Our readers may remember, we are doing a series on attachment styles. While no one fits neatly into one category or the other, we all have one that is dominant over the others. Attachment styles form in childhood and impact us for the rest of our lives. That does not mean you cannot change how you respond to the world, but it does mean that whatever attachment style you form when a child lingers as your fallback style all your life.

A Short Recap of Attachment Style

 John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst living in Britain who spent his life observing infants. He would separate young children from their mothers and observe how they responded.

Mary Ainsworth, a researcher who worked with Bowlby, took his research and expounded upon it by developing a laboratory experiment called the Strange Situation. In this new experiment, Ainsworth took 12-month old infants and studied them in several different scenarios where infants were separated from their mothers and then reunited.

Ainsworth was not focused much on the infant’s reaction to the mother leaving as much as how they behaved when mom returned. By noting how the children reacted to their mothers who were known to be abusive, neglecting or safe Ainsworth assigned their reactions a different attachment style. She designated the children, based on how they reacted to their mothers’ return; secure, avoidant and anxious.

The Work of Mary Main, Judith Solomon, and Erik Hesse

In 1986, another psychologist Mary Main working with Judith Solomon gave a new understanding to some behaviors of the children Mary Ainsworth had examined but could not resolve. It seemed that although some children who were known to have abusive or neglectful mothers would run to greet their mom, but then immediately pull away. Some would run from their mother, curl up in a ball, or hit mom as if to punish them for leaving.

The two researchers, working with another researcher Erik Hesse, realized that the odd behaviors they were observing signaled severe problems in the mother/child relationship.

They knew that children are hardwired to seek protection from their mothers. However, if a child is frightened of their moms, they were in a bit of a quandary. The very person who was supposed to help them when they are afraid is the source of their biggest fear. The children remained trying to answer the question if mom is frightening too, whom do they turn to when afraid.

The realized that these children were caught up in an evolutionary paradox. They need a mother for protection, but she is a source of danger. So, the children develop what the researchers called their attachment style disorganized.

Children Caught Up in the Turmoil of a Chaotic Home

 Children learn to regulate their emotions in their earliest relationships. What that means is that children learn how to cope with their emotions and to deal with changes in life from their parents. The primary source of this education comes from the parent to whom the child is cared for the most, usually the mother.

The skills we learn in early life on how to regulate our emotions and reactions to change become part of who we are and will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

If your caregiver is attentive, loving and responsive to your needs, you will form a secure attachment style. This style of attachment translates into well-adjusted, happy adulthood filled with fulfilling relationships.

However, what happens when your caregiver is ambivalent, and you are afraid of them? What if you have no one to turn to for comfort without fear?

Gaining the skill of emotional regulation proves hard to learn if you grew up in a household with an inconsistent and abusive mother (I am using the terms mother and mom, but a caregiver can be another adult as well. In that kind of household, where the child feels insecure and afraid, he/she feels overwhelmed and on high alert to protect themselves.

The only way a child can overcome the fear and uncertainty of a mother who gives signals of come here, go away and can be terrifying to them is to impart a disorganized attachment style.

Trauma and Disorganized Attachment Style

 One cannot understand disorganized attachment style without understanding first the leading cause for forming it, trauma. Carolyn Spring, the founder and Director of Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors (PODS) in the UK gives this definition of trauma, “Trauma is an event or series of events that are so overwhelming and threatening to life or sanity that a person cannot cope…. Feelings may be separated off from thoughts, or the cognitive understanding of what is happening may be cut off from the sensory experience.”

What she is describing is how a child copes with something beyond their ability to process. Trauma is best defined as how a person perceives a threat to their life or sanity. These traumatic experiences are not integrated into their emotional or physical world because children have no way of escaping an abusive adult.

So far, I have mentioned only child abuse as the cause of trauma. However, trauma to children can happen from a natural disaster or war. The children born and living in Syria are always under a threat of death that they cannot escape. Without unlikely intervention, these kids will grow up with disorganized attachment style

Disorganized Attachment Style

 Because children of an abusive childhood were treated inconsistently by their caregiver, they grow up to have a disorganized attachment style. However, what does that mean to adults who were raised in abusive homes? How do they experience life and relationships?

Because their childhood home was full of inconsistencies of treatment, and they were afraid and felt trapped, these kids grow up with some horrendous emotional problems.

Adults with a disorganized attachment style view the world as a dangerous and scary place. They feel lost because they did not learn how to form strategies to handle powerful emotions or emotionally overwhelming events. They may seek out a relationship but once involved with someone else withdraw fearfully from their partner. They feel numbed out when a traumatic event does occur and are prone to dissociation (a defense mechanism where a person leaves the situation mentally.)

These adults crave emotional intimacy but do not feel safe when they get it and often will leave the relationship before their partner leaves them. Disorganized adults can behave in antisocial ways sometimes lacking empathy or remorse. They can be selfish, controlling, refuse taking responsibility for their actions and often disregard the rules of society.

These adults do not have an organized approach to their relationships. They are afraid of genuine closeness, seeing themselves of unworthy of love and support. Adults with disorganized attachment styles are at high risk for alcohol and drug abuse as they attempt to self-medicate their feelings of rejection and fear.

As parents, disorganized adults may overreact to stresses their children may either cause or have in their lives. They may become frightened or frightening in their erratic and unpredictable reactions. These folks often have problems making sense of their experiences. The memories of their childhood and subsequent adult life may be incoherent and disorganized. This inability to form a logical flow to their lives means their knowledge of who they are and where they came from are fragmented.

Disorganized adults may also find it difficult to tell things to their partners about their thoughts and feelings preferring instead to hide them out of fear.

Stressful events can bring out the worst in adults with disorganized attachment styles. They may become overtly hostile or even aggressive instead of using other skills to handle the situation.

Disorganized Attachment, PTSD and CPTSD

The foundation of many mental health disorders is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). So, it is essential to understand these two disorders first before we move on to other mental health issues.

Post-traumatic stress disorder was called shell shock before the Viet Nam War. Once veterans began returning home from that conflict, the disorder could not be ignored any longer. Psychiatrists and the public were forced to admit that the manifestations of symptoms the soldiers were exhibiting upon their return were real and needed treatment.

Here is the good definition of PTSD I found on Wikipedia with the following entry, “PTSD is a mental disorder that can develop after a person receives exposure to a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic accidents, or other threats on a person’s life.”

Usually, people with PTSD are adults when they form this debilitating condition, and the symptoms can be quite severe. They include:

  • Disturbing thoughts, feelings or dreams
  • Mental or physical distress when triggered
  • Attempts to avoid triggers
  • Alterations in the thought processes of the person
  • A dramatic increase in the fight/flight/freeze response
  • Suicidal ideations or attempts
  • Intentional Self-Harm

The above may last for months or even years and without treatment may never be resolved.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder while like PTSD has its differences. Mental Health Advocate Sam Dylan Finch gives a beautiful explanation of C-PTSD. He describes it as follows.

“Complex PTSD is a condition that results from ongoing, chronic trauma, usually involving harm or abandonment within interpersonal relationships, particularly where there is an imbalance of power.”

What Mr. Finch is eluding to is that children develop C-PTSD in response to prolonged, repeated and devastating maltreatment where they feel there is no chance of escape. Children who are victims of sexual, mental, physical abuse and neglect make up part of the population of people diagnosed with this disorder. The remaining are child victims of kidnapping, indentured servitude, slavery, human trafficking, sweatshops, being prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, war, cults or any other horrendous situation that makes them feel chronically afraid alone, and unable to escape.

C-PTSD also has another name, Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS). C-PTSD has the following symptoms:

  • Worthlessness
  • Helplessness
  • The deformation of the person’s identity
  • Lack of a cohesive sense of self
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Forgetting the trauma and reliving it through flashbacks
  • Dissociation
  • Struggles with interpersonal relationships
  • Intentional self-injury
  • Lack of trust of others
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

Although no two survivors react the same way and may not exhibit all the listed symptoms, they will most definitely have problems understanding themselves and others. Many people who have C-PTSD also feel shame, guilt, paranoia and sometimes psychosis.

Mental Health Conditions and Disorganized Attachment

Unfortunately, the damage done to abused people forms a disorganized attachment style does not just have problems with their relationships. Researchers have busy since the 1970s defining several mental health conditions, and they find a high correlation between these disorders and disorganized attachment.

So, now let’s explore a few of the most well-known of these mental health issues and how they link to disorganized attachment styles, dissociative disorders, and borderline personality disorder.

Dissociative Disorders

 There are three main types of dissociative disorders, dissociative amnesia, depersonalization/derealization disorder, and dissociative identity disorder. Dissociative disorders are a range of disorders formed in childhood due to severe adverse childhood experiences. They have been found close correlations to the disorganized attachment.

I am going to outline them here briefly. Perhaps in future articles, we can cover them all in-depth.

Dissociative amnesia is a condition where the person has difficulty remembering important events and information about one’s self. The amnesiac event might surround one event like an abuse episode, or information about one’s life history.

Depersonalization/derealization disorder involves feeling detached from one’s emotions, feelings, actions, thoughts or sensations. People who have this disorder often report that they experience their lives as though they were in a movie or from a vantage point outside themselves. They may feel they or others around them are unreal.

Perhaps the most well-known of the dissociative disorders is dissociative identity disorder (DID), which was once called multiple personality disorder. People living with this condition have altered ego states that can take over and live separate lives form the core ego state. These alters may have unique names, characteristics, mannerisms and voices. They may dress differently from one another and have friends and romantic partners outside the knowledge of the core self.

Despite what is portrayed in movies and on television, people living with DID are not likely to change into an alter where someone else who does not know them well will notice. Instead, switching from one alter ego to another is done covertly to handle an environmental trigger.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)is a condition where the person exhibits a personality pattern with feelings and behaviors that makes sense to them but not to others. People with BPD can show a wide range of symptoms including but not limited to:

  • Having an unstable or dysfunctional self-image or a distorted sense of self
  • Feelings of isolation, boredom, and emptiness
  • Difficulty feeling empathy for others
  • Unstable relationships that change drastically from intense love and idealization to intense hate
  • A persistent fear of abandonment and rejection
  • Intense, highly changeable moods that can last for several days or just a few hours
  • Strong feelings of anxiety, worry, and depression
  • Impulsive, risky, self-destructive and dangerous behaviors
  • Hostility
  • Unstable career plans, goals and aspirations
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Remember, a person with a disorder may or may not exhibit all the symptoms on these lists. However, I think you will agree, having any of these symptoms would be life-altering.

Summing It All Up

 A disorganized attachment style formed in early childhood because of living in a situation where the child feels endangered and trapped. These children then grow up feeling confused about themselves and their relationship to the world.

Many mental health disorders form as a direct result of the disorganized patterns of thought and sense of self. The few I listed are only a part of the spectrum of disorders that having disorganized parenting can cause in a helpless child, that carries over into adulthood. There is a link between complex post-traumatic stress disorder to these mental health conditions.

The best way to stop the madness of children experiencing mistreatment in their lives and the subsequent development of a disorganized attachment style is to do more to end child abuse. Awareness is part of the solution, but there needs to be stronger and more stringent laws to govern the treatment of a child by their parents.

Screening every child early in their life for adverse childhood experiences must be done to assess the dangers they may face from the hands of those they count on the most.

Until we stamp out childhood maltreatment, the cycle of disorganized children becoming disorganized adults and passing on these traits to their kids will continue.

Next week’s article will be a summary of all we have learned about attachment styles including the latest research. We hope you are enjoying this series.