Disorganized attachment: what it is, how it develops, and how it is treated
This type of attachment usually leads to dysfunctional psychological development in children and young people.
During infancy, all children are vulnerable and directly dependent on the closest adults, who are usually the parents.
The warmth of a mother's hug, a father's caresses, words of support for having drawn a nice picture and other actions that may seem trivial are fundamental for the correct emotional development of the child.
Unfortunately, however, many children are victims of maltreatment, which will mark them for life and determine the relationship they will have with their caregivers. This is common in those who exhibit disorganized attachmenta type of attachment 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 the four types of attachment, characterized by there being a threatening relationship between caregiver and infant, in which the parents or caregivers behave unpredictably.. Within Bowlby's attachment theory, attachment is understood as the bond established between the child and its caregivers. This bond acquires great importance, since it conditions how psychologically adjusted the child will be when he/she becomes an adult in the future.
In the case of disorganized attachment, the baby has been raised in a very hostile environment, where there is always aggression in the form of physical and psychological abuse, and sometimes there may also be sexual abuse. This type of experience, already very bad in itself, is especially hard during childhood, producing a very strong internal imbalance in the child.
The child, who is a victim of his or her own parents or caregivers, is also dependent on them.. He or she cannot run away from the situation because, besides not having the means to do so, he or she would not be able to afford it either. The child, by nature, knows that he cannot live without his caregiver, so he tries to get as close to him as possible, even though he knows he will be hurt.
Although it is possible that in the face of aggression he starts to scream, it is possible that this will only bring him more mistreatment, causing him to reach the point where he evades reality. He dissociates and, in this way, enduring the harm coming from those who should protect him from any threat, the child manages to survive, given that, although harmful, he receives the attention of his parents.
Characteristics of children with this attachment type
There are several characteristics of children who have developed disorganized attachment. They manifest several problems at the emotional level, and it is also possible to see some psychomotor and cognitive deficits.
1. Erratic behaviors with caregivers
Children who are constantly abused by their parents are in a constant dilemma.. On the one hand, they need to receive care and attention from their parents, but on the other hand they tend to want to get away from them.
This causes the child to behave in seemingly contradictory ways. For example, they may cry inconsolably at one moment, looking for their parents, and then attack them.
2. Fear of caregivers
Children who have been abused by their own parents or close adults develop an obvious fear of them. Having lived through a situation of abuse of any kind may contribute to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)..
However, it should be noted that disorganized attachment is not always the result of an abusive relationship. Sometimes, living with parents with an unstable educational style in which the infant is overlooked is sufficient for this type of attachment to occur.
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 self-blame.
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 meeting more people who will hurt them or of making mistakes that will later be punished by their own parents. 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.
Especially when they are experiencing an episode of maltreatment, children with disorganized attachment end up dissociating, that is, they end up dissociating, i.e., they lose contact with reality..
This happens because they cannot run away from the situation, but neither can they change it, and as they depend on their parents, their mind carries out this dissociation as a defense mechanism.
They are constantly on alert to avoid as much as they can a possible aggression or aversive situation.
6. Cognitive problems
These little ones verbally express themselves poorly, in a disorganized and redundant way when speaking. when speaking. In addition, they present attention, memory and concentration deficits and, related to post-traumatic stress, there are interferences in their mind in the form of flashbacks of the abuse episodes.
7. Low self-esteem
Usually, this type of children associate the abuse with the idea that they are bad and deserve it, that they are really being punished by their parents.They feel that their parents are really punishing them for having done things wrong and that they have not learned their lesson.
Their feeling of guilt is very strong, and related to the fear of exploring, they do not dare to try new experiences for fear of making a mistake and suffer as a consequence another situation of abuse.
Consequences on reaching adulthood
Upon reaching adulthood, those who lived a disorganized attachment relationship with their caregivers manifest a series of characteristics that, in a certain way, reflect the type of bond they lived in their childhood.
They are adults who have serious difficulties in identifying the emotions and thoughts of others.. But they are not only 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 capacity and difficulties in understanding certain abstract ideas.
As victims of abuse, they have a deep-rooted belief that they were bad people and continue to be so, that they deserved these acts of physical and verbal abuse and tend to self-harm. Moreover, since 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 in this way towards the one they are supposed to love, anticipating that they will be assaulted sooner or later. This makes it difficult for them to establish solid intimate relationships.
When this type of situation is experienced, it is common to see how the child is not respected by his or her caregivers, indicating that his or her opinion or wishes should not be listened to. This manifests itself in adult life in the form that the person is not able to feel respect for others, nor understand their limits, obligations or rights as members of a society, making him or her a 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 attachment addicted to drugs, since they were looking for a way to cope with the constant bad memories of their childhood.
What is the treatment like?
The therapy aimed at treating those people whose childhood was marked by disorganized attachment focuses, fundamentally, on making them see that will not necessarily be harmed in intimate relationships.. Treatment focuses on making the person more confident in interacting with others, whether friends, partners and family members, both involved and not involved in the abuse.
This increase in trust towards others allows to recover part of the lost time and to face the great fear that has been acquired during the whole development. It is the perfect opportunity to develop those activities that she could not practice when she was a victim of abuse and that the fear of being punished for doing wrong prevented her from doing them.
People with disorganized attachment need a safety zone, and the psychologist's office is one such place. If the patient assumes this, the therapy will develop appropriately.
Another aspect to work on in therapy is the negative labels they attribute to themselves.especially those such as that they are bad, that they were mistreated because they deserved it, that their parents were raising them that way because they did things wrong....
It is a widespread belief that those who were mistreated during childhood will end up becoming abusers in adulthood. Although this is not something that always happens, far from it, it is appropriate for therapy to encourage greater empathic capacity. In this way, in case the patient is about to make the same mistakes their parents/caregivers did, think about how they felt when they suffered the maltreatment and what consequences it would have on the person they are about to hurt.
- Gayá-Ballester, C., & Molero-Mañes, R., & Gil-Llario, M. (2014). Attachment disorganization and traumatic developmental disorder (TTD). International Journal of Developmental and Educational Psychology, 3 (1), 375-383.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)