willing to look at the wound.

My intention in this article is to reconstruct the portraits, so to speak, of the early childhood wounds and ways in which they manifest and may look like in adults. I intentionally want to make this article a bit of a broad stroke portraiture, to avoid being too prescriptive or too definitive. I'm not interested in creating diagnostic formulas. I am mostly interested in depicting a wide spectrum of manifestations of the early childhood trauma. Any one person can have some or all of these characteristics and struggle with some or all of what I'm about to describe in this article. In addition, every manifestation is not a narrowly defined label, but rather a phenomenon expressed on a continuum. For example, while early trauma results in feelings of insecurity, there is actually a spectrum of insecurity and all of us travel on that spectrum depending on the baseline manifestation, external factors, present day stressors and so on. As you read this article, please consider that no one description is complete for any one person. Look at each description that I offer below as an individual aspect of the whole that is the complex childhood injury.

This article is for everyone who is interested in learning about early attachment trauma and who wants to know what this kind of trauma looks like an adulthood. Most importantly, however, this article is for everyone who is interested and is on the path to self-healing.


Suggestions for how to read this article:

None of what you will read here is gospel or objective truth. Please, consider what I write here by putting the information through your own filter. Look for resonance, see what words or phrases create an internal response. If you have a response, pause and reflect. Write in your journal. Process out loud. In other words, my biggest wish is that you never just ingest what you see, but that you allow yourself to interact with what you're reading.

If what you're reading is upsetting, give yourself permission to stop reading. Get up and move. Help your body not collapse or become stuck. Hum, sing, dance. Movement helps our bodies mitigate the intensity of what we receive.

And lastly, be gentle with yourself. Be kind. If what you read here comforts you or gives you a sense of relief at having been recognized, paused there as well. Let the sensation wash over you. Let yourself be pleased with the comfort and the recognition.

If you believe this article can support another person, share.


Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, defines an attachment injury as “a feeling of betrayal or abandonment during a critical time of need.”

Attachment trauma generally results in:

  • A persistent and pervasive sense of insecurity

  • Fear of others and the ambivalence (push/pull dynamic) towards intimacy/connection

  • Pseudo or performative maturity (i.e. codependence)

  • Disconnect from the meaning of life

  • Deep aloneness

  • Physical and spiritual exhaustion



THE UNSETTLED CHILD: An anxious insecure attachment represents a child who couldn't get love to stay. Parent as the original source of love was ever fleeting or inconsistent or made love conditional. This child had to focus on maintaining security so much so that their relationship to their own aliveness (inner world) got compromised or became severed.

How to recognize this baby in yourself and what to look for:

  • Deep-seated fear of being dropped/forgotten.

  • Relational ambivalence: Deep desire to be safely held paired with the fear of being left/loss of love

  • Tension/fear/bracing when held/seen

  • Controlling behaviors fueled by the unconscious fear of being dropped/left. Manages others as if to remind them, "I'm still here, don't drop me."

  • Never wants to be put down because being put down triggers the fear of being forgotten

  • Controls/arranges/becomes rigid with expectations in order to cope with the fear of being dropped/forgotten

  • Over-amplifies self-sufficiency in order to reduce the chance of needing the other

  • Basic fear is to have the attachment figure turn away from them in times of need.

Restorative Practices:

  • A secure base is established when a genuine connection is easy to come by. The harder the baby has to work to help their parent notice them, the less secure they feel. If one has to get really loud/really distressed or be a certain way for the attention to be paid to them, the connection becomes very stressed —> Help make the connection with your younger parts-your inner child- EASY.

  • Inner child work —> Look for the infant, the toddler, the young child, the adolescent in you. Learn how to soothe those younger parts of you by learning what each child needs developmentally.

  • Practice presence. The unsettled child has learned to compete for their parent's attention, time and presence.

  • Get to know and make peace with your dependency needs: you are not needless or wantless and nor is anyone else.

THE INVISIBLE CHILD: An avoidant attachment represents a child who was used to supply the parental system with whatever that parental system needed to remain upright. The child or the child's needs were not centered. The parental system was likely psychologically and emotionally immature, under-resourced or traumatized. The child has learned the default setting of keeping others at arm's length as a way of preventing being exploited or taken from.

How to recognize this baby in yourself and what to look for:

  • The baby has been forgotten/lost: please remember that the infant NATURALLY wants to connect, they reach for others, orient to others and are wired for bonding connections

  • Inner story: I resent having to hold…myself, you, anyone?—>internalized resentment and fear of being held as it reminds the adult of what they had to go without

  • Inability to connect with the part who has needs and is dependent

  • Inability/difficulty growing the part that responds to dependency (responsive/response-able)

  • For the adults the disconnect form the needs happens because the child was left alone with ALL THEIR needs—experienced own needs as burden/too much and needed to disconnect in order to survive

  • The baby is born with the source of aliveness, authenticity and joy built in. Genuine connections with parents/caregivers, through accurate mirroring, reflected that kind of life back to the baby, fueling internal development and supporting the process of maturation as the baby and then then child continued to develop.

  • Learn to delight in and enjoy who you are

  • Basic fear is seeing the attachment figure disintegrate (lose integrity) in times of need. The child ends up taking care of their system (and experiences being taken from in the process) instead of receiving what they need.

 Restorative practices:

  • Pick up the baby—>pay attention to your feelings, needs, wants, preferences, opinions

  • Cultivate the ability to consistently respond to your feelings/needs

  • Be honest with yourself about what you CAN do and be realistic/honest about what you CAN’T do: pretending that you can do more than you can corrodes trust

  • Do NOT overpromise or underpromise; be honest about what is too much for you to hold—>bring compassion/kindness when you find yourself unable to do what you think you should be able to

  • Develop a strong sense of commitment to stretching yourself in the direction of increasing capacity for response a little bit at a time

  • Mirror and offer direct reflection in order to stop yourself from reflexive shutting down/shrinking/becoming flooded with the other’s feelings/needs

  • Do ONLY what you can. Remember, this baby often had to exert effort she wasn't ready or prepared for—>i.e. only hold a little at a time until you feel successful and derive a sense of accomplishment/satisfaction/enjoyment from your own capacity

  • Do not say yes to doing more than what you can in the relationship

THE TRAPPED CHILD: The disorganized attachment represents the child who was hurt whenever they came into the field of vision of their caregiver. This is the child who couldn’t flee whatever was hurting them.

How to recognize this baby in yourself and what to look for:

  • Fear of being hurt/invaded when noticed

  • Profound hunger for love and affection paired with an equally profound fear of people

  • Made to stay to bear something unpleasant/painful—>endures what is intolerable

  • Safety/self-preservation through violent means. Remember, this child was terrified of their caregiver and simultaneosly needed their caregiver to survive. This mixture created a combination of someone who craves love, but who anticipates being hurt by others and is terrfiied of getting close to others

  • Extreme self-protective behavior ranging from roughness/rudeness to severe abusive behavior/lashing when the inner boundary becomes threatened

  • Reactive fleeing-->difficulty or inability tolerating intimacy

  • Basic fear is to be violated or attacked/hurt in times of need

Restorative practices:

  • Depending on the severity of the injury, healing this type of attachment may be done best with professional support. Trauma-informed psychotherapy can be a useful support.

  • Consider Al-anon or other 12-step programs. Those can be very helpful because there are always people ready and able to support your desire to heal.

  • Hep your nervous system regulate: learn deep breathing techniques, consider try these somatic practices demonstrated by the Somatic Experiencing founder, Dr. Peter Levine, or explore a movement modality, such as Trauma Sensitive Yoga or The Non-Linear Movement Method

  • Practice taking space when challenged, recognize thoughts that lead to feelings that lead to damaging stories

  • Disorganized attachment causes one to become counter-phobic (be led ompulsively to high-stress situations) or highly phobic (very avoidant of anything that can remotely feel distressing)-->Learning to re-calibrate by re-connecting to healthy self-protective instincts is key in creating more inner safety.

  • Journalling can be a good way to initiate a self-reflective practice to get to know yoru inner world safely and lovingly. Here's a list of journalling prompts recommended for complex childhood trauma survivors.

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