Disorganised Attachment Style

What is Disorganised Attachment Style?

In Attachment Theory the disorganised attachment style represents the development of most severe behavioural problems due to grossly inappropriate care. Emotions are seriously underdeveloped. Dissociative disorders are highly associated with this attachment style. Superficial charm, lying, manipulation and cold consideration for the emotions or feelings of others is often commonplace. The cold appreciation for others’ internal life is because of extremely underdeveloped emotions, so because those with disorganised attachment have an abysmal ability to recognise their own emotions, their ability to recognise and appreciate emotions others are experiencing is equally as impoverished. In reality this leads to malicious and uncaring acts committed in the pursuit of selfish goals. Nevertheless as the disorganised attachment style is so heavily associated with extreme neglect and abuse from parental figures, their perceptions of the word can be wildly out of sync with reality while their behaviour can be motivated by the most intense of base emotions. As emotions reach the upper limit of their intensity, they gradually take more instinctive control over behaviour, so we have less control and become more reactive. What this means for the deeply abused or neglected disorganised person is that they find themselves overcome with seriously inappropriate crude emotions which are so intense they instinctively act them out. As many of their experiences and emotions can be difficult to integrate into a conscious representation of self, startling subconscious perceptions create strong emotions which are the base of compulsively reactive behaviours.

How is Disorganised Attachment Style Formed?

In a nutshell disorganised attachment is formed by different types of inappropriate parental behaviour. First it must be understood that babies and toddlers have an inborn need to form a primary attachment to their mothers. A primary caregiver is the principal resource for the baby/toddler for interpreting the abundance of what must be “to them” wildly strange and intense experiences – both of which are being experienced for the first time in many cases. Mother’s facial expressions, with the aid of tone of voice, are behavioural responses to specific situations that are instinctively understood non-verbal communications her child uses as behavioural cues. Consistent facial expressions associated with specific events over the course of the first-3-years-of-life are what form modelled behaviour with appropriate emotions. As facial expressions are emotional expressions, this constant interaction becomes the foundation of the child’s emotional literacy. Mother’s knowledge of successful responses to situations is instilled into her child through this method. In the first-year-and-a-half-of-life, the right brain, which will regulate emotional expressions throughout the lifespan, is in a growth spurt. The colossal amounts of face-to-face time normally experienced between mother and child in this period is literally sculpting the neural pathways of the right brain to form updated models of emotional expressions. To say that mother’s expressions form the basis of her child’s understanding of the world is by no means an exaggeration. The persistent perceptions of mother’s facial expressions form a type of scaffolding for her child to build its reactions to the very same experiences. In this way children have their innate emotions, which are tens of millions of years old in many cases, primed through the attachment phases with perceptual updates which modulate them to be successful behavioural expressions in the current environment. The old is adapted to the new. A marvellous piece of evolutionary engineering which allows classically understood emotions to be relevant to the present epoch.
As this is the natural way a healthy and apt mentality is formed anything that interrupts this process is clearly a cause for concern. “Not being comforted when distressed” forms the base of insecure attachments, yet there’re further nuanced ways primary caregivers act which have come to light as being highly associated with serious developmental behaviour problems for their children. These parental behaviours represent not only a lack of appropriate responses for the child to model but also the learning of seriously inappropriate responses which develop into such things as conduct disorders and other seemingly incoherent personality traits that become the source of a conflicted life. In the period where children would naturally be using consistent facial expressions to build their understanding of the world they instead are left with a disorganised, patchy interpretation of events while often being motivated by intense, base, emotions that are the remnant of maltreatment.
As can be seen below, the tread that links all these parental traits together is disorganisation. A child’s attempt to build narratives to understand the world is neglected, interrupted, thwarted, dismissed and even ridiculed. Over time this leads to an underdeveloped appreciation of scenarios with a disorganised set of responses which can be massively inappropriate, yet as there’s no consistent parental response to model, the child can be oblivious to the concept of appropriateness.
Underdeveloped emotional literacy, a lack of experiencing cooperation and being motivated by intense crude emotions can create a self-orientated lack of empathy which is narcissistic in fashion.
In the 30-year findings of the Minnesota longitudinal study no correlation between inborn traits and disorganised attachment was found.

What Evidenced Behaviours Do Parents of those with Disorganised Attached Exhibit?

At the core of a disorganised attachment style is frightening and confusing behaviour. It must be noted that a frightened child in a high stress state cannot learn effectively, so children who are often frightened for extended periods of time gradually develop a patchy and disorganised appreciation of reality – which is itself a form of confusion. If the source of a threat is the mother, primary caregiver, this detrimental dynamic is maximised.

1) Caregiver becomes the source of threat. As previously stated, a child is instinctively motivated to seek mother’s comfort when fearful. There’re several evolutionary mechanisms which support this routine that aim to keep the child in a protected state, away from dangers it could not extricate itself from, and with low stress levels so that learning is not impeded. If, however, mothers become the source of threat to their babies/toddlers, the so called “irresolvable paradox” is created. A child cannot flee from the source of a threat while fleeing to its mother at the same time, for mother is the source of the threat. This initiates a breakdown in the instinctive attachment relationship behaviours as the child cannot fulfil the seeking of contact comfort from mother at these times. Thus a collapse of organised functioning at an instinctive level appears in the psyche of such children. Seemingly contradictory behaviours establish themselves as the breakdown in the attachment relationship continues. Mother gradually becomes seen as a fearful person who needs to be avoided and so attachment behaviours that would seek her explanation are phased out. Such experiences are shown to be highly correlated with psychological dissociative disorders in the late teen years.
2) The cooperation-interference scale. Cooperative interactions are correlated with the development of secure attachment styles whereas interfering and dismissive treatment with more disorganised attachment features. Parents who have the tendency to treat their children’s narrative building process by intrusive dismissal or by superimposing their own unconnected meaning into a child’s attempt to explain a scenario (which often is the aim of play narratives) are putting things they think into a child’s mind rather than helping the child explain something they’re attempting to understand. Thus at a deep level the child’s focus gets dismissed, along with the meaning associated with it, and gets replaced by the parents agenda. The intervention is not constructive for it does not focus on the child’s narrative explanation and attempt to adjust it bit-by-bit to be more accurate and coherent. The interference refers to how a parent will sometimes completely dismiss their child’s play theme, not understanding it’s a meaning building process, and suggest a new play scenario the parent prefers. The cooperation-interference scale proved to be significantly related to attention problems in the teen years, such as ADHD, and disorganised attachment.
3) Maltreatment, neglect and abuse. Although these three different forms of treatment can create very different uncontrollably intense emotions and dysfunctional behaviours through association, the common thread between these forms of treatment, as being strongly correlated to disorganised attachment, is frightening experiences. Bad treatment often leads a baby/toddler to feel deeply insecure and left wondering why they received such treatment in this instance and not the last. Neglect often leads to fearful states being experienced for long durations too. Not because of directly frightening behaviour of the parent, but due to being left alone in a deeply strange and chaotic world without any ability to defend oneself. Thus learning is impeded while in neglected, stressed states. Abuse is itself a directly frightening experience which can indeed be terrifying for babies/toddlers. Just as abuse is strongly correlated with dissociation in the late teen years (High scores on the Dissociative Experience Scale), both are highly associated with disorganised attachment – as stated here “we found that an early care factor (intrusiveness, low caregiving skill, and abuse) was strongly related to disorganised attachment, and that the link between early negative care and later pathology was mediated through disorganisation (Carlson, 1998).”
4) Boundary violations/Boundary dissolution. One of the strongest correlations found in the 30-year findings (one standard deviation) was of parental “boundary maintenance” and secure attachment. Proving that establishing personal boundaries mixed with close, intimate, bodily contact is key to forming healthy mentalities. Unfortunately the reverse of these findings also holds true as the following statement concludes.
“One other early childhood measure also predicted failure to maintain gender boundaries at camp, namely, parent-child boundary violation at 42 months. Thus, there may be a connection between having self-boundaries violated and later issues with maintaining boundaries with others, including gender boundaries. Anecdotally, children who “crowded” others (e.g., standing or walking too close, touching too often or too much) often had anxious attachment histories, including disorganised attachment, as well as parents who violated parent-child boundaries.”

Considering the above points, it’s clear to see that face-to-face interaction, or the lack of it, is the central mechanism involved in creating both healthy and unhealthy emotionally-based conditions. As Harry Harlow and Edward Tronick have unequivocally proved, not providing face-to-face interaction is devastating to the development of mental health. Although as the 30-year findings of the Minnesota study irrefutably demonstrate, inappropriate face-to-face interactions can also decimate healthy psychological development into a disorganised mash of intensely reactive behaviours. Highlighted amongst the confusing array of inappropriate face-to-face interactions are those behaviours which push the child over-the-top or beyond its ability to control the intensity of the interaction. As stated here in the Minnesota study:
“…when children typically are mastering some degree of self-modulation, if too much is required from the child at certain precise times, this can distort development. In particular, if time and time again caregivers further stimulate the child just as the child is at the edge of his tolerance, such that he is pushed over the edge into over-arousal and disorganisation, both arousal regulation and cognitive supports will be compromised. Inhibitory excitatory brain systems will not be tuned, and the child will have the expectation that, when highly aroused, he will surely lose control. We developed our parent-child boundary dissolution measure at age 42 months with precisely these considerations in mind. For high scores on this scale, the parent teases, taunts, giggles with, or otherwise provokes the child precisely at the point when tension is elevated and the child is beginning to lose control. This could be viewed as promoting the development of ADHD-type problems, and it was the basis for our strongest hypothesis, formulated before any of our children entered school (Jacobvitz & Sroufe, 1987).”
The principal of “intensity outweighs probability” plays a central role in a disorganised mind it seems. When the usual role of mother soothing and calming her child into a relaxed stress-free state is reversed into further arousal at intense moments, the loss of control which ensues becomes represented in a fragmented understandings of those situations associated with emotions which are frighteningly difficult to integrate and so intense they can create compulsive reactions.

What Evidenced Detrimental Outcomes Do those with Disorganised Attachment Experience?

Here are a couple of statements, from the 30-year findings, which sum up many conclusions regarding this most disturbed attachment style,
“…Following Bowlby, we view the actual experiences of the child as central in the aetiology of disturbance. In our study, caregiver psychological unavailability, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and serious distortions in the infant-caregiver relationship (disorganised attachment) were strong predictors of later psychopathology. Without such experience, psychopathology was not nearly as common. Of course, all children experience the entire gamut of emotions with some frequency. But it is not normal to have strong and pervasive feelings of hatred or suspiciousness toward one’s parents. As Bowbly (1988) suggested, when children do feel pervasively angry or guilty, or are chronically frightened about being abandoned, they have come by such feelings honestly, that is, because of experience.”
“Likewise, intrusive care, chronic rejection and rebuff, hostility and boundary violations, physical and sexual abuse, all documented at the time of occurrence, were predictive of a host of problems, including serious disturbance. More specifically, we were able to document that early distortions in the caregiver-infant relationship (disorganised attachment), accompanied by documented maltreatment of the child, were strongly predictive of dissociative problems at 19-years-of-age. Thus, in accord with Bowlby’s theorising, a profound inability to remain conscious of one’s salient experience and to integrate diverse aspects of experience seems to be a legacy of early malevolent experience.”
The Minnesota study found “many cases” where mistreated children, as teens and adults, had no memories of the acts of abuse which had been documented at the time. Absence of recognition of known past maltreatment was sometimes a lack of memories of those events and other times simply not seeing the bad behaviour of parents as abuse. Indeed cruel behaviours, such as being shut out of the house, barefoot, on a cold winter’s night, were distorted into descriptions of caring acts of discipline, “It showed how much they wanted me to be a better person.”
Instances where abuse had been completely shut out of conscious recognition were, however, sometimes accompanied by fantasies and fears of being pursued by dangerous people or animals.
The study states,
“Preschoolers whose play is absent of people more often have experienced chronic emotional unavailability (Rosenberg, 1984). Those whose play is filled with unresolved conflict more often have histories in which anxiety about relationships has been prevalent. Time and again, the content of children’s minds, as well as their expectations and interpretations of others, reflect their lived history.”

What Statistics & Findings Also Underpin the Disorganised Attachment Style?

NON-MALTREATED = 30% had two or more psychiatric conditions in their late teen years
NEGLECT = 54% had two or more psychiatric conditions in their late teen years
PHYSICAL ABUSE = 60% had two or more psychiatric conditions in their late teen years
SEXUAL ABUSE = 73% had two or more psychiatric conditions in their late teen years
PSYCHOLOGICAL UNAVAILABILITY = 73% had two or more psychiatric conditions in their late teen years
“For example, conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder (grouped together because of their close relation) are more than tripled in children with a history of physical abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is doubled when there is a history of psychological unavailability or sexual abuse.”

In the summation of the 30-year Minnesota findings researchers gave this statement: “..We are not advocating a broadening of the attachment disorders categories. To the contrary, we do not think avoidant or disorganised attachment should be thought of as disorders. Rather, as we have argued in earlier chapters, patterns of anxious attachment should be thought of as initiating pathways, which over time can terminate in a variety of forms represented in the DSM”. Thus the authority of the greatest evidence-based longitudinal research that exists into parent-child interactions states that the developmental behaviour problems formed in all anxious attachment styles (resistant, avoidant, and disorganised) create many of the clusters of behaviours and personality traits found in adult, clinical, mental health diagnoses.


1. Dr A Schore’s presentations of research in developmental neuroscience at various conferences.

2. Development of the Person: The 30-year findings of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study into Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood.