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Disorganized Attachment Style: 7 Signs, Causes & How To Heal

What Is Disorganized Attachment

A disorganized attachment style, 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 fear​1​. It is one of the three insecure attachment styles and is usually found in people who have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from their primary caretaker in childhood.

A sad child sitting on the floor holding a teddy bear and looking away.

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 caretaker’s parenting style, a child can form one of the following four different attachment styles.

These types of 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.

Disorganized Attachment In Children

Attachment Theory, developed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, 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 fear, then the child has an insoluble problem. No consistent, organized strategies can relieve the fears, and disorganized attachment develops.

Disorganized/disoriented attachment style is a form of insecure attachment. The child doesn’t view the parent as a secure base because the child’s needs, emotional or physical, are not met.

In the Strange Situation experiment developed by Mary Ainsworth, the behavior of a disorganized infant is inconsistent with the other attachment types.

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 cannot 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

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

Here is an example of how a disorganized child might react in the Strange Situation procedure.

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.

What Causes Disorganized Attachment in Children

Although various factors contribute to disorganized insecure 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 problems​4​.

A disorganized child fears the caretaker and their unpredictable abusive behavior. But at the same time, they must rely on that person for survival​5​.

When the child’s caregivers are both the source of fright and the only source of safety known to them, 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 is also a risk factor that can impact the attachment formed in the child.

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

These otherwise normal parents may display frightening behavior toward their infant unintentionally due to past trauma or unresolved loss.

These parents may involuntarily re-experience the fear involved in front of the baby and frighten them. They are sometimes fearful or withdrawn.

Unpredictable parental 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.

Signs of Disorganized Attachment Style in Children

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

  1. Do not have an attentional and behavioral strategy for coping with stress​7​.
  2. Are more prone to stress in infancy​8​ and heightened adrenocortical levels in distressing situations​9​.
  3. Lack of regulation skills and control of negative emotions​4​.
  4. Show oppositional, aggressive, disrupted, and erratic behavior in childhood or adolescent​10​.
  5. Have low self-esteem and poor social skills.
  6. More likely to develop depression and anxiety disorders​11​.
  7. Are more likely to experience trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the school years and dissociative disorders in adolescence​12,13​.

What You Need To Know About Disorganized Adults

Disorganization during early childhood is often accompanied by trauma inflicted by caregivers during adolescence and early adulthood. These new traumatic interactions reinforce the internal working models of the children and the abusive caregiver, leading to a disorganization in adulthood, also known as the fear-avoidant attachment. These people tend to have an unresolved fear response to their childhood trauma.

People with a disorganized attachment can be identified through the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI).

Disorganized adult shows marked lapses and incoherence in reasoning when they discuss their past experiences with loss or child maltreatment.

Children of these adults also tend to have disorganized attachments. Therefore, disordered attachment relationship tends to be intergenerational​14​.

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​15​.

Some of them have emotional regulation difficulties. They are more angry and violent and have issues connecting with others​16​.

Disorganized adults usually struggle with romantic relationships as they have contradictory mental states and behavior.

They yearn for emotional intimacy and yet have an intense fear of rejection by their romantic partner. This excess fear of abandonment usually results in short and unstable adult relationships​.

These adults struggle to form healthy relationships that last.

Severe attachment disorganization is associated with a personality disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder​17​.

Dissociative Identity Disorder is a severe condition of disconnecting from reality. People with disassociative disorders can go into a trance-like state. This disorder is found to be correlated with early disorganized attachment​18​.

In parents, the display of anomalous forms of frightened, frightening, or dissociative symptoms is a sign of disorganized attachment.

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​7​.

How to Heal Disorganized Attachment In Children

Early disorganization does not automatically condemn a person to later disorganized attachment in adulthood.

Children with disordered attachment can benefit from parents adding the following protective factors​19​.

Provide a Safe Place

The first step is to ensure the child’s safety. In the case of an abusive situation, call the authorities for assistance in moving the child to a safe environment. 

Build a Secure Relationship

Developing a secure type of attachment with other attachment figures can prevent disorganized young children from developing mental disorders later in life. The new secure bonds will help these children reestablish a safe, healthy attachment system.

Develop self-regulation skills

The new attachment figures can help children develop self-regulation skills by being attuned to their emotional needs. Co-regulation is the key to helping them learn self-regulation.

Address Maladaptive Behavior

In older children, certain maladaptive behaviors have become ingrained in how they view themselves and the world. Identifying, challenging, and replacing maladaptive beliefs and behaviors with adaptive ones is important.

Seek Professional Help

Treatment for disordered children can be quite complex and multi-faceted. The best way is to seek professional help who is experienced in the relational approach to therapy​20​.

How To Heal Disorganized Attachment In Adults

How to fix attachment wounds in grownups?

Although it is the most difficult of the three insecure styles to treat or change, a disorganized person can learn to feel safe and develop close relationships in a healthy way.

When an individual overcomes malevolent childhood experiences, their infant insecure attachment changes over time to become an earned-secure attachment​21​. Earned-secure attachment experiences are possible when there is alternative support figure​22​.

But since it’s difficult for disorganized adults to socialize and develop trust with others, they may have a hard time seeking emotional support in their social circle.

To help these individuals build close relationships, encourage them to get professional help.

Therapy can help them make sense of past traumas and develop a healthier coping mechanism. Therapy can also help you learn to feel safe and communicate with others in relationships.

Find a therapist who uses a relational approach that has been shown to be effective in a study​23​.


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