A central feature of disorganized attachment styles is the experience of fear inside of early attachment relationships.
A central feature of disorganized attachment is the experience of fear inside of early attachment relationships.
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In the strange situation experiment, the gold-standard protocol developed to measure attachment in infants, infants are exposed to a stressful separation from their caregiver and their behavior is carefully observed and classified into four attachment categories: secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. These categories describe different relationship patterns that first emerge as adaptive survival strategies early in life. In the strange situation experiment, disorganized infants are marked by confusing and contradictory behaviors such as calling a caregiver while backing away, or freezing when a caregiver enters the room.
The word “disorganized” is used to describe this attachment style because indeed the caregiver behavior and infant response follows less of an organized pattern and is more erratic, unpredictable, and/or volatile than is observed in other attachment patterns. Because of this unpredictability in the relationship, disorganized infants tend to be stuck between avoiding and approaching their caregivers. Because their caregivers are often a source of both comfort/soothing and alarm/terror, the immature infant mind has trouble forming a coherent approach to relationships. In addition, if the infant has repeatedly experienced fright and alarm, she may have adapted to this by activating freeze responses---in infants and toddlers, this can look like “zoning out,” or extreme underarousal (flat eyes, uninterested). Since the infant cannot escape, this freeze response helps an infant to adapt to overwhelming situations by “escaping.”
Stress and trauma often create conditions for disorganized attachment. When a caregiver is herself experiencing extreme stress, unaddressed mental illness, and/or untreated addiction, this may translate to erratic caregiving where a caregiver may appear sedated or absent to a child, or on the other hand, scary and alarming. At the same time, this caregiver may be an infant’s source of love, nurture, and provision. This contradictory experience creates a bind for the infant, generating the attachment narrative “my source of safety is also my source of fear.” For the caregiver, the world is often a scary and painful place, and so this experience is passed down in the attachment relationship. The attachment relationship becomes less about meeting needs and finding soothing through connection and more about defending against the pain and overwhelm of the world.
When the disorganized infant grows up, erratic patterns of relating to others can be enduring. The disorganized adult may also experience shame as a trait (“I am bad”) rather than a passing state. The disorganized adult may also experience others as being inherently untrustworthy, and so relationships are marked by a lack of worthiness (“I don’t deserve connection”) and suspicion toward others (“This person isn’t sticking around.”). Because humans are wired for connection, this lack of stable and enduring connectedness can leave a person with disorganized patterns in a prolonged state of pain and loss. This long-term pain may lead to unhealthy pain management and dissociation (“checking out” from reality). Since humans cannot thrive outside of relationships, mental health can be significantly impacted by a disorganized pattern.
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Remember, disorganized attachment is an adaptive survival strategy. It made sense as a way to keep caregivers close early on, and we can honor our young body and brain’s efforts to keep us safe. Disorganized infants’ needs and emotions were often not part of the equation because a caregiver was dealing with tremendous overwhelm and adult issues. From a developmental perspective, the disorganized infant was left with no good choices for surviving (much less thriving). The disorganized infant needed a calm and stable experience of love and safety. Honoring the deep pain of this attachment experience is one way to move toward security. Read more here about the work of earning security across the lifespan—it’s never too late to modify and re-adapt to more healthy, happy, and whole attachment strategies!
Kelley holds a BA in English from Auburn University, an MA in Teaching from Lee University, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Covenant Seminary. She completed her PhD in Early Intervention and Special Education at the University of Oregon in 2019. Kelley is a researcher and licensed therapist working in the areas of trauma, adult attachment, special education, and human development. She is passionate about leveraging the power of relationships to promote developmental flourishing across the lifespan.
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