Understanding Trauma & Attachment

Statistics show that a high percentage of children and young people in the UK suffer from emotional and behavioural problems. For many the root causes will go back to early childhood trauma or attachment issues.

Because children’s brains are still developing, early experiences have a much greater influence on their understanding of themselves, on their sense of the world and on their ability to regulate themselves. If these issues are not addressed, as they get older they are likely to be at a higher risk than others of involvement with the police and mental health services. They may find it hard to parent their own children, to hold down a steady job and to find any level of personal fulfilment.


Trauma is a distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience. It involves a sense of intense fear, terror, and helplessness and brings a powerful and prolonged stress response which overwhelms the ability to cope with the experience.

Trauma may be a single event or a series of repeated events

A single trauma includes:

  • Natural disasters
  • Sudden death/suicide of a parent/sibling
  • Hospitalisation
  • Witnessing an accident, fatality, shooting or stabbing
  • Personal attack/injury

Repeated traumatic events include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Domestic /personal violence
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect

Children can respond to the same trauma in different ways. Some appear to bounce back quickly while others display a range of responses including:

  • Lack of concentration
  • Aggression / violence
  • Sexualized behaviour
  • Control issues
  • Distress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Challenging behaviour
  • Relationship difficulties


Babies rely on their parents (or other main care giver) for food, warmth and shelter. By meeting these needs, an emotional bond is established and children learn that their world is a safe place.

This normal bonding with their parent/s, results in healthy attachments and neural pathways in the brain are created. This results in reasonably well balanced children who have a good sense of self-esteem.

Healthy attachments

Healthy attachments are essential for children to develop life skills and abilities including empathy, conscience, confidence, the ability to build strong relationships with other people and the ability to regulate their feelings.

Attachment difficulties

Attachment difficulties arise when babies express a need and don’t receive appropriate or consistent responses from parents who are unable to give them the care they require. Children then feel that their world is not a safe place and can become anxious and angry. They don’t feel loved and often have a real sense of rejection.

‘A child’s behaviours are their language’ and children with attachment difficulties are often described as controlling, aggressive, withdrawn, fearful. They find it hard to trust other people. They often react inappropriately to situations because something simple may have subconsciously triggered a reaction to an event earlier in life.

‘Traumatic experiences shake the foundations of our beliefs about safety, and shatter our assumptions of trust. Because they are so far outside what we would expect, these events provoke reactions that feel strange and “crazy”. Perhaps the most helpful thing I can say here is that even though these reactions are unusual and disturbing, they are typical and expectable. By and large, these are normal responses to abnormal events’. – David Baldwin