Sad woman crying

The Real Meaning of Daddy Issues: Attachment Trauma

“You know she broke up with her partner, right? She's got so many daddy issues.”

We've all heard it before, whether about friends, family, ourselves, or even contestants on Love Is Blind. “Daddy issues” is a label that gets thrown around all the time—usually to describe women—and doesn't seem to have a real definition. Typically, people use ‘daddy issues' to mean someone who struggles dating men, someone who doesn't have good sexual boundaries, or someone who comes across as insecure or needy. But what does it really mean to have daddy issues?

A Psychological Name for Daddy Issues: Attachment Trauma

Clearly, ‘daddy issues' is not a clinical term, and you won't find it in the DSM. At its core, ‘daddy issues' is a label for something very clinical: attachment trauma. Attachment trauma occurs when a parent figure (of any gender) fails to meet the needs of their child consistently. This can look like neglect, abuse, inconsistent discipline, emotional aloofness, and lack of physical and emotional contact with young children. When we say ‘daddy issues,' the examples that come to mind are things like the dad who worked all the time and was never home or the dad who drank too much and couldn't be emotionally present. Attachment trauma doesn't only affect women either, but people of any gender.

Effects of Attachment Trauma

Attachment trauma can affect all our relationships, even into adulthood. If you think about it, it makes sense: our caregivers or parents are the first people we have relationships with, and they give us a blueprint about how to relate to everyone else. It isn't black and white, however, and it's important to remember that secure attachments in childhood do not automatically result in healthy relationships later in life, though these attachment styles help build a foundational belief that a relationship can be safe. Similarly, insecure attachments in childhood do not automatically result in unhealthy relationships later in life, though people with these styles have a lot of emotional work to do to feel safe enough to form secure attachments.

Like many forms of trauma, attachment trauma can have real effects on your mental health. These effects include increased risk of depression, more difficulty regulating emotions, anxiety, and even risk of developing a personality disorder. Attachment trauma is linked with worse physical health outcomes.

What Does Attachment Trauma Look Like?

This is where attachment styles come in. Attachment trauma, or the effects of inconsistent or abusive parenting, shows up in several different insecure attachment styles developed by psychologist John Bowlby. He called attachments “the lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” and developed the theory we use today to describe different attachment styles. These styles are not meant to be black-and-white categories. Many people find they identify with one or more of them.

Anxious-Ambivalent Style

You might be anxiously attached if you have a generally positive image of the person you're dating and a more negative view of yourself. Other signs of anxious attachment include:

  • Worry about being abandoned by your partner
  • Excessive fears about your partner's physical safety or mortality
  • Always keeping an eye out for your partner pulling away
  • Heightened symptoms of anxiety in general
  • Blaming yourself for problems in the relationship
  • Needing lots of reassurance that your partner loves you and wants to be with you
  • Feeling “unworthy” of love
  • Constantly reaching out and trying to communicate with your partner, especially when they are not responding quickly

Anxious-Avoidant Style

You might be avoidantly attached if you tend to have a more positive view of yourself and a negative or mistrustful view of others. Here are some other signs of avoidant attachment:

  • Getting close to a partner and sharing intimacy feels overwhelming
  • Strong drive to feel independent, even in a relationship
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Disconnection from your emotions and a hard time recognizing your needs
  • An easy time feeling detached from your partner or feeling “cold” towards them
  • Self-sabotaging when a relationship feels too intimate
  • Inconsistency in responding within a relationship due to both enjoying affection and connectedness while also highly valuing freedom or emotional distance

Disorganized Style

This is the rarest of the insecure attachment types and typically arises from a childhood where abuse and neglect are present. You might have a disorganized attachment style if you have a negative perception of yourself and other people. The signs of a disorganized style are a little harder to pinpoint, but here are some examples:

  • Swinging between extremes of wanting to be close to people and wanting to be isolated
  • Trouble regulating emotions, especially in relationships
  • Low self-esteem and depression
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Feeling anxious when people want to be close to you
  • Prone to feeling rejected by those around you, even when there is no evidence of this
  • Can react in volatile, aggressive, or defensive ways to protect yourself from rejection, emotional pain, or vulnerability

Attachment Trauma and Mental Illness

For people with mental illness, attachment trauma can be a significant vulnerability factor. Attachment trauma has been shown to increase depression symptoms, and people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have a significantly higher incidence of insecure attachment style. A person with ADHD may also experience ‘rejection sensitive dysphoria,' which is the experience of feeling rejection more intensely than someone without ADHD. This can also affect attachment style and lead to more insecurity. Attachment trauma can exacerbate other existing mental health symptoms of hypervigilance, excessive fear and worry, anhedonia, impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, and engagement in higher-risk behaviors.

How Do We Heal Attachment Trauma?

One of the most important steps in healing attachment trauma is forming healthy, secure attachments with other people. This can include a healthy attachment with a therapist. We know this isn't just about ‘daddy issues.' Knowing what attachment trauma is and what causes it can get us closer to healing without all the shame of that label. Here are some ways we can approach healing attachment trauma:

  1. Talk to a trusted therapist or psychiatric clinician. John Bowlby, the psychologist considered the father of attachment theory, was the first to suggest that a therapeutic relationship could heal insecure attachment. Working with a therapist you trust and connect with is a great way to start this process. You can also use this time to ask your therapist about whether psychiatric medication is right for you on your journey of healing attachment trauma.
  2. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This type of therapy targets traumatic memories and unhealthy pathways in the brain, removing obstacles to healthy attachments.
  3. Receive trauma-specific therapy. Some types of therapy designed specifically to address trauma are somatic experiencing, brain spotting, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, narrative therapy, internal family systems therapy, and gestalt therapy. You can ask a therapist about these modalities or search for someone who mentions them in their professional biography.
  4. Read about attachment theory in more detail and learn to identify your own style. A great book to start with is Attached by Amir Levine, a thorough but approachable look at attachment theory.
  5. Work on emotional regulation skills. A big part of healing attachment trauma is giving your nervous system a chance to regulate when you're feeling stressed and anxious so that you can choose a different response. Practicing emotional regulation skills like mindfulness journaling or reframing can help with this.
  6. Remove judgmental language from your vocabulary. If you take anything from this article, take the message that phrases like ‘daddy issues' are incredibly unhelpful. Negative self-talk has also been linked with increased rates of depression. When you approach your attachment style without judgment, it gets much easier to problem-solve and heal what needs healing!
  7. Hold compassion for yourself. Attachment trauma is real, and it is one of the most painful things to work on. Remember to hold a lot of kindness and compassion for yourself as you go through the process.

This article was written by Erisa M. Preston, PsyD, and provided by mindpath.com.

Author: Erisa M. Preston, PsyD

Erisa M. Preston, PsyD, is a psychologist and Regional Psychotherapy Director with Mindpath Health in Torrance, California.