Disorganized Adult Attachment


By Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.

As adults, they can choose who they attach to but they usually choose partners that confirm their beliefs about attachment. Usually, without even realizing it, they search for someone who will exhibit frightening, frightened, inconsistent responses when they seek connection.

The four child/adult attachment styles are:

  • Secure – autonomous;

  • Avoidant – dismissing;

  • Anxious – preoccupied;

  • Disorganized – unresolved.

What is disorganized attachment?

When a child has an ideal attachment, the parent or primary caretaker provides the child with a secure base from which the child can venture out and explore independently but always return to a safe place. When a parent or caregiver is abusive, the child may experience the physical and emotional abuse and scary behavior as being life-threatening. The child is stuck in an awful dilemma: her survival instincts tell her to flee to safety, but safety may be in the very person who is frightening her.  The attachment figure is thus the source of the child’s distress. In these conditions, children often disassociate from their selves. They may feel detached from what’s happening to them. What they’re experiencing may be blocked from their consciousness. A child in this conflicted state develops a disorganized attachment with their parental figures.

Disorganized attachment arises from fright without solutions. Parents can frighten their children in different, often unconscious, ways. It might be through abuse or neglect, but it could also be through unresolved trauma and loss in the parent’s own life that leaves him or her feeling afraid, which unintentionally scares the child.

How does disorganized attachment develop?

In Mary Main’s research, utilizing the Adult Attachment Interview she developed, she found that unresolved trauma and loss in a parent’s life is the best predictor of disorganized attachment between a parent and child. Parents who have experienced trauma in their early lives and have not resolved that trauma by feeling the full pain of their childhoods and making sense of it are likely to engage in disorienting behavior with their child. Research has shown that it is not necessarily how bad someone’s childhood was that impacts attachment between parent and child, but how much they’ve been able to make sense out of and feel the full pain of their past, creating a coherent narrative. The better able someone is to resolve trauma and conflict from their early lives, the better able they will be to form a secure attachment with their child.

Having experiences of abuse, neglect or unresolved trauma in one’s early life can have lasting residue that leaves a parent prone to being flooded by emotions in times of stress between them and their child. Studies have shown that 20-40 percent of the general population has a degree of disorganized attachment, while 80 percent of children who have been abused have a disorganized attachment to their parent. Disorganized 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 child. They may react to their kids with fear or other primal emotions within them that surface in moments of stress. At these moments, the parent may act out destructive behavior and not even be fully aware of how they are behaving.

What does disorganized attachment in adults look like?

Parents whose relationship with their child is a disorganized attachment may react by being frightened or frightening in moments of stress with their child. They may act in ways that do not make sense, demonstrating unpredictable, confusing or erratic behavior in these relationships.  In the Adult Attachment Interview, researchers found that individuals with a disorganized attachment often can’t make sense of their experiences. They have trouble forming a coherent narrative. If they suffered abuse, they may offer unusual explanations for their abuser’s behavior. When they’re asked to convey details of their relationship with their parents, their stories are fragmented, and they have difficulty expressing themselves clearly.

A person who grew up with a disorganized attachment often won’t learn healthy ways to self-soothe. They may have trouble socially or struggle in using others to co-regulate their emotions. It may be difficult for them to open up to others or to seek out help. They often have difficulty trusting people, as they were unable to trust those they relied on for safety growing up. They may struggle in their relationships or friendships or when parenting their own children.  Their social lives may further be affected, as people with secure attachments tend to get on better throughout their development. Children with secure attachment are often treated better be peers and even teachers in school. On the other hand those with disorganized attachment, because they struggle with poor social or emotional regulation skills, may find it difficult to form and sustain solid relationships. They often have difficulty managing stress and may even demonstrate hostile or aggressive behaviors. Because of their negative early life experiences, they may see the world as an unsafe place.

Disorganized attachment arises from fright without solutions. Parents can frighten their children in different, often unconscious, ways. It might be through abuse or neglect, but it could also be through unresolved trauma and loss in the parent’s own life that leaves him or her feeling afraid, which unintentionally scares the child.

How is disorganized attachment expressed in children?

Children are born with the instinct to seek care from adults; their survival depends on it. They are therefore highly motivated to form an adaptable strategy to get their needs met, even by a far from perfect or unsafe caretaker. A disorganized attachment results when there is no organized strategy that works for the child. Their parents’ behavior is unpredictable, so no organized strategy allows them to feel safe and get their needs met without fright and terror.

Attachment expert, psychologist and researcher Dr. Mary Ainsworth conducted the “Strange Situation” test, in which she noted how a young child reacts when a parent leaves the room and then comes back. What Ainsworth actively measured was reunion behavior on the second reunion. She found that a child with a secure attachment will get upset when the parent leaves, but when the parent returns, the child will come to the parent for soothing , easily calm down and continue to play on his or her own. A child with a disorganized attachment expresses odd or ambivalent behavior toward the parent, (i.e. first running up to them, then immediately pulling away, perhaps even running away from the parent, curling up in a ball or hitting the parent.)  The child’s first impulse may be to seek comfort from the parent, but as they get near the parent, they feel fear to be in their proximity, demonstrating their disorganized adaption.

How can someone heal from disorganized attachment?

The important message to take away is that there is such thing as “earned secure attachment.” People with disorganized attachment can heal by making sense of their story and forming a coherent narrative. Writing a coherent narrative helps people understand how their childhood experiences are still affecting them in their lives today. Through this process, they can find healthier ways to deal with unresolved trauma and loss by facing and feeling the full pain of their experiences. Hiding from their past or trying to bury their emotions doesn’t work, as painful feelings will be triggered in moments of stress. In PsychAlive’s online course with Drs. Dan Siegel and Lisa Firestone, they will walk individuals through the process of creating a coherent narrative to help them to build healthier, more secure attachments and strengthen their own personal sense of emotional resilience. Getting help to resolve early trauma can come in many forms. Most important is to form a healthy relationship that exists over time with a romantic partner, a friend or a therapist, which allows a person to develop trust and resolve his or her issues with attachment. This can help a person to break the cycle often perpetuated by the formation of a disorganized attachment.

Developing an “Earned Secure Attachment”

The good news is, it’s never too late to develop a secure attachment! Although your patterns of attachment were formed in infancy and can follow you throughout your life, it is possible to develop an “Earned Secure Attachment”at any age.

One essential way to do this is by making sense of your story. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, attachment research demonstrates that “the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.” The key to “making sense” of your life experiences is to write a coherent narrative, which helps you understand how your childhood experiences are still affecting you in your life today. In PsychAlive’s online course with Drs. Dan Siegel and Lisa Firestone, they will walk you through the process of creating a coherent narrative to help you to build healthier, more secure attachments and strengthen your own personal sense of emotional resilience.When you create a coherent narrative, you actually rewire your brain to cultivate more security within yourself and your relationships.

To learn more about how to write a coherent narrative and develop an earned secure attachment, join Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Daniel Siegel for the online course “Making Sense of Your Life: Understanding Your Past to Liberate Your Present and Empower Your Future.”

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