The term disorganised attachment comes from Bowlby and Ainsworth’s work on attachment theory.
When we talk about attachment, we are referring to the affective bond, the quality of the emotional relationship that develops primarily out of a search for safety and well-being.
In some unfortunate situations, the primary caregiver is both a source of protection and danger. This disorientates the child and it is from this type of early relationship that disorganised attachment develops.
Disorganised attachment, an anonymous client says:
“I have always struggled in relationships. I tend to be attracted to people who aren’t good for me. When I was younger I got involved with partners to get away from my home life. My home was really chaotic. I was always picked people who were unpredictable and who treated me badly. I’d throw myself into a new relationship and then start to get anxious. I don’t think I can have relationships”.Anonymous client
Attachment expert, psychologist and researcher Dr. Mary Ainsworth developed the “Strange Situation” test. In this, she observed how a young child reacts when a parent leaves and re-enters a room. Ainsworth found that a child with a more secure style of attachment will get upset when the parent leaves. But when the parent returns, the child will come to the parent for soothing. The child will easily calm down and continue to play on their own.
However, a child with a disorganised attachment style tends to express unusual, odd or ambivalent behaviour toward the parent. The child may pull away, perhaps even run away from the parent, or be aggressive towards the parent. The child’s first impulse may be to seek comfort, but as they get near the parent, fear seems to take over.
Much of Bowlby’s work on disorganised attachment has not been published because his work is spread across different research sites.
In John Bowlby’s work, disorganisation results from threat conflict, safe haven ambiguity, and experiences which stimulate emotional systems without resolving them. Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, thought that these experiences interfere with the development of coordinated and integrated emotional and behavioural systems. They create attachment problems.
How does disorganised attachment develop?
Researchers found that unresolved trauma and loss in a parent’s own life is often the best predictor of disorganised attachment developing between a parent and child.
My relationship with my mother was always complicated. Emotionally she would be unpredictable, sometimes angry, sometimes disinterested in me. I would never know quite how to be with her. Right through our relationship, I was always hesitant around her. If I was pleased about something I had done I would always find it complicated to tell her about it. It never came naturally to me to tell her my good or bad news. It has only been now, in middle age, that I have come to see how this is linked to my relationship with her.
I wish I had worked this out earlier. I would have avoided certain relationships. I might not be on my own now.Anonymous client
Attachment problems are often handed on from one generation to another
Attachment theory suggests that parents who have experienced trauma in their early lives and have not resolved that trauma, or have not made sense of their early losses, are likely to engage in disorienting and confusing behaviour with their own children.
The question is not necessarily how difficult someone’s childhood was, but how much they’ve been able to come to terms with their own past. Often it is a question of; to what degree have you been able to make sense or process your past?
Disorganised attachment is often something that is visible, albeit in different ways, among members of the same family. So siblings may all end up developing a disorganised style of attachment to each other.
I found it hard to relate to my siblings, particularly around emotions. Any subject that had emotional meaning would create problems between us. The problems would create confusion, and from the confusion hostility and suspicion would quickly arise. It meant there was always a degree of unresolved tension between us, and instead of being able to relax around each other we would become tense and anxious.
I found I had to always second guess them. It has worn me out.anonymous client
When there is a Secure Base
A child develops a secure base when:
- it has a relationship with sensitive and responsive attachment figures
- it has caregivers it can turn to that provide appropriate safety when it is upset
By providing safe, reliable, and predictable care the child’s emotional states are soothed. Given this security, the child settles and relaxes, becomes emotionally stable, and internalises the experience of secure care. This means that the child can feel safe to explore without being destabilised by a sense of anxiety or emotional instability.
Children who develop a sense of a secure base and are securely attached are able to explore themselves and their relationships.
When there is no Secure Base – Mental Health issues
A lot of emotional and psychological problems that become understood as mental health problems are linked to a lack of a secure base. If we lack or have lost a sense of a secure base, then we are more likely to struggle to thrive. We lack the emotional confidence to make a success of our lives. We are more likely to develop the kinds of problems that are related to modern mental health issues.
The more someone is able to resolve the trauma and conflict from their early lives, the better able they will be to form a secure attachment with their own children.
Disorganised attachment can be passed from generation to generation, because parents who struggle with unresolved trauma themselves may have trouble tolerating a range of emotions in their own children.
These parents may react to their children with fear or other more primitive emotions which tend to come to the surface in moments of stress. At these moments, the parent may act destructively without being fully aware of how they are behaving or treating their children.
Parents whose relationship with their child is based on a disorganised attachment pattern may react by being frightened, or being frightening in moments of stress.
When I was small my father was really difficult. He used to go missing, disappear off for days. I could never relax around him. Sometimes he would be angry, violent even. At first, I would miss him when he went off. Then I came to dread him coming back. I think he had a bad effect on my sister. She has never been able to relax, never felt good enough about herself. She has always picked difficult partners.Anonymous client
What does disorganised attachment in adults look like?
A lot of the emotional signals that these adults experienced in their childhoods will become incorporated into their personalities.
It becomes hard for such children to grow up into adults who can control and regulate their emotions.
Disorgansied attachment is generally something that is linked to growing up in an unhealthy early environment. The child may have witnessed violence and may have experienced neglect.
- Their actions may not make sense, be unpredictable, confusing or erratic.
- Such adults struggle to make sense of their experiences.
- They may struggle to find ways to look after themselves
- They may have trouble trusting people
- Their personal relationships will probably suffer, they may become isolated or have small social groups.
- They may have difficulty managing stress
- Their early negative life experiences may encourage them to see the world as an unsafe place.
In such adults, the internal sense of how to relate to other people has become confused by their early experiences.
Psychotherapy with adults who have attachment disorder
It will most probably be difficult to develop trust in the therapeutic relationship, but this represents a significant part of the new opportunity.
- It may be possible to come to trust your therapist. This will take time, and it will probably be testing work.
What you are trying to do is to break your disorganised attachment style of relating, to develop trust in someone when you yourself grew up without anyone who could be trusted. This is no small task. But if you can do that then it may be possible to come to trust other people.
This is vital work. Essential if you are to go on to live a life in which your attachments are satisfying and lasting.
What could be better than becoming a parent who, having grown up in a family where attachments were disorganised and unpredictable, you go onto develop stable and well-attached children?
Learning how to make sense of your own life story, of seeing the way you were let down and treated in an erratic manner is a key part of development, recovery and healing.
Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting may be crucial to coming to terms with your life story, with helping you to make sense of your early narrative. This may be the beginning of breaking the cycle of disorganised attachments.
Out of this you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how your problems have developed, and of what you can do to change the way your life moves forwards. You may become more able to understand and process your own reactions without those reactions becoming destructive.
Each destructive reaction extends the pattern of disorganised attachment. Each time you manage to contain and reflect on and understand your emotional reaction you take a step towards greater emotional and psychological health.
- Out of these beginnings, psychotherapy and counselling may be the starting point to building greater insight into how you tend to experience relationships. This may be the beginning of becoming able to create better and more lasting attachments. And of helping your children to go onto develop better and more secure ways of relating.
Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.
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