26. Attachment Types: Disorganised Attachment
Updated: Jun 17
Two types of insecure attachment are resistant and avoidant. In these styles of attachment, it is relatively simple to estimate the attachment styles of the adults that the children become. Children who grow up with a resistant attachment style may find it difficult to become close to others, and be distraught when relationships end. Children who grow up with an avoidant attachment style tend to invest little emotion in both social and romantic relationships, and be unwilling to openly share thoughts and feelings with others.
But these are not the only types of attachment that we see in people. Another, more complicated style is disorganised attachment.
Though there are attachment styles that we can use to categorise the different responses of people to relationships, people don’t always fit neatly into one box or another. Humans are complex animals, and we don’t always behave in one way.
In the 1950’s, an experiment on attachment styles took place which involved placing babies in a room - individually - and exposing them to different situations, involving the presence of the mother, the presence of a stranger, the absence of the mother, the absence of the stranger, and the return of the mother.
So what is a disorganised attachment style? As the name suggests, researchers observed that their behaviour didn’t fit into one of the three types of organised attachment - secure, insecure resistant, and insecure avoidant. After investigating the participants’ backgrounds, researchers observed that there were high levels of what they deemed to be abuse in the home. It appeared that as a result, none of the dominant types of dysregulation in the babies’ nervous systems emerged.
Like every animal, humans seek safety and try to avoid threat. As babies are pretty much a blank slate when it comes to nervous system regulation, they need a caregiver who can provide that safety, and keep them away from threats. The caregiver should model a well-regulated nervous system from which the baby can follow their lead. Complications in nervous system regulation arise when the caregiver - the person the baby relies on to teach them the biological building blocks of dealing with threat - becomes a threat themselves. This situation leaves the babies’ nervous system feeling trapped between safety and danger, so it doesn’t know what to do. If the caregiver does not provide an opportunity to develop a healthy nervous system, and instead is perceived as threatening, the baby’s nervous system will want it to flee the threat to safety, but the pillar of safety is the source of the threat.
In this case, the baby becomes fragmented in their responses, exhibiting different aspects of the different attachment styles. This develops into disorganised attachment in later relationships, which can be agonising.
Difficulties of Disorganised Attachment
When a caregivers behaviour is unpredictable, the baby has no organised strategy to feel safe and get their needs met. When a person grows up with this type of attachment, they don’t learn healthy ways to self-soothe. They may find difficulties in socialising, in trusting people, in relationships and friendships, and in being a healthy parent for their own children. Disorganised attachment is a disadvantageous starting point in life, as children with this type of attachment may grow up to see the world as an unsafe place.
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