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Disorganized Attachment: Understanding How It Forms & How To Heal

What is attachment | Disorganized attachment in children | Disorganized attachment in adults | How to heal disorganized attachment

What Is Disorganized Attachment

A disorganized attachment style in a child, also known as disoriented attachment, is formed when a child is emotionally and physically dependent on someone who is also a source of distress or fears​1​. Disorganized/disoriented attachment style is usually found in people who have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse from their primary caretakers in childhood.

What Is Attachment

Babies are born wired to seek connection and proximity to their primary caregivers for survival. This deeply rooted connection-seeking behavior allows a child to develop an attachment to their attachment figure.

Depending on the type of parenting, a child can form one of the following four types of attachment.

These attachment styles represent how an infant learns to deal with stressful circumstances and negative emotions​2​.

The first three of these infant attachments are considered organized because they are adaptive to their corresponding environments. These attachment strategies are survival instincts that aim to maximize proximity to the attachment figures according to their different parenting styles.

girl cries and looks scared - characteristics of disorganized attachment, disordered attachment

Disorganized Attachment In Children

Attachment Theory asserts that when a child is frightened, they turn to an attached caretaker for security, comfort, and reassurance. However, if the caretaker is also the very source of threat, then the child has an insoluble problem. No consistent, organized strategies can relieve the fears and disorganized attachment issues develop.

Disorganized attachment is a form of insecure attachment. The child doesn’t view the parent as a secure base because they cannot get their emotional or physical needs met.

In the Strange Situation experiment developed by Mary Ainsworth, the behavior of a disorganized infant is inconsistent with the other attachment styles. The baby may display a variety of odd, unusual, contradictory, or conflicted behavior when the parent leaves and returns. These babies’ behaviors share a striking theme of disorganization, a marked contradiction in movement.

Disorganized infants show the following anomalous or disoriented behavior in the Strange Situation.

Contradictory behaviors – the baby shows substantial distress during the separation but displays indifference or conflicting reunion behavior upon the parent’s return.

Misdirected or interrupted behavior – the baby seeks proximity to the stranger instead of the parent after separation.

Stereotypical behavior – the baby is visually stressed or apprehended when the parent is present. The child may repeatedly pull their hair with a dazed expression.

Freezing – the baby is unable to choose between going toward or moving away from the parent. The child may go and stop several times. They show intense attachment behavior followed by sudden freezing or dazed action as signs of dissociation​3​.

Apprehension – the baby shows fear of the parent immediately upon the parent’s return after a brief separation. 

baby cries with unresolved attachment style

Disorganized Attachment Examples

Disorganized babies exhibit inexplicable, odd, disoriented, or overtly conflicted behaviors toward their caregivers.

Here is an example of how a disorganized child reacts in the Strange Situation. The baby might cry loudly while trying to climb into her mother’s lap. While climbing, she might suddenly become silent and freeze for several seconds indicating a sign of dissociation.

In another example, a disorganized baby might crawl rapidly toward his father upon the parent’s return. But then the child would suddenly stop, turn his head, and gaze distantly at the wall with a trance-like, expressionless face, another sign of dissociation. After a short while, the baby might turn his head back, smile, and continue approaching his father again.

Causes of Disorganized Attachment in Children

Although various factors contribute to disorganized attachment, one consistent factor is the family environment and parent engagement.

The most common cause of disorganized attachment is having an abusive caretaker. Nearly 80% of maltreated infants have insecure disorganized attachment issues​4​.

A disorganized child fears the caretaker and their unpredictable abusive behavior. But at the same time, they have to rely on that person for survival​5​. When the caretaker is both the source of fright and the only haven of safety known to the child, disorganized attachment often results.

These caretakers are usually hostile and self-centered. When the caretaker’s terror is present without resolution, the baby cannot use any organized strategy to deal with the stress.

A parent having a violent partner also impacts the attachment formed in the child and results in disorganization.

Another common cause is having a parent struggling with depression, marital discord, the unresolved loss of an attachment figure, or other traumatic experiences in the past​6​.

These otherwise normal parents may display frightening behavior to their infant unintentionally due to past traumas or unresolved loss. They may involuntarily re-experience the fear involved in front of the baby, and frighten the child. These parents are sometimes fearful or withdrawn. Their unpredictable behaviors result in a disorganized attachment style formed in the child.

Recent research also finds that neurological impairment or pharmacological intervention is related to disorganization if the child has been left alone for an extended period of time.

girl cries dissociative attachment style

Characteristics of Disorganized Attachment in Children

Disorganized kids have “fright without solution” with the following characteristics:

  • Do not have an attentional and behavioral strategy for coping with stress​7​.
  • Are more prone to stress in infancy​8​, and heightened adrenocortical levels in distressing situations​9​.
  • Lack of regulation skills and control of negative emotions​4​.
  • Show oppositional, aggressive, disrupted, and erratic behavior in childhood or adolescent​10​.
  • Have low self-esteem and poor social skills.
  • Are more likely to experience trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the school years and dissociative disorder in adolescence​11,12​.

Disorganized Attachment in Adults (Signs In Grownups and Parents)

When early disorganization is followed by traumas inflicted by the caregivers during childhood and adolescence, the new traumatic interactions renew and confirm the internal working models of children themselves and the abusive caregiver, resulting in unresolved or disorganized attachment in adults. These people tend to have unresolved responses to their childhood trauma.

Adults with disorganized attachment can be identified through the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). Disorganized adult shows marked lapses and incoherence in reasoning when they discuss their life experiences with loss or child maltreatment.

Young children of these adults also tend to have infant disorganization attachment. Therefore, disordered attachment relationship tends to be intergenerational​13​.

man is sad while woman tries to comfort him

Signs of Disorganized Attachment in Adults

Adults with a disorganized style have fearful-avoidant attachment. They often have poor coping skills to deal with stress​14​. They tend to have emotional regulation difficulties. Some are more angry and violent and have issues connecting with others​15​.

Disorganized adults usually struggle with romantic relationships. They yearn for close relationships and yet have an intense fear of rejection by their romantic partner. This excess fear of abandonment usually results in short and unstable adult relationship patterns​. These adults struggle to form healthy relationships that last.

These adults have contradictory mental states and behavior. Severe attachment disorganization is associated with a personality disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder​16​.

Dissociative Identity Disorder, a severe condition of disconnecting from reality and going into a trance-like state, is also found to be correlated with early disorganized attachment​17​.

Signs of Disorganized Attachment in Parents

The display of anomalous forms of frightened, frightening, or dissociative symptoms is one of the signs of disorganized attachment in parents.

For example, a hostile parent may suddenly crawl silently and be catlike towards her infant simulating “mauling” behavior in an obviously non-playful way. A frightened parent may communicate apprehension to the child when the infant approaches them for protection.

How to heal Disorganized Attachment

Child Disorganized Attachment Treatment

Early disorganization does not automatically condemn a person to later disorganized attachment in their adult life.

Corrective attachment experiences and protective factors can prevent a once disorganized infant from developing mental disorders down the line. For example, other attachment figures may provide the child with positive attachment security to develop a healthy attachment.

To reestablish a safe, secure attachment system, it’s possible that the primary caregiver can become gradually capable of elaborating traumatic memories, therefore offering a progressively more positive attachment experience to the child.

woman is sad while support group tries to comfort her

Adult Disorganized Attachment Treatment

How to fix disorganized attachment?

It is possible for disorganized adults to feel safe and develop close, intimate relationships.

When an individual overcomes malevolent childhood experiences, their infant insecure attachment changes over time to become an earned-secure attachment. This person has broken the intergenerational cycle of disorganized attachment​18​.

Earned-secure attachment is possible when there is an alternative support figure​19​. Because it’s hard for disorganized adults to socialize and develop trust with others, it may be difficult for them to seek emotional support in their social circle.

To help these individuals, encourage them to get help from professionals. Therapy can help them make sense of past traumas and develop a healthier coping mechanism. Find a therapist who works with a relational approach​20​.


References

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    Ainsworth M. Patterns of Attachment. Psychology Press Classic Edition; 1978.
  2. 2.
    VAN IJZENDOORN MH, SCHUENGEL C, BAKERMANS–KRANENBURG MJ. Disorganized attachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, and sequelae. Develop Psychopathol. Published online June 1999:225-250. doi:10.1017/s0954579499002035
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    Hesse E, Main M. Disorganized Infant, Child, and Adult Attachment: Collapse in Behavioral and Attentional Strategies. J Am Psychoanal Assoc. Published online August 2000:1097-1127. doi:10.1177/00030651000480041101
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    Benoit D. Infant-parent attachment: Definition, types, antecedents, measurement and outcome. Paediatrics & Child Health. Published online October 2004:541-545. doi:10.1093/pch/9.8.541
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    Main M, Hesse E. Parents’ unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganized attachment status: Is frightened and/or frightening parental behavior the linking mechanism? In: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Mental Health and Development. Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research, and Intervention. University of Chicago Press; 1990:161-182.
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    Schuengel C, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, Van IJzendoorn MH. Frightening maternal behavior linking unresolved loss and disorganized infant attachment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 1999:54-63. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.67.1.54
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    Hesse E, Main M. Second‐generation effects of unresolved trauma in nonmaltreating parents: Dissociated, frightened, and threatening parental behavior. Psychoanalytic Inquiry. Published online January 1999:481-540. doi:10.1080/07351699909534265
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    Hertsgaard L, Gunnar M, Erickson MF, Nachmias M. Adrenocortical Responses to the Strange Situation in Infants with Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment Relationships. Child Development. Published online August 1995:1100. doi:10.2307/1131801
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    Spangler G, Grossman K. Individual and physiological correlates of attachment disorganization in infancy. Attachment disorganization. Published online 1999.
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    Lyons-Ruth K. Attachment relationships among children with aggressive behavior problems: the role of disorganized early attachment patterns. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1996;64(1):64-73. doi:10.1037//0022-006x.64.1.64
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    Carlson EA. A Prospective Longitudinal Study of Attachment Disorganization/Disorientation. Child Development. Published online August 1998:1107-1128. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1998.tb06163.x
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    Zeanah CH, Boris NW, Scheeringa MS. Psychopathology in Infancy. J Child Psychol & Psychiat. Published online January 1997:81-99. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1997.tb01506.x
  13. 13.
    Liotti G. Trauma, dissociation, and disorganized attachment: Three strands of a single braid. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. Published online 2004:472-486. doi:10.1037/0033-3204.41.4.472
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    Pierrehumbert B, Torrisi R, Ansermet F, Borghini A, Halfon O. Adult attachment representations predict cortisol and oxytocin responses to stress. Attachment & Human Development. Published online September 2012:453-476. doi:10.1080/14616734.2012.706394
  15. 15.
    Mosquera D, Gonzalez A, Leeds AM. Early experience, structural dissociation, and emotional dysregulation in borderline personality disorder: the role of insecure and disorganized attachment. Bord Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. Published online 2014:15. doi:10.1186/2051-6673-1-15
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    Beeney JE, Wright AGC, Stepp SD, et al. Disorganized attachment and personality functioning in adults: A latent class analysis. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Published online July 2017:206-216. doi:10.1037/per0000184
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    Liotti G. Disorganization of attachment as a model for understanding dissociative psychopathology. In: Attachment Disorganization. The Guilford Press; 1999:291–317.
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    Roisman GI, Padron E, Sroufe LA, Egeland B. Earned-Secure Attachment Status in Retrospect and Prospect. Child Development. Published online July 2002:1204-1219. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00467
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    Saunders R, Jacobvitz D, Zaccagnino M, Beverung LM, Hazen N. Pathways to earned-security: The role of alternative support figures. Attachment & Human Development. Published online July 2011:403-420. doi:10.1080/14616734.2011.584405
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    Blizard RA. Disorganized Attachment, Development of Dissociated Self States, and a Relational Approach to Treatment. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. Published online June 2003:27-50. doi:10.1300/j229v04n03_03

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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