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Understanding attachment and trauma

What do we mean by 'attachment'?

Attachment is an emotional bond with another person. British psychologist John Bowlby believed that the earliest bond formed with a primary caregiver, usually the mother, has a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. Bowlby and later Attachment theorists proposed that infants are born with an innate drive to form attachments.

Why does attachment matter?

There's an undeniable link between the quality of care an infant receives and their ongoing emotional, social and even physical development. Researchers have found that attachment patterns established early in life can lead to a number of outcomes. 


Infants, for example, who have received loving and consistent care and are more securely attached tend to develop stronger self esteem and better self-reliance as they grow older. As developing children they tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships, and experience less depression and anxiety.  


By contrast, infants who have experienced their caregiver as inconsistent, abusive or neglectful can develop insecure attachment patterns, which can have a negative impact on the child’s emotional and social wellbeing. Troubled children may have had many changes in the people who look after them and find it hard to trust adults. They may believe that parents aren’t safe and can’t always be turned to for comfort and help. They may develop insecure attachments and try to stop their new parents from becoming emotionally close to them.

What do we know about childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children aged 0-6. Because infants' and young children's reactions may be different from older children's, and because they may not be able to verbalize their reactions to threatening or dangerous events, many people assume that young age protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences. A growing body of research has established that young children may be affected by events that threaten their safety or the safety of their parents/caregivers. These traumas can be the result of intentional violence – such as child physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence or the sudden loss of a parent/caregiver.
When a child experiences a trauma that teaches them that they cannot trust or rely on that caregiver, they are likely to believe that the world around them is a scary place and all adults are dangerous. This makes it incredibly difficult to form relationships throughout their childhood, including with peers their own age, and into the adult years. Because the trauma occured when the children were so young they had not developed the language or emotional regulation to express their overwhelming feelings of fear and anxiety and their inner emotional life is expressed through a range of often coercive and manipulative behaviours designed to keep their parents and caregivers either involved or at arms length. 

What is the theory behind attachment-based therapy?

Attachment-based therapy (ABT) is a type of family therapy which aims to help a parent and a child repair ruptures in their relationship and work to develop or rebuild an emotionally secure relationship.

In our sessions, the therapist becomes a temporary attachment figure, assuming the functions of a nurturing parent. This may be for the child or for the parents. When parents are feeling overwhelmed by their children’s expressed behaviour they too need to be nurtured and understood. The therapeutic relationship is central to the work we do at Families Empowered. The model of ABT that we use is Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP).

What is Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP)?

DDP has been developed by Dan Hughes over the past twenty years. It is based on a theoretical understanding of attachment and intersubjective relationships and the impact of developmental trauma. 

This form of psychotherapy was originally developed as an intervention for children who have experienced emotional trauma, abuse or neglect, as a result of chronic early maltreatment within the caregiving relationship. When these children are then placed in homes later in life with loving and devoted caregivers, they are sometimes unsure about what to make of this kind of nurturing. Conflict and maladaptive patterns of behavior tend to play out and prevent healing from taking place in their new environments. The primary goal of DDP is to support these children in developing the ability to maintain attachment-based relationships with parents and caregivers. 

DDP therapists work to rebuild and repair the relationship by teaching the parents a trauma-informed parenting approach that responds to the unique circumstances of their children. Children are also taught emotion regulation, how to trust their parents, and new ways of understanding of their life experiences. DDP addresses both of these processes simultaneously in order to facilitate a trusting and secure relationship between parent and child.
The conversations and interactions (verbal and non-verbal) within the therapy room are all based upon PACE. This means that the therapist will be Playful, Accepting, Curious and Empathic throughout. 


Learn more about DDP and the DDP therapeutic process.


 The most 

 important property 

 of humankind 

The most important property of humankind is the capacity to form and maintain relationships.

These relationships are absolutely necessary for any of us to survive, learn, work, love and procreate.

Human relationships take many forms but the most intense, most pleasurable and most painful are those relationships with family, friends and loved ones.

Within this inner circle of intimate relationships, we are bonded to each other with 'emotional glue' - bonded with love.

   Dr Bruce Perry  


 Find out more – 

 read and browse...  

DDP Network

Daniel Hughes

Dan Siegel: the mindsight community


The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook 
Bruce Perry

Attachment Across the Lifecourse: a brief introduction
David Howe

New Families, Old Scripts, Adoption, Foster Care: A Guide to the Language of Trauma and Attachment in Adoptive Families
Caroline Archer, Christine Gordon


Why Can’t My Child Behave? Empathic Parenting Strategies That Work for Adoptive and Foster Families 
Amber Elliot 

Trauma, Attachment and Family Permanence. Fear Can Stop You Loving

Caroline Archer, Alan Burnell


Ghosts from the Nursery. Tracing the Roots of Violence.

Robin Karr-Morse, Meredith S Wiley 

Watch from our video library

Dan Siegel - Connecting to Calm
Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick

Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick

Check out Ed’s new book, coauthored with Dr. Claudia M. Gold: Copyright © 2007 ZERO TO THREE Ed Tronick (, director of UMass Boston's Infant-Parent Mental Health Program ( and Distinguished Professor of Psychology, discusses the cognitive abilities of infants to read and react to their social surroundings. The video is an excerpt from Lovett Productions' HELPING BABIES FROM THE BENCH: USING THE SCIENCE OF EARLY CHILDHOOD IN COURT. Using the "Still Face" Experiment, in which a mother denies her baby attention for a short period of time, Tronick describes how prolonged lack of attention can move an infant from good socialization, to periods of bad but repairable socialization. In "ugly" situations the child does not receive any chance to return to the good, and may become stuck. To support the Infant-Parent Mental Health program, visit and write "Infant-Parent Mental Health Program" in the "Other" field. For more information about Infant-Parent Mental Health, visit To hear about Ed Tronick's work, visit
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