Skip to main content Accessibility help

Separation from parents during childhood trauma predicts adult attachment security and post-traumatic stress disorder

  • R. A. Bryant (a1), M. Creamer (a2), M. O'Donnell (a2), D. Forbes (a2), K. L. Felmingham (a3), D. Silove (a1), G. Malhi (a4), M. van Hoof (a5), A. C. McFarlane (a5) and A. Nickerson (a1)...



Prolonged separation from parental support is a risk factor for psychopathology. This study assessed the impact of brief separation from parents during childhood trauma on adult attachment tendencies and post-traumatic stress.


Children (n = 806) exposed to a major Australian bushfire disaster in 1983 and matched controls (n = 725) were assessed in the aftermath of the fires (mean age 7–8 years) via parent reports of trauma exposure and separation from parents during the fires. Participants (n = 500) were subsequently assessed 28 years after initial assessment on the Experiences in Close Relationships scale to assess attachment security, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was assessed using the PTSD checklist.


Being separated from parents was significantly related to having an avoidant attachment style as an adult (B = −3.69, s.e. = 1.48, β = −0.23, p = 0.013). Avoidant attachment was associated with re-experiencing (B = 0.03, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.31, p = 0.045), avoidance (B = 0.03, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.30, p = 0.001) and numbing (B = 0.03, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.30, p < 0.001) symptoms. Anxious attachment was associated with re-experiencing (B = 0.03, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.18, p = 0.001), numbing (B = 0.03, β = 0.30, s.e. = 0.01, p < 0.001) and arousal (B = 0.04, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.43, p < 0.001) symptoms.


These findings demonstrate that brief separation from attachments during childhood trauma can have long-lasting effects on one's attachment security, and that this can be associated with adult post-traumatic psychopathology.


Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: R. Bryant, Ph.D., School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, NSW 2052, Australia. (Email.


Hide All
Aikins, JW, Howes, C, Hamilton, C (2009). Attachment stability and the emergence of unresolved representations during adolescence. Attachment and Human Development 11, 491512.
Ainsworth, MDS (1973). The development of infant–mother attachment. In Review of Child Development Research, vol. 3 (ed. Ricciuti, BM), pp. 194. University of Chicago: Chicago, IL.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001). Census of Population and Housing: Socio-economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA), Australia – Data Cube Only. Australian Bureau of Statistics: Canberra.
Beijersbergen, MD, Juffer, F, Bakermans-Kranenburg, MJ, van IJzendoorn, MH (2012). Remaining or becoming secure: parental sensitive support predicts attachment continuity from infancy to adolescence in a longitudinal adoption study. Developmental Psychology 48, 12771282.
Bentler, PM (1990). Comparative fit indexes in structural models. Psychological Bulletin 107, 238246.
Blanchard, EB, Jones-Alexander, J, Buckley, TC, Forneris, CA (1996). Psychometric properties of the PTSD checklist (PCL). Behaviour Research and Therapy 34, 669673.
Bowlby, J (1982). Attachment and loss: retrospect and prospect. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 52, 664678.
Bowlby, J (1988). Developmental psychiatry comes of age. American Journal of Psychiatry 145, 110.
Cassidy, J, Shaver, PR (1999). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. Guilford Press: New York.
Coffino, B (2009). The role of childhood parent figure loss in the etiology of adult depression: findings from a prospective longitudinal study. Attachment and Human Development 11, 445470.
Ditzen, B, Schmidt, S, Strauss, B, Nater, UM, Ehlert, U, Heinrichs, M (2008). Adult attachment and social support interact to reduce psychological but not cortisol responses to stress. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 64, 479486.
Fish, M (2004). Attachment in infancy and preschool in low socioeconomic status rural Appalachian children: stability and change and relations to preschool and kindergarten competence. Developmental Psychopathology 16, 293312.
Fraley, RC, Roisman, GI, Booth-LaForce, C, Owen, MT, Holland, AS (2013). Interpersonal and genetic origins of adult attachment styles: a longitudinal study from infancy to early adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, 817838.
Groh, AM, Roisman, GI, Booth-LaForce, C, Fraley, RC, Owen, MT, Cox, MJ, Burchinal, MR (2014). IV. Stability of attachment security from infancy to late adolescence. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 79, 5166.
Gunnar, MR, van Dulmen, MH; International Adoption Project Team (2007). Behavior problems in postinstitutionalized internationally adopted children. Developmental Psychopathology 19, 129148.
Hawk, B, McCall, RB (2010). CBCL behavior problems of post-institutionalized international adoptees. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 13, 199211.
Hobfoll, SE, Watson, P, Bell, CC, Bryant, RA, Brymer, MJ, Friedman, MJ, Friedman, M, Gersons, BP, de Jong, JT, Layne, CM, Maguen, S, Neria, Y, Norwood, AE, Pynoos, RS, Reissman, D, Ruzek, JI, Shalev, AY, Solomon, Z, Steinberg, AM, Ursano, RJ (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass trauma intervention: empirical evidence. Psychiatry 70, 283315.
Hu, L, Bentler, PM (1999). Cutoff criteria for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: conventional criteria versus new alternatives. Structural Equation Modeling 6, 155.
King, DW, King, LA, Foy, DW, Keane, TM, Fairbank, JA (1999). Posttraumatic stress disorder in a national sample of female and male Vietnam veterans: risk factors, war-zone stressors, and resilience–recovery variables. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 108, 164170.
Lau, JT, Yu, X, Zhang, J, Mak, WW, Choi, KC, Lui, WW, Zhang, J, Chan, EY (2010). Psychological distress among adolescents in Chengdu, Sichuan at 1 month after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Journal of Urban Health 87, 504523.
Levendosky, AA, Bogat, GA, Huth-Bocks, AC, Rosenblum, K, von Eye, A (2011). The effects of domestic violence on the stability of attachment from infancy to preschool. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology 40, 398410.
McFarlane, AC (1987). The relationship between patterns of family interaction and psychiatric disorder in children. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 21, 383390.
McFarlane, AC, Van Hooff, M (2009). Impact of childhood exposure to a natural disaster on adult mental health: 20-year longitudinal follow-up study. British Journal of Psychiatry 195, 142148.
Mikulincer, M, Birnbaum, G, Woddis, D, Nachmias, O (2000). Stress and accessibility of proximity-related thoughts: exploring the normative and intraindividual components of attachment theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, 509523.
Mikulincer, M, Gillath, O, Shaver, PR (2002). Activation of the attachment system in adulthood: threat-related primes increase the accessibility of mental representations of attachment figures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83, 881895.
Mikulincer, M, Shaver, PR (2007 a). Attachment Patterns in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change. Guilford Press: New York.
Mikulincer, M, Shaver, PR (2007 b). Boosting attachment security to promote mental health, prosocial values, and inter-group tolerance. Psychological Inquiry 18, 139156.
Mikulincer, M, Shaver, PR, Pereg, D (2005). Attachment theory and affect regulation: the dynamics, development, and cognitive consequences of attachment-related strategies. Motivation and Emotion 27, 77102.
Mikulincer, M, Solomon, Z, Shaver, PR (2014). Attachment-related consequences of war captivity and trajectories of posttraumatic stress disorder: a 17-year longitudinal study. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 33, 207228.
Moss, E, Cyr, C, Bureau, JF, Tarabulsy, GM, Dubois-Comtois, K (2005). Stability of attachment during the preschool period. Developmental Psychology 41, 773783.
Muthén, LK, Muthén, BO (1998–2011). Mplus User's Guide, 6th edn. Muthén & Muthén: Los Angeles, CA.
Norris, FH, Friedman, MJ, Watson, PJ (2002). 60,000 Disaster victims speak: part I. An empirical review of the empirical literature, 1981–2001. Psychiatry 65, 207239.
Olsson, I, Sorebo, O, Dahl, AA (2010). The Norwegian version of the Experiences in Close Relationships measure of adult attachment: psychometric properties and normative data. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry 64, 340349.
Pinquart, M, Feussner, C, Ahnert, L (2013). Meta-analytic evidence for stability in attachments from infancy to early adulthood. Attachment and Human Development 15, 189218.
Powers, SI, Pietromonaco, PR, Gunlicks, M, Sayer, A (2006). Dating couples’ attachment styles and patterns of cortisol reactivity and recovery in response to a relationship conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90, 613628.
Raby, KL, Cicchetti, D, Carlson Egeland, B, Collins, WA (2013). Genetic contributions to continuity and change in attachment security: a prospective, longitudinal investigation from infancy to young adulthood. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology 54, 12231230.
Raby, KL, Roisman, GI, Booth-LaForce, C (2015). Genetic moderation of stability in attachment security from early childhood to age 18 years: a replication study. Developmental Psychology 51, 16451649.
Simard, V, Moss, E, Pascuzzo, K (2011). Early maladaptive schemas and child and adult attachment: a 15-year longitudinal study. Psychology and Psychotherapy 84, 349366.
Tizard, B, Hodges, J (1978). The effect of early institutional rearing on the development of eight year old children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 19, 99118.
Usami, M, Iwadare, Y, Kodaira, M, Watanabe, K, Aoki, M, Katsumi, C, Matsuda, K, Makino, K, Iijima, S, Harada, M, Tanaka, H, Sasaki, Y, Tanaka, T, Ushijima, H, Saito, K (2012). Relationships between traumatic symptoms and environmental damage conditions among children 8 months after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. PLOS ONE 7, e50721.
Waters, E, Merrick, S, Treboux, D, Crowell, J, Albersheim, L (2000 a). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: a twenty-year longitudinal study. Childhood Development 71, 684689.
Waters, E, Weinfield, NS, Hamilton, CE (2000 b). The stability of attachment security from infancy to adolescence and early adulthood: general discussion. Childhood Development 71, 703706.
Weathers, FW, Litz, BT, Herman, DS, Huska, JA, Keane, TM (1993). The PTSD checklist (PCL): reliability, validity, and diagnostic utility. Paper presented at the 9th Annual Conference of the ISTSS, San Antonio, TX.
Wolff, PH, Fesseha, G (1999). The orphans of Eritrea: a five-year follow-up study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 40, 12311237.
Zeanah, CH, Egger, HL, Smyke, AT, Nelson, CA, Fox, NA, Marshall, PJ, Guthrie, D (2009). Institutional rearing and psychiatric disorders in Romanian preschool children. American Journal of Psychiatry 166, 777785.


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Bryant supplementary material
Table S1

 Word (34 KB)
34 KB

Separation from parents during childhood trauma predicts adult attachment security and post-traumatic stress disorder

  • R. A. Bryant (a1), M. Creamer (a2), M. O'Donnell (a2), D. Forbes (a2), K. L. Felmingham (a3), D. Silove (a1), G. Malhi (a4), M. van Hoof (a5), A. C. McFarlane (a5) and A. Nickerson (a1)...


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed