How Disorganized Attachment Can Lead to Dissociation

A father holding his newborn is distracted by his phoneAttachment may be understood as the relationship between child and caregiver (often a parent). This relationship is the most important in the child’s life, as the caregiver is the provider of all his or her needs. Not only is the child dependent on the caregiver for basic survival, but the child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development also take shape within this relationship.

Attachment and the Disorganized Response

In a secure relationship, the caregiver is able to recognize and respond to the child’s needs in a way that provides support. The caregiver’s behavior is predictable and stable. In a secure relationship, the child is more likely to develop healthy emotion-regulation abilities as well as a healthy view of the self and world. This is because when the child needs comfort and reassurance, they are available. Over time, the child develops a view of the world that when help is needed, it can be counted on. In addition, the child comes to see themself as worthy of love and support. In a safe and secure environment, the child is better able to take advantage of important opportunities for learning and development.

In contrast, children with unpredictable or abusive caregivers often experience inner conflict and may not form an organized response to fear or distress. When attachment researchers speak about an “organized response”, they are referring to the strategy the child uses when in need of care. For example, if the child’s caretaker is a source of both safety and danger (as in the case of a violent, neglectful, or abusive caregiver), the child may run to the caregiver when upset and then display ambivalence toward the caregiver, such as refusing to be picked up or displaying anger. This demonstrates a fundamentally conflicted situation for the child, as they need the caregiver for safety and at the same time needs to protect themself from the caregiver. In this way, the child can form a disorganized response to distress.

How Dissociative Symptoms Can Develop

Researchers have found that disorganized attachment is associated with dissociative symptoms. Children in a relationship with an unpredictable or sometimes traumatizing parental caregiver have a difficult time establishing a consistent view of the parent and of themselves. The parent is both needed and to be avoided. The child may not understand what makes them a “good” child or a “bad” child, as the caregiver’s behavior is often confusing and unpredictable.

In order to maintain a relationship with the caregiver—and attempt to make sense of themselves—some children simply forget or deny the abuse. Jennifer Freyd refers to this as betrayal blindness. Forgetting or denying trauma is a symptom of dissociation. It is an adaptive and defensive strategy that enables the child to function within the relationship, but it often leads to the development of a fragmented sense of self.

Disorganized Attachment Is Not Always the Result of an Abusive Caregiver

While disorganized attachment is often associated with abuse, sometimes loving caregivers who have experienced trauma themselves can behave in confusing ways toward the child. This happens because of the caregiver’s own inability to control their emotions. Traumatized parents can have a difficult time managing their emotions and providing a sense of security for the child even though they are not abusive or neglectful. Anger or fear can erupt unexpectedly and traumatize the child. A loving caregiver can be experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or dissociative identity disorder and unintentionally behave in frightening or confusing ways to their child.

If a caregiver is dealing with their own trauma, it is recommended they seek therapy. In therapy the caregiver can learn to cope with stress, develop emotion-management skills, and learn more about understanding their child’s needs. Often caregivers who were raised in abusive families are unaware of how to appropriately respond to a child’s emotional needs because they themselves did not have their own needs met when they were children.

There are a range of therapeutic treatments for adults suffering from PTSD that have shown to be helpful. These techniques help reduce symptoms of trauma such as anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. Psychotherapy can provide emotional support to caregivers so they can begin to grow and provide a safe and responsive environment for themselves as well as their children.

References:

  1. Bedard-Gilligan, M., & Zoellner, L. A. (2012). Dissociation and memory fragmentation in post-traumatic stress disorder: An evaluation of the dissociative encoding hypothesis. Memory, 20(3), 277-299. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3310188
  2. Firestone, L. (n.d.). Disorganized attachment: How disorganized attachments form & how they can be healed. Retrieved from https://www.psychalive.org/disorganized-attachment
  3. Freyd, J. J. (n.d.). What is betrayal trauma? What is betrayal trauma theory? Retrieved from: https://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/defineBT.html
  4. Gillath, O., Karantzas, G. C., & Fraley, R. C. (2016). Adult attachment: A concise introduction to theory and research. Academic Press.
  5. Paetzold, R. L., Rholes, W. S., & Andrus, J. L. (2017). A Bayesian analysis of the link between adult disorganized attachment and dissociative symptoms. Personality and Individual Differences, 107, 17-22. Retrieved from http://isiarticles.com/bundles/Article/pre/pdf/155055.pdf
  6. Psychological treatment of PTSD in adults. (2005). Post-traumatic stress disorder: The management of PTSD in adults and children in primary and secondary care. Leicester, UK: Gaskell.
  7. Waters, S. F., Virmani, E. A., Thompson, R. A., Meyer, S., Raikes, H. A., & Jochem, R. (2010). Emotion regulation and attachment: Unpacking two constructs and their association. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 32(1), 37-47. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2821505

© Copyright 2019 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Fabiana Franco, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 3 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Rachel D.

    Rachel D.

    March 5th, 2019 at 10:17 AM

    What can a loving parent do to help their children who were legally abducted?
    Although the court has ordered visitation ( I left domestic violence to save my life) my children’s father has not allowed me to see or visit them both in over a year. The school was concerned with my child’s stability and convinced my son’s father to allow a Thanksgiving visit. My 11 year old son told me he is being beaten by a sibling ( there are 9 persons in their household). That was the last time I ever heard from him. All the cell phones and I pods I give them are confiscated. I don’t have the funds lawyers require for retainer fees to go back to court. I tried to, on the basis that my sons’ father is not in compliance with court orders, but the judge snapped at me, telling me “ don’t ever come back to my court again without a lawyer!”
    Both of my children have academic and disciplinary problems in the past year. Is there anything that can be done to help my children?

  • Lynne N.

    Lynne N.

    March 5th, 2019 at 11:21 AM

    Although putting it this way, makes it more
    “imperfect – parent” or defensive parent friendly, such that it is more likely that they are attracted to and/or seek help, the following section, is still somewhat misleading and strikes me as dishonest. Dishonesty will not attract more parents:

    A father holding his newborn is distracted by his phoneAttachment may be understood as the relationship between child and caregiver (often a parent). This relationship is the most important in the child’s life, as the caregiver is the provider of all his or her needs. Not only is the child dependent on the caregiver for basic survival, but the child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development also take shape within this relationship.

    ATTACHMENT AND THE DISORGANIZED RESPONSE
    In a secure relationship, the caregiver is able to recognize and respond to the child’s needs in a way that provides support. The caregiver’s behavior is predictable and stable. In a secure relationship, the child is more likely to develop healthy emotion-regulation abilities as well as a healthy view of the self and world. This is because when the child needs comfort and reassurance, they are available. Over time, the child develops a view of the world that when help is needed, it can be counted on. In addition, the child comes to see themself as worthy of love and support. In a safe and secure environment, the child is better able to take advantage of important opportunities for learning and development.

    In contrast, children with unpredictable or abusive caregivers often experience inner conflict and may not form an organized response to fear or distress. When attachment researchers speak about an “organized response”, they are referring to the strategy the child uses when in need of care. For example, if the child’s caretaker is a source of both safety and danger (as in the case of a violent, neglectful, or abusive caregiver), the child may run to the caregiver when upset and then display ambivalence toward the caregiver, such as refusing to be picked up or displaying anger. This demonstrates a fundamentally conflicted situation for the child, as they need the caregiver for safety and at the same time needs to protect themself from the caregiver. In this way, the child can form a disorganized response to distress.”

    HOW DISSOCIATIVE SYMPTOMS CAN DEVELOP
    Researchers have found that disorganized attachment is associated with dissociative symptoms. Children in a relationship with an unpredictable or sometimes traumatizing parental caregiver have a difficult time establishing a consistent view of the parent and of themselves. The parent is both needed and to be avoided. The child may not understand what makes them a “good” child or a “bad” child, as the caregiver’s behavior is often confusing and unpredictable.

    In order to maintain a relationship with the caregiver—and attempt to make sense of themselves—some children simply forget or deny the abuse. Jennifer Freyd refers to this as betrayal blindness. Forgetting or denying trauma is a symptom of dissociation. It is an adaptive and defensive strategy that enables the child to function within the relationship, but it often leads to the development of a fragmented sense of self. A parent experience episodes or states of PTSD, is in effect abusive or neglectful. They are also potentially dangerous.
    Below is the section:
    “DISORGANIZED ATTACHMENT IS NOT ALWAYS THE RESULT OF AN ABUSIVE CAREGIVER
    While disorganized attachment is often associated with abuse, sometimes loving caregivers who have experienced trauma themselves can behave in confusing ways toward the child. This happens because of the caregiver’s own inability to control their emotions. Traumatized parents can have a difficult time managing their emotions and providing a sense of security for the child even though they are not abusive or neglectful. Anger or fear can erupt unexpectedly and traumatize the child. A loving caregiver can be experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or dissociative identity disorder and unintentionally behave in frightening or confusing ways to their chilldren.”

  • Lynne

    Lynne

    March 5th, 2019 at 11:29 AM

    I only meant to cite this section is this honest and misleading. I think that it does the opposite of what is desired in terms of response from clientele. A parent who is not there, is in effect abusive or neglectful. Someone experiencing episodes of restates of PTSD, can be dangerous to the child. They actually are dangerous to the child because they are teaching the child to adjust to abuse or neglect emotionally.
    Here is the section:

    ISORGANIZED ATTACHMENT IS NOT ALWAYS THE RESULT OF AN ABUSIVE CAREGIVER
    While disorganized attachment is often associated with abuse, sometimes loving caregivers who have experienced trauma themselves can behave in confusing ways toward the child. This happens because of the caregiver’s own inability to control their emotions. Traumatized parents can have a difficult time managing their emotions and providing a sense of security for the child even though they are not abusive or neglectful. Anger or fear can erupt unexpectedly and traumatize the child. A loving caregiver can be experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or dissociative identity disorder and unintentionally behave in frightening or confusing ways to their chilldren.”

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