Table of Contents
What Is Disorganized Attachment
A disorganized attachment style in 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 fears1. Disorganized/disoriented attachment style is usually found in people who have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse from their 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 attachment categories.
- Secure attachment
- Avoidant attachment
- Ambivalent attachment
- Disorganized attachment
These attachment styles represent how an infant learns to deal with stressful circumstances and negative emotions2.
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.
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 an 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 behavior – 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 dissociation3.
Apprehension – the baby shows fear of the parent immediately upon the parent’s return after a brief separation.
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 an another example, a disorganized baby might crawl rapidly towards 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 family environment and parent engagement.
The most common cause of disorganized attachment is having an abusive caretaker. Nearly 80% of maltreated infants have disorganized attachment issues4.
A disorganized child fears the caretaker and their unpredictable abusive behavior. But at the same time, they have to rely on that person for survival5. When the caretaker is both the source of fright and the only haven of safety known to the child, disorganized attachment often result.
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.
Parent having a violent partner also impacts 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 past6.
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 disorganized attachment style formed in the child.
Researchers also found that neurological impairment or pharmacological intervention are related to disorganization if the child has been left alone for an extended period of time.
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 stress7.
- Are more prone to stress in infancy8, and heightened adrenocortical levels in distressing situations9.
- Lack regulation skills and control of negative emotions4.
- Show oppositional, aggressive, disrupted and erratic behavior in childhood or adolescent10.
- 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 adolescence11,12.
Disorganized Attachment in Adults
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 child themselves and the 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). A disorganized adult shows marked lapses and incoherence in reasoning when they discuss their life experiences with loss or abuse.
Children of these adults also tend to have infant disorganization attachment. Therefore, disorganized attachment relationship tends to be intergenerational13.
Signs of Disorganized Attachment in Adults
Disorganized adults have fearful avoidant attachment styles.
Disorganized adults often lack coping skills to deal with stress14. They tend to have emotional regulation difficulty. Some are more angry and violent, and have issues connecting with others15.
Disorganized adults usually struggle with romantic relationship. They yearn for close relationships and yet have an intense fear of rejection by the romantic partner. This excess fear of abandonment usually results in short and unstable relationship patterns16. These adults struggle to form a healthy relationship that lasts.
These adults have contradictory mental states and behavior. Severe attachment disorganization is associated with personality disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder17.
Dissociative Identity Disorder, a severe condition of disconnecting from reality and going into a trace-like state, is also found to be correlated with early disorganized attachment18.
Signs of Disorganized Attachment in Parents
The display of anomalous forms of frightened, frightening or dissociative behavior are some of the signs of disorganized attachment in parents.
For example, a hostile parent may suddenly crawl silently and 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.
Healing Disorganized Attachment
Child Disorganized Attachment Treatment
Early disorganization does not automatically condemns a person to later disorganized attachment in their adult life.
Corrective attachment experiences and protective factors can prevent an 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 parent can become gradually capable of elaborating traumatic memories, therefore offering a progressively more positive attachment experience to the child.
Adult Disorganized Attachment Treatment
How to fix disorganized attachment?
It is possible for disorganized adults to feel safe and develop close, meaningful 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 attachment19.
Earned-secure attachment is possible when there is an alternative support figure20. Because it’s hard for disorganized adults to socialize and develop trust with others, it may be difficult for them to seek support in their social circle.
To help these individuals, encourage them to get help from the professionals. Therapy can help them make sense of past traumas and develop healthier ways to cope with stress. Find a therapist who works with a relational approach21.
- 1.Ainsworth M. Patterns of Attachment. Psychology Press Classic Edition; 1978.
- 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
- 3.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
- 4.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
- 5.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.
- 6.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
- 7.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
- 8.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
- 9.Spangler G, Grossman K. Individual and physiological correlates of attachment disorganization in infancy. Attachment disorganization. Published online 1999.
- 10.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
- 11.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
- 12.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.Liotti G. Trauma, dissociation, and disorganized attachment: Three strands of a single braid. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. Published online 2004:472-486. doi:10.1037/0033-3184.108.40.2062
- 14.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.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
- 16.Lyons-Ruth K, Dutra L, Schuder MR, Bianchi I. From Infant Attachment Disorganization to Adult Dissociation: Relational Adaptations or Traumatic Experiences? Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Published online March 2006:63-86. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2005.10.011
- 17.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
- 18.Liotti G. Disorganization of attachment as a model for understanding dissociative psychopathology. In: Attachment Disorganization. The Guilford Press; 1999:291–317.
- 19.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
- 20.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
- 21.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