Developmental Imprinting and Attachment Issues

It is well recognized by mental health clinicians that beyond the age of twelve years or before, effectively treating attachment issues are very difficult, if not impossible.

A study published in 2002 helps to explain why this is so. If you have a teen (or child) with attachmen issues, you know the heartbreak and agony these issues can cause. First, a brief review of attachment disorders.

Attachment Disorders

A more in debt discussion of this topic can be found at our Attachment Disorder webpage. In general "attachment" refers to the ability to form healthy relationships. Teens and children with attachment issues have difficulty forming developmentally appropriate social relationships. Either they attach inappropriately or don't attach at all. These teens often act in little regard to others. People in their world are there to serve them. If they don't fulfill this function, often very violent outburst can occur, threating harm to themselves or others, or objects.

Children/teens can have varying degrees of attachment problems. At the extreme end of this continuum is Radical Attachment Disorder, RAD. At the other end is "weak attachments".


Imprinting was first described by animal behavorist, Konrad Lorenz in 1937, in his work with ducks. Baby ducks rigidly attach to the first moving thing they see. In one case, he was the first thing the ducklings observed. They would follow him everywhere. He was their "mama". He found they would rigidly attach to a wide variety of objects and other animals. By "rigid" it was meant that once they made this attachment, it could not be undone.

Imprinting can be defined as the process by which certain birds and mammals form attachments during a critical period very early in life. Of course, back in Lorentz time, we had no idea about the neurobiological basis of this process.

Interesting, as I glance at my old 1986 version of my general psychology book, they emphatically state that human's don't have a precise critical period for becoming attached. Wrong! Well maybe not as precise as other birds and some mammals, but they do have a critical period-- which appears to be in the first two years of life.

We now know that imprinting is a neurological developmental process.

Right Brain Developmental Imprinting

Dr. Allan N. Schore, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioural Sciences, published a study in 2002 that examined attachment in children. This research summarized a lot of the literature that had been published on this topic up to that time.

Dr. Shore's review integrated recent advances in attachment theory, affective neuroscience, developmental stress research, and infant psychiatry in order to delineate the developmental precursors of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Attachment issues arise out of PTSD traumas or extreme neglect. He was interested in the effects of early relational trauma on the developing central and autonomic nervous system activities that drive attachment functions.

His studies suggested that traumatic attachments, expressed in episodes of hyperarousal and dissociation, are imprinted into the developing limbic and autonomic nervous systems of the early maturing right brain. These changes lead to permanent structural changes in the right brain that result in inefficient stress coping mechanisms that lie at the core of infant, child, and adult PTSD.

His conclusions were:

  • "Disorganized-disoriented insecure attachment, a pattern common in infants abused in the first 2 years of life, is psychologically manifested as an inability to generate a coherent strategy for coping with relational stress." 
  • Early abuse negatively impacts the right brain development. The right brain is the dominant side of the brain that regulates attachment, affect (emotions), and stress modulation. This abnormal development thereby sets up a coping deficits of both mind and body that characterize PTSD symptoms. 
  • The data suggest that early intervention programs can significantly alter the intergenerational transmission of PTSD and, thereby, attachment issues.

In an update aimed at pediatrician, Shore (2005) updates his research and that of others on this important topic.

Literature Cited

Schore, A. 2002. Dysregulation of the right brain: a fundamental mechanism of traumatic attachment and the psychopathogenesis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 36 (1): 1440-1614.

Schore, A. 2005. Back to Basics: Attachment, Affect Regulation, and the Developing Right Brain: Linking Developmental Neuroscience to Pediatrics. Pediatrics in Review 26:204-217.


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