Disorganized Attachment: what it is, how it develops, and how it is treated

During childhood, all children are vulnerable and depend directly on the closest adults, who are usually parents.

The warmth of a mother’s hug, the caresses of a father, the words of support for having made a beautiful drawing and other actions that may seem trivialities are fundamental to the correct emotional development of the child.

Unfortunately, however, many children are victims of abuse, which will mark them for life and determine the relationship they will have with their caregivers. This is common in those who show disorganized attachment, a type of link in which aggressiveness and insecurity are very present and which we will see in more detail below.

Disorganized attachment: what is it?

Disorganized attachment is one of four types of attachment, characterized by a threatening relationship between the caregiver and the baby, in which the parents or caregivers behave unpredictably. 

Within Bowlby’s attachment theory, it is understood as attachment to the link established between the child and his caregivers. This link acquires great importance since it determines how psychologically adjusted the child will be when he becomes an adult in the future.

In the case of disorganized attachment, the baby has been raised in an environment that is very hostile, where there is always aggressiveness in the form of physical and psychological abuse and, sometimes, there can also be sexual abuse. These types of experiences, already very bad in themselves, are lived especially hard during childhood, producing a very strong internal imbalance in the child.

The infant, who is a victim of their own parents or caregivers, also depends on them. He cannot escape the situation because, in addition to not having the means to do so, he could not afford it either. The child, by nature, knows that he cannot live without his caregiver, so he tries to get as close as possible to him, even though he knows he will receive damage.

Although it is possible that in the face of aggressions he will scream, it is possible that this will only bring him more abuse, causing him to reach the point where he avoids reality. It dissociates itself and, in this way, enduring the damage from those who should protect it from any threat, the child manages to survive, since, although harmful, he receives the attention of his parents.

Characteristics of children with this type of attachment

There are several characteristics of children who have developed disorganized attachment. They show several problems on an emotional level, and it is also possible to see some psychomotor and cognitive deficits.

1. Erratic behavior with caregivers

Children who constantly suffer abuse from their parents live a constant dilemma. On the one hand, they need to receive care and attention from their parents, but on the other they tend to want to get away from them.

This causes the child to behave in a seemingly contradictory manner. For example, at one point he may cry inconsolably, looking for his parents and then adding them.

2. Fear of caregivers

Children who have been mistreated by their own parents or close adults end up developing an obvious fear towards them. Having experienced a situation of abuse of any kind can contribute to the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.

However, it should be said that there will not always be disorganized attachment because of a relationship with abuse. Sometimes, living with parents with an unstable educational style in which the infant is not taken into account is sufficient for this type of attachment.

Whatever contributes to this, the final consequence is that the child ends up associating the image of his parents with that of sadness, discomfort and guilt towards himself.

3. Fear of exploring and phobias

Children who have developed this type of attachment do not dare to discover the world in which they live, for fear of finding more people who hurt them or making mistakes that will later be punished by their own parents.

This fear of exploring, besides being detrimental to their cognitive development because it deprives them of new stimuli, can go further, transforming into multiple types of phobias.

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4. Dissociation

Especially when they are experiencing an episode of abuse, children with disorganized attachment end up dissociating themselves, that is, they lose contact with reality.

This happens because they cannot flee from the situation, but they cannot change it either, and since they depend on their parents, their mind carries out this dissociation as a defense mechanism.

5. Hypervigilance

They are constantly on alert to avoid insofar as they can a possible aggression or aversive situation.

6. Cognitive problems

These children express themselves verbally in a poor way, in a disorganized and redundant way when speaking. In addition, they have attention, memory and concentration deficits and, related to post-traumatic stress, interference occurs in your mind in the form of flashbacks of abuse episodes.

7. Low self-esteem

Usually, these types of children associate abuse with the idea that they are bad and deserve it, that their parents are really punished for having done things wrong and that they have not learned the lesson.

Their feeling of guilt is very great and related to the fear of exploring, they do not dare to try new experiences for fear of erring and suffer as a result of another situation of abuse.

Consequences of reaching adulthood

Upon reaching adulthood, who lived a disorganized attachment relationship with their caregivers manifests a series of characteristics that, in a way, reflect the type of bond he lived in his childhood.

They are adults who present serious difficulties in identifying the emotions and thoughts of others. But not only do they feel confused when it comes to understanding what others think; they themselves are not able to understand what they think, in addition to having a reduced linguistic ability and difficulties in understanding certain abstract ideas.

As victims of abuse they were, they have a deep-rooted belief that they were bad people and that they still are, that they deserved those acts of physical and verbal abuse and tend to self-harm. 

In addition, as in their childhood, ‘love’ was manifested in the form of violence and aggressiveness, they assume that it is normal in all human relationships and that it is legitimate to behave this way towards those who are supposed to be loved, anticipating that they will be attacked late or early This makes it difficult for them to establish strong intimate relationships.

When these types of situations are experienced, it is common to see how the child is not respected by their caregivers, indicating that their opinion or wishes should not be heard. This is manifested in adult life in a way that the person is not able to feel respect for others, nor understand their limits, obligations or rights as members of a society, making them prone to commit more crimes.

They tend to develop certain disorders, especially related to depression and anxiety. It is also possible to find people with this type of addiction addicted to drugs, since they sought in them the way to face the constant bad memories about their childhood.

Disorganized Attachment Treatment?

Therapy aimed at treating those whose childhood was marked by disorganized attachment focuses primarily on making them see that they are not necessarily going to receive damage in intimate relationships. The treatment focuses on making the person more confident when establishing interaction with other people, whether friends, partners and family, both involved and not in abuse.

This increase in trust towards others allows us to recover part of the time lost and face the great fear that has been acquired throughout the development. It is the perfect opportunity to develop those activities that he could not practice when he was a victim of abuse and that the fear that he would be punished for doing it badly prevented him from carrying them out.

People with disorganized attachment need a safety zone, and the psychologist’s consultation is one of those places. If the patient assumes this, the therapy will be developed properly.

Another aspect to work in therapy is the negative labels that are attributed to themselves, especially those that are bad, that they were mistreated because they deserved it, that their parents were educating them like that for doing things wrong …

It is a fairly widespread belief to think that those who were mistreated during childhood will eventually become abusers in adulthood. While this is not something that always happens, far from it, it is appropriate that the therapy promotes greater empathic capacity. In this way, in case the patient is about to make the same mistakes that his parents / caregivers made, think about how he felt when he suffered the abuse and what consequences it would have on the person he is about to hurt.

Bibliographic references:

  • Gayá-Ballester, C., & Molero-Mañes, R., and Gil-Llario, M. (2014). Disruption of attachment and traumatic developmental disorder (TTD). International Journal of Developmental and Educational Psychology, 3 (1), 375-383.

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