Disorganized Attachment Style: The Result of Parental Abuse and Neglect

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Disorganized Attachment Style: The Result of Parental Abuse and Neglect

Earliest attachment of a person is the one they formed with their parent or a caregiver / Photo by Evgeny Atamanenko via Shutterstock.com


Humans are creatures need bonds to survive. They form attachments in order to be able to collaborate and adapt to their environment.

One of the earliest attachments of a person is the one they formed with a parent or a caregiver. Usually, the parent or caregiver is the one who takes care of the child. However, what happens when their role is reversed? What happens when the child begins to take charge of the parent? If one of their earliest bonds makes them feel more confused than secure, it may affect their future attachment or it may result into lacking it.

According to a research conducted which surveyed 14,000 American children, it was shown that 40% do not have a strong emotional bond with their parents. In several other studies, it was revealed that when kids and parents are not able to build strong bonds with each other, those kids will be at a higher risk of growing into a defiant, aggressive, and hyperactive adult.


What Does Attachment Mean?

Kendra Cherry, a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, states that attachment is defined as a unique emotional bond that includes an exchange of comfort, care, and pleasure. This definition of attachment is based on Freud’s theories of love but another psychologist has findings exclusively focused on attachment styles.

The Attachment Theory is attributed to John Bowlby, a British psychologist who states that it is a “lasting psychological connectedness”.



What is a Disorganized Attachment Style?

Dr. Diane Heller, a somatic attachment and trauma expert says that a disorganized attachment style is a product of a caregiver or a parent sending their children mixed messages. It is also known as a “paradoxical injunction”.In this kind of attachment style, the parents make scenarios for children which are unsolvable and un-winnable. An instance of this is when a caregiver insinuates the “Come here, go away. Come here, go away” kind of message.  Another example is when a child is asked to sweep but for every poor attempt they exert, they get criticized and ultimately get punished for not being able to do their task. When children have become used to these situations which are impossible to solve, as a result of being constantly exposed to it, they develop a pattern of being unable to solve problems.

Also, when parents expose their children to interactions that make them feel afraid, disoriented, inherently disorganized and interactions that are violent, this makes their parents become a source of fear instead of security.

This type of attachment is formed when the child both wants to attach themselves from their parent as an object of safety,  but also contrarily, desire to detach from them since they perceive them as dangerous and confusing. On the other hand, the parent may also want to create more emotional intimacy with their children but may fear having intimacy itself.


Signs of having a Disorganized Attachment Style

The Healing Trauma Center states that these are the indicators that the child is experiencing this style of attachment:

1. The child is unable to use their parents to soothe them because they have become a source of fear.

2. The child is subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse which results in dis-attachment.

3. Having a dual dilemma: The child feels terrorized by their attachment figure and that they have lost their source of safety which a prerequisite to a healthy attachment.

4. They are in a constant mental battle between Approach and Avoidance and can be frozen into a state of trancelike stillness which can result into dissociation

5. The child is unable to tolerate vagueness. Any form of ambiguity would create internal conflict or may make them respond with anger or panic.

6. They may use the present tense to describe the past, unfinished sentences, excessive

pauses in speaking and may have cognitive disruption.

7. Being unable to identify whom they should trust or when it is safe to trust someone.

8. Dissociating behaviors.

9. As a result of their need to dissociate, they feel as if they are separated from their body. In turn, this makes it hard for them to take care of their own bodies.

10. The memory replays in their mind and makes feel as if they are experiencing it at the moment with their five senses.

11. They may have a hard time socializing, attention deficits and may become irrational.

12. Not being able to properly detect danger signals.

13. Feeling an inner turmoil because of constantly being exposed to a crazy-making and unsafe home environment.

14. Being conflicted about determining when a connection is safe or when they need to run from it.


A child having fear to her parents may lead to disorganized attachment / Photo by Evgeny Atamanenko via Shutterstock.com


Causes of a Disorganized Attachment Style

There are many reasons why parents and children develop a disorganized attachment style.  Professor David Shemmings, the author of Indicators of Disorganized Attachment in Children, explains this may be a product of:

1. Unresolved loss or trauma

This pertains to the repressed or denied connections which a parent may have lost. These may resurface when the is going through a situation that reminds them of their weakness and their helplessness. One of this situations may be caring for babies. As a result of this, the parent may tend to zone out or display symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

2. Disconnected and extremely insensitive parenting

Parents may have a sudden change in their behavior. This sudden change will not be explained through verbalizing or through gestures and neither will they exhibit signs of affection or playfulness.

This also consists of the parent displaying frightening behaviors or of them being frightened. The parent can be either too withdrawn and neglectful or too intrusive and aggressive. This also mostly involves violent acts and hostile language.

3. Low parental mentalization and reflective function

This refers to the “significantly reduced ability to appreciate that others have different intentions and feelings from one’s own.” In simpler terms, the parent has a hard time that other people, especially their child,  may not have the same feelings and goals as them.

For instance, a mother may not want to put socks on her baby on a cold morning because her feet feel like they are burning. She does not understand that they baby may actually be freezing from the cold weather.


Effects of the Disorganized Attachment Style

An individual having an unstable, conflicting bond with their caregiver will definitely have adverse effects on them. Exploring Your Mind lists the five consequences of having a disorganized attachment style:

1. Distorted self-image and low self-esteem

They may be conditioned to believe that they are the reason their parents are always trying to hurt them or scare them. This may lead them to think that they are horrible, dangerous and unable to do anything right.

This will also result to thinking that the world is an unsafe and chaotic place. They are unable to understand rules and are not able to act appropriately.

When a child is constantly under abuse, they will start to see themselves as inferior. This is exhibited in shy or fearful behaviors. Simultaneously, they may also be hyperactive as a way of drawing attention to themselves to compensate for the lack of attention they have at home.

2. Higher rate of behavioral problems

A disorganized attachment style is linked to being prone to displaying antisocial behavior and behavior problems. The child will often try to replicate the bond they have with their parents and project it on the other people they interact with.

They are unable to determine how to respond to their own needs. Since they feel confused and apprehensive in the presence of their attachment figure, they do not any physical contact, especially those from adults.

They act this way because they could find a solution to their problems. This is a result of being unable to attach or detach themselves from their parents. The boundary or the pattern their responses to affection is not clearly drawn.

3. Anxiety and depression

Children with abusive and neglectful parents are likely to feel loneliness, anger, and indifference. Along with this, they become unmotivated, depressed individuals who engage in self-destructive behavior.

As a result of living under a context that is significant to them which they are unable to handle, they may also show signs of fear, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Due to the dis-attachment, they have with their caregiver, they may have more difficulty coping with stress.


Kids who are being neglected by their parents may engage in self-destructive behavior / Photo by Vega via Shutterstock.com


4. Problems with attention and concentration

The initial bonds a caregiver and a child has is the basis for acquiring self-regulating skills such as impulse control, perseverance, regulation of attachment, and being able to calm down. Therefore, if they have problems with the type of attachment they have with their caregiver, they are more likely to struggle with self-regulation.

Traumatic experiences can potentially make their brain disconnect. These children may develop large lapses in their thinking or in their manner of talking when conversing about the loss of relatives or abuse.

5. Nervous system alterations

Since their interaction with their parents only made them respond in either fear or confusion, they do not have the necessary skills and reinforcements to interact with others. This also leads them to being unable to determine how to respond to people or circumstances.

Often, they will show unfinished and disorganized movements without a clear motive or direction. They may also appear as if they are trying to get away from something, even when their parents are around.

Their behavior may swing from being passive to being intensely nervous. Since they are unable to foresee how their parents will react, they will often try to “read” their actions for information. Since they have become hyper-vigilant, they tend to react dramatically to adults who try to interact with them.


How Can Parents and Children Build More Secure Attachments?

Parents are advised that to be able to build more secure attachments, they become more understanding and express more affection towards their children. They should be reminded that the events that occur in a child’s upbringing will have a great impact on what they become in the future. They should be able to provide them with security, support, and protection so that their child will have a healthy attachment to them.



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