What Is Disorganized Attachment?How Can It Affect Me As An Adult?

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Currently, when most babies are born, the medical staff does their best to immediately take the child and place him or her on the chest of the mother. Skin to skin contact can be critical in the early weeks of a baby’s life. When my son was born, the umbilical cord was cut and the nurse brought him over before he was even completely clean. I was able to hold him for about an hour before they took him to get cleaned and evaluated further. The primary reason for this practice is to help begin creating a secure attachment which has long lasting developmental benefits. Rene Spitz studied babies who grew up in orphanages and received little human contact began to fall behind developmentally after the age of one.  John Bowlby was one of the main researchers for what is known as attachment theory. He found that primates attached to a primary caregiver for evolutionary purposes like survival. He theorized that this attachment is critical in human beings. Researcher Mary Ainsworth tested this theory using the Strange Situation Test where children were placed in a room to play for about 20 minutes. During that time, their caregiver would enter and leave the room along with a stranger. Ainsworth found there were four observable attachment styles. Through studying those attachment styles, children who displayed a secure attachment were emotionally healthier overall. Children with secure attachments can grow to become well-adjusted adults who are able to have healthy relationships. That is why early attachment formation is so critical even within the first few hours and weeks of a baby’s life. Attachment as a child lays a critical foundation for a person’s development.

Disorganized attachment occurs typically from abuse, trauma, or neglect in childhood. It can happen when a child loses their parent and primary attachment figure. It can also happen with parents are still around to raise their children. Parents who display erratic behaviors at extreme levels create an unstable and unsafe environment both physically and emotionally. Children who grow up in this environment might reflect back and say phrases like, “I never knew when the abuse was going to happen. I could do and say everything right but it didn’t matter. My dad would eventually explode on me.” The lack of consistency and the volatility of behavior on behalf of the parent leave a child confused and uncertain of how to get their needs met. A child is wired to seek comfort in a caregiver and if they do not receive that secure attachment from an adult, it can impact them well into their adult years.

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Children who grow up in these types of environments will often struggle in their adult relationships. In a home that fosters secure attachment, children learn to manage their emotions, deal with the varying intensity of emotions, and develop the ability to self-soothe. When children develop a disorganized attachment, they grow to become adults who struggle to manage their emotions and behaviors. They struggle to self-soothe and have difficulty trusting other people even if those people can help them. Struggling to regulate emotions, adults with a disorganized attachment might display erratic and even strange behaviors in relationships, grasping at ways to cope but not really knowing how to cope well. With all this knowledge, it is understandable why individuals with this attachment styles struggle to maintain healthy and strong relationships.

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Not all is lost if a person is raised in an unhealthy and unsafe environment and develops a disorganized attachment. It may take time and growth, but individuals with this attachment style can find healing from past trauma, abuse, and neglect and develop the coping strategies needed to maintain solid, healthy adult relationships.

Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology.  Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.