Understanding disorganised attachment

Disorganised attachment is a term used to describe people who;

  • struggle to maintain ordinary relationships
  • fail to deliver on their potential in work, education and development.

It can be the result of early experience with frightening and unpredictable parents. It can be the result of later traumatic experience or abuse.

Attachment theory and disorganised attachment

Disorganised attachment develops out of John Bowlbys work into the relationship between babies and infants and their caregivers.In his observations and collaborations he identified particular patterns of attachment and behaviours.

Disorganised attachment is understood as indicating a pattern of attachment that stems from the infant/caregiver relationship having being prone to disruption and unpredictable emotional experiences.

Disorganised attachment, when parents disturb their children

For example; the infant being repeatedly frightened and their fears not being adequately acknowledged and the overwrought emotional state being left in the infants’ system.

Another example would be children whose parents interfered or were invasive in an unhelpful way.For example, parents who were too knowing and would tell their children they knew everything the child did and thought.

Disorganised attachment can be provoked by any type of inconsistent emotional dysregulation.

How emotions affect development

If we think about the physical response a child has to emotions like fear, fright, shock or something more traumatic, we find particular hormones and neurotransmitters are released into the system such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. These hormones put the body on alert, they trigger the fight or flight type response.

Once these hormones and chemicals are in our systems they need time to be processed. They affect our brain chemistry, changing the way we develop and grow.

Conversely, where there is satisfactory, consistent and predictable patterns of relating between caregiver and parent, there is the presence of manageable and processable hormones and brain chemistry.This makes growth and development simpler and much less stressful.

When our systems are exposed to difficult emotions and hormones for prolonged periods of time, then we develop and grow differently.The patterns of attachment that we see in children who have gone through this kind of experience is referred to as disorganised attachment.

Experiments in attachment

In some of the early experiments and research into attachment, mothers or caregivers would leave their babies alone to see how they responded.Perhaps unsurprisingly the mothers who returned more quickly and more predictably, produced a more settled reaction in their babies and infants. Whereas the children who were left in unpredictable states would become much harder to settle and soothe.

Infants who have been exposed to unpredictable mothers or have met with inappropriate responses, like having their distress laughed at, find it difficult to settle and feel secure.In later life this becomes the basis of disorganised attachment.

People who have had a settled experience of attachment develop what Bowlby referred to as a secure base which makes it possible for them to explore their environment and world and to develop and have confidence in developing relationships with others that are predictable.

For people who have been exposed to disorganised attachment patterns the opposite is likely to be true.There is no secure base from which to explore the world so its much harder to feel at home in relationships.

Disorganised attachment, problems with concentration

Children who have been exposed to disorganised attachment will likely find it hard to achieve cognitive milestones in the same way as more ordinarily attached children will. Disorganised attachment interferes with development and the capacity to concentrate.

It is also true that children who have been raised in disorganised attachment are more likely to develop what Winnicott named a false self personality and psychology instead of a true self.

These are children who have learned to cover up their emotional experience behind the protective screen of a false self.

When you have learned that you cannot rely on your caregivers you have to develop a false self to care for yourself, but this significantly inhibits developing constructive relationships and potential.

Post traumatic stress disorder and disorganised attachment

Disorganised attachment can be brought on in later life it can be a consequence of PTSD and CPTSD.

Researchers have found that people who are exposed to trauma, and repeated traumatic experience often develop dissociative patterns of relating.Dissociating means that you are not there to be vulnerable.The dissociated experience creates a kind of detachment, a part of the victim’s self becomes absent, and cannot be harmed. But this unsurprisingly has a consequence of disturbing attachment patterns.

Can psychotherapy help address problems of disorganised attachment?

Yes. But it might take time, and psychotherapy might be part of a treatment plan.

It might require a particular level of patience, but psychotherapy is the one place in which someone who has never had the chance to settle and trust may develop the possibility of doing so.

If it is possible to settle, to become attached to the work and the therapeutic relationship then the individuals psyche may start to find new and constructive possibilities for development and for repair to occur.