‘Disorganised Attachment’ is something that can develop in individuals who have experienced some sort of ‘troubled’ childhood. For the context of this post, ‘troubled’ is definable as being ‘a childhood whereby the two factors that all children should experience- safety and security– are two factors that fail to be present.’ In other words, children who experience troubled childhoods lack such feelings of safety and security in their early years, with them instead being made to feel the opposite– unsafe and insecure.
The name ‘disorganised attachment’ is, pardon the pun, attached to troubled childhoods because, as the name suggests, troubled childhoods lack the basic need for attachment between child and caregiver. As touched upon in the previous paragraph, all the basic needs that children should have met by their caregivers as a given, such as the need to feel safe and secure in their home, go unmet by their caregivers. It is for this reason why attachments are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to form between children and their caregivers within ‘troubled’ environments. It is also why such children tend to grow up predisposed to develop mental health problems such as Depression and Anxiety, for example, in the future, and is why children with disorganised attachments to their caregivers, become adults with disorganised attachments, not only to the people who cared for them when they were a child, but to any potential future friendships/relationships they may have, too. It is therefore evident that disorganised attachments can, and do, have lifelong negative consequences, especially if they’re not addressed, of which many cases are not.
One question that you might be pondering over, is why the above is true- why do so many cases go unaddressed? My understanding is as follows; many people will not even realise that they have/had a disorganised attachment, most notably due to them having never heard of the term before. Furthermore, even people who have heard of the term might not realise that it applies to them, as they might be in denial, feeing unwilling to ‘badmouth’ the people who gave them care, whether that care was good or not so good, and the people who, despite it all, they loved, when they were younger. Being in denial, however, can create further problems as, after all, denial is merely a defence mechanism, one which serves to ‘protect’ people from having to cope with distressing feelings such as anxiety/fear. The best thing that one can do is, not deny that they were mistreated, but rather, accept it. It’s important to note at this point, though, that ‘acceptance’ doesn’t mean that that one must hold a ‘grudge’ against their caregivers either, it simply means that one can take steps to move on from their past and instead, focus on their future (a future, not built on fear and insecurity like that which they felt as a child, but on hope and happiness, two feelings which will underpin their adulthood and, ultimately, the rest of their life.)
In terms of what disorganised attachment can look like ‘in practice’, one example can be seen in the following scenario:
A child, ‘Bianca’, is being left with a babysitter for the weekend whilst her parents go away on a two-day break. Bianca has never been away from her parents for more than a day before. As the weekend approaches and the prospect of being away from her parents looms closer and closer, Bianca finds herself becoming increasingly anxious and visibly upset. Her parents, however, do not comfort Bianca, even when she is tearful. Instead, they respond with anger and frustration at her anxiety, telling her to ‘grow up’, mocking her worries, and ultimately, being harshly critical and dismissive of her emotions.
The above scenario sees ‘Bianca’s’ caregivers having failed to provide Bianca with the love and support she needed to overcome her anxieties. Instead, they made her feel unable to turn to them in her times of need, causing a ‘barrier’ to be formed between them and thus preventing the formation of a healthy, organised attachment, and leading to the topic of todays post being formed, a disorganised attachment.
Whilst there is no one cause that creates disorganised attachments like the one used in the above example, there is certainly one factor that increases the likelihood of such adverse attachments being formed, this being as a result of intergenerational parenting patterns (i.e., parents who respond to their children in the same unhealthy ways that their own parents responded to them when they themselves were children, perhaps due to their own unresolved fears from their own childhood.) Such parenting patterns might be demonstrated in a parent who responds to their child and their needs through disciplining them with physical violence, for example, as opposed to responding to them in a calm and soothing manner, the latter being how all children should be responded to.
In the same way that there is no one singular cause of disorganised attachments, so too is there no one singular ‘symptom’ of disorganised attachments. Why? Because the reality is that people respond to their experiences with disorganised attachments in several diverse ways, from constantly craving the attention of their parents/caregivers, to avoiding their presence all together out of a fear of facing repercussions, whether that be emotional/psychological repercussions(e.g., by mocking them, yelling at them, ignoring their needs, intimidating them, etc.), or physical repercussions (e.g., hitting, pushing, sexual abuse, etc.) Such repercussions can be direct (aimed towards the child themselves), or indirect (aimed towards someone else, e.g., a parent or sibling.) Both direct and indirect abuse are traumatising, for even the latter (whereby the child themselves is not directly abused), still sees that child witnessing the abuse at the hands of their caregiver, therefore instilling in them the same level of fear- that their caregiver whom, ultimately, they rely on for their survival, is someone who cannot be trusted.
To prevent disorganised attachments from becoming ingrained into one’s life, and ultimately, to prevent the intergenerational cycle from continuing, parents/caregivers should consult a therapist who can help them work through their emotions, including addressing any lingering issues that they may still have from their own childhood. Doing this will help parents/caregivers to notice when their own emotions are getting in the way of how they respond to their child’s emotions. With this self-awareness of their emotions, parents/caregivers will be better equipped to avoid history repeating itself, by discovering how they can respond to their child’s needs in healthier ways, such as by comforting their child who is crying as opposed to shouting at them (the latter being an anger-based response that will instil fear in a child, the former being a, far healthier, love-based response.)
To conclude then, it is important that we are better educated in what it means to have disorganised attachments, why they form, and how we can go about ending the cycle. We all need to strive to ensure that more secure/organised attachments are formed, and fewer insecure/disorganised attachments are formed. Why is this so important? So that no more children are subjected to dysfunctional upbringings that can adversely impact upon the rest of their lives. My hope is that this post will have gone at least some way in achieving this.