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Disorganized Attachment: How It Forms & How To Heal

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 primary caregiver. Depending on the type of parenting, a child can form an organized attachment or disorganized attachment to their caregiver.

Organized Attachment In Children

From attachment theory, we know that an infant learns to deal with stressful circumstances and negative emotions in one of the three following organized manners​1​.

  • Secure Attachment
  • Avoidant Attachment
  • Ambivalent Attachment

These three types of organized attachments are considered adaptive to their corresponding environments, although some are less than ideal. Their attachment behavior is organized to maximize the proximity to the attachment figure, considering their response style.

girl cries and looks scared - characteristics of disorganized attachment

Disorganized Attachment In Children

A disorganized attachment style in child, also known as disoriented attachment, is formed when the child finds themselves emotionally and physically dependent on someone who is also a source of the child’s distress or fears​2​.

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, the behavior of a disorganized baby with is inconsistent with the organized responses mentioned above. The baby may display a variety of odd, unusual, contradictory or conflicted behavior in the presence of the parent.

Babies with disorganization show the following anomalous or disoriented behavior in the Strange Situation.

Contradictory behavior – the baby shows indifference or conflicting behavior upon the parent’s return even after substantial distress during the separation.

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. 

Disorganized Attachment Examples

Here is an example of a baby with disoriented / disorganized attachment.

The child might cry loudly while trying to climb into her mother’s lap, but then suddenly fell silent and stopped moving for several seconds. She showed the characteristic dissociative signs in the presence of the parent.

Here’s another example.

A baby rapidly crawled towards his father when the father reentered the room in the Strange Situation experiment. But he would suddenly stop, turn his head and gaze blankly at the wall with a trance-like expressionless face. After a while, the child looked forward again, smiled and continued approaching his father.

The common theme among these babies is disorganization. They all exhibited inexplicable, odd, disoriented or overtly conflicted behaviors toward their caregivers.

Causes of Disorganized Attachment

Although various factors contribute to disorganized attachment, one consistent factor is family environment. Two types of parent engagement are found to be implicated in infant disorganization.

The most common cause is having an abusive caretaker. The baby fears the caretaker and their unpredictable abusive behavior. But at the same time, they have to rely on that person for survival​4​.

When the person is both the source of fright and the only haven of safety known to the child, disorganized attachment may result. These caretakers are usually hostile and self-referential. When the caretaker’s terror is present without resolution, the baby cannot use any organized strategy to deal with the stress. Violence from a parent’s partner has also been found to correlate with infant disorganization.

Another common cause is having a parent struggling with depression, marital discord, the unresolved loss of an attachment figure, or other traumatic experiences​5​.

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. These unpredictable behaviors result in disorganized attachment forming between parent and 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

Disorganized kids have “fright without solution”. They do not have an attentional and behavioral strategy for coping with stress​6​. Therefore, they’re more prone to stress in infancy​7​, and heightened adrenocortical levels in distressing situations​8​.

These children often shows aggressive and disrupted behavior in childhood or adolescent​9​.

Kids who have disoriented attachment may be more likely to experience trauma-related disorders such as dissociative disorder and mental disorders later in early adulthood​10,11​.

baby cries with unresolved attachment style

Child Disorganized Attachment Treatment

Early disorganization does not automatically condemns a person to later disorganized attachment.

There are many corrective attachment experiences and protective factors in preventing the once disorganized infant from developing mental disorder down the line. For example, other attachment figures may provide the child with positive attachment experiences to develop a healthy attachment.

To reestablish a safe, secure attachment style, 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.

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 self and the attachment figure, resulting in unresolved attachment in adults. These people tend to have unresolved responses to their childhood trauma.

Disorganized attachment in adults can be identified through the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). A person who shows marked lapses and incoherence in reasoning when discussing loss or abuse during the interview is assigned an unresolved or disorganized attachment status.

Children of these adults also tend to have infant disorganization attachment. Therefore, disoriented attachment tends to be intergenerational​12​.

Signs of Disorganized Attachment in Adults

Disorganized adults often lack coping skills to deal with stress​13​. They tend to have emotional regulation difficulty. Some are more angry and violent, and have issues connecting with others​14​.

Disorganized adults usually struggle with romantic relationship. They have an extreme need for relational closeness and intense fear of rejection. This excess fear of abandonment usually results in short and unstable relationships​15​.

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

Dissociative Identity Disorder, a severe condition of disconnecting from reality and going into a trace-like state, is 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 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.

Adult Disorganized Attachment Treatment

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 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 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 approach​20​.


References

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