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Attachment 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

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