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Introduction to Attachment Theory

Attachment theory, a fundamental concept in psychology, explores the bond between caregivers and their children and its effects on future social and emotional outcomes. Dr. Dawn-Elise Snipes delves into this intricate subject, discussing the stages of distress, benefits of secure attachment, problems associated with insecure attachment, and potential interventions to foster secure attachments across all ages.

The Essence of Attachment

Attachment is defined as the quality of the relationship between a caregiver and a child, characterized by trust, safety, and security. In contrast, trauma involves feelings of unsafety and disempowerment. Therefore, a secure attachment serves as a buffer against stress and trauma. The quality of an infant's attachment with their caregiver is a powerful predictor of their future social and emotional outcomes.

Stages of Distress in Attachment

Dr. Snipes outlines the stages of distress that a child experiences when their attachment needs are not met:

  1. Protest: The child cries and protests angrily when the caregiver leaves or does not respond appropriately. This stage is marked by intense emotional outbursts as the child attempts to get their needs met.
  2. Despair: If the protest stage is prolonged without resolution, the child becomes calmer but remains upset, appearing withdrawn and uninterested. This stage reflects a sense of hopelessness.
  3. Detachment: If separation continues, the child will engage with others and reject the caregiver upon their return, showing signs of anger and turning to other people for comfort.

Different Attachment Styles

Attachment styles are categorized based on the caregiver's responsiveness:

  1. Secure Attachment: Formed when the caregiver is sensitive, responsive, and loving. The child feels safe and learns to trust others, developing a secure base for future relationships.
  2. Insecure Attachment: This can manifest in various forms:
    • Anxious Attachment: Results from inconsistent caregiver responsiveness. The child becomes overly dependent and exhibits hyperactivating behaviors to get attention.
    • Avoidant Attachment: Develops from caregivers who punish closeness and disapprove of expressions of need. The child learns to suppress emotions and become self-sufficient, often resulting in a flight response.
    • Anxious-Avoidant Attachment: A combination of both anxious and avoidant behaviors, where the child desires closeness but also feels uncomfortable with it.

Impact of Attachment on Development

Dr. Snipes emphasizes the crucial role of attachment in shaping a child's internal working model, which guides future interactions. This model comprises:

  1. A belief in others as trustworthy.
  2. A sense of self-worth and deservingness of love.
  3. An understanding of oneself as effective and empowered.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

ACEs, such as domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues in the household, and neglect, can disrupt attachment and create an environment of chaos. These experiences lead to a constant state of stress, causing dysregulation of the child's stress response system.

The Role of Caregivers

Caregivers play a vital role in helping children develop physically, interpersonally, emotionally, cognitively, environmentally, and spiritually. They must provide a safe, consistent, and responsive environment to foster secure attachment. Teaching distress tolerance, impulse control, and emotional intelligence are key components in this developmental process.

Interventions for Secure Attachment

  1. Security Priming: Techniques such as subliminal pictures of attachment figures, guided imagery, and using objects that symbolize security (e.g., bracelets) can help individuals feel more secure.
  2. Grief and Loss Processing: Addressing unresolved grief and loss from childhood or adult relationships is crucial for developing secure attachment.
  3. Addressing Shame and Guilt: Helping individuals overcome feelings of unworthiness and guilt is essential for healthy relationships.

Adult Attachment

Adult attachment involves expectations and feelings about the availability and responsiveness of close others during times of distress. Unlike childhood, adult attachment relationships are characterized by bidirectional give-and-take among a group of people, with one primary attachment figure and multiple secondary figures.


Understanding attachment theory and its implications for trauma treatment is essential for fostering healthy relationships and emotional well-being. By recognizing the stages of distress, different attachment styles, and the impact of adverse childhood experiences, caregivers and clinicians can implement effective interventions to promote secure attachment across all stages of life.