Attachment Series Part 5: Disorganized Attachment

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

Have you ever felt caught between a desire for closeness and anxiety about being hurt or rejected? You may need help with a disorganized attachment style if you constantly battle for intimacy and independence. 

Disorganized attachment is an insecure attachment style that occurs when a child experiences both fear and a desire for closeness to their caregiver. Psychologists characterize it by its conflicting behaviors and emotions in response to a caregiver's presence or absence. Unfortunately, it can carry into adulthood and negatively affect a person's relationships and happiness. 

History of Attachment Theory

John Bowlby first proposed attachment theory in the 1950s. It has since become a widely accepted psychological model explaining how early interactions between a child and their caregiver can shape their emotional development and future relationships. 

According to attachment theory, a secure attachment style develops when a child has consistent, responsive, and nurturing interactions with a caregiver. However, a child may develop an insecure attachment style when a caregiver is inconsistent or neglectful.

There are three insecure attachment styles: 

  • Anxious
  • Avoidant
  • Disorganized

Disorganized attachment is considered the most severe and challenging attachment style to treat.

What is a Disorganized Attachment?

Someone with disorganized attachment behaves like they have both anxious and avoidant attachment styles. They both fear and crave intimacy. 

A child with a disorganized attachment style may approach their caregiver with their arms raised but then freeze or collapse when the caregiver reaches to pick them up. They may also display a wide range of other behaviors, such as:

  • Hiding
  • Dazed wandering
  • Aggressive outbursts

Researchers believe the cause of disorganized attachment is related to the child's experience of trauma or abuse and a lack of consistent caregiving. When a caregiver is the source of both comfort and fear, a child's attachment system becomes disorganized and confused.

Disorganized Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

Disorganized fearful-avoidant attachment is a subtype of disorganized attachment. Psychologists characterize it as a fear of both attachment and rejection, leading to conflicting behaviors and emotions.

In childhood, disorganized fearful-avoidant attachment can develop when a child experiences an aversion to and a desire for proximity to their caregiver. The caregiver may be abusive, neglectful, or simply inconsistent in responding to the child's needs. As a result, the child develops a disorganized attachment style and may struggle with forming healthy relationships in the future.

How Does Disorganized Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Differ from Other Attachment Styles?

Disorganized fearful-avoidant attachment differs from other attachment styles in several ways. 

Individuals with a secure attachment style feel comfortable with intimacy and can form healthy, stable relationships. They have a favorable view of themselves and others and can regulate their emotions effectively.

On the other hand, individuals with an anxious attachment style are preoccupied with their relationships and may become clingy or demand to be with their partner. They may struggle with self-esteem and be prone to relationship jealousy or anxiety.

Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to avoid attachments and may struggle with emotional regulation. These individuals may view themselves as independent and self-sufficient but struggle with feelings of loneliness or isolation.

In contrast, individuals with disorganized fearful-avoidant attachment struggle with anxiety about both companionship and independence. This dynamic can lead to various conflicting behaviors and emotions, which makes forming stable, healthy relationships difficult.

How Does Disorganized Attachment Present Itself in Adults and Children?

Disorganized attachment can have long-lasting effects on a person's emotional and social functioning. Children with a disorganized attachment may struggle with emotional regulation, forming healthy relationships, and academic or social functioning.

Adults with disorganized attachments may experience self-esteem and trust difficulties. They may struggle with managing their emotions, tend to self-sabotage, and be at a higher risk of developing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

In addition, adults with disorganized attachments may have a history of unstable relationships, self-care struggles, and difficulty setting boundaries or recognizing when others are violating those boundaries.

How Does Disorganized Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Impact Relationships?

Disorganized fearful-avoidant attachment can impact relationships in several ways. Individuals with this attachment style may struggle with trust and be prone to jealousy or relationship anxiety. They may also stumble with emotional regulation, leading to conflicts or difficulties communicating effectively. 

In addition, individuals with a disorganized fearful-avoidant attachment may struggle with being open and honest. They may find it difficult to form healthy, stable relationships. Being caught between the fear of rejection and intimacy leads to conflicting behaviors and emotions that make it challenging to connect with others.

How Do You Treat Disorganized Attachment?

Treating disorganized attachment involves a comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying trauma and focuses on building a safe and secure relationship with a therapist or other supportive individual. 

Treatment may include various evidence-based therapies such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, attachment-based therapies, dialectical behavior therapy, and supportive networks.

Trauma-Focused Therapy

Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is a type of therapy effective in treating individuals with disorganized attachment. TF-CBT is a short-term therapy that reduces trauma's adverse emotional and behavioral effects by helping individuals process traumatic memories, develop coping skills, and build resilience.

Attachment-Based Therapy

Attachment-based therapies such as attachment-focused family therapy (AFFT) or emotionally focused therapy (EFT) are also effective treatments for disorganized attachment. These therapies focus on repairing and strengthening the attachment bond between an individual and their caregiver or partner.

Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy that can be particularly helpful for individuals with disorganized attachment who struggle with emotional dysregulation. DBT focuses on building skills to manage emotions, develop effective communication strategies, and increase self-awareness.

Supportive Network

In addition to therapy, building a secure attachment in adulthood involves creating a supportive network of relationships that provide consistent emotional attunement and stability. This network may include building a relationship with a partner, finding supportive friendships, or engaging in supportive group therapy.

Help with Inner Balance Counseling

Disorganized attachment is a complex and challenging attachment style that can have long-lasting effects on a person's emotional and social functioning. Understanding the causes and symptoms of disorganized attachment is an essential first step in developing effective treatments and interventions. 

Our team at Inner Balance Counseling can help you face the old habits and negative thoughts holding you back and develop a treatment plan unique to you. With appropriate support and care, individuals with disorganized attachments can learn to develop secure attachments and lead healthy, fulfilling lives. We also offer couples counseling so that you and your partner can communicate better and create healthy attachments together.

Take the first step, and request a consultation today. 

Learn more about attachment styles in the Attachment Series Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four

Share this post
Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

Sign up for our newsletter

Sign up with your email address to receive news and updates.

Inner Balance Counseling

1234 S Power Rd Suite 252
Mesa, AZ 85206

1414 W Broadway Rd Suite 122
Tempe, AZ 85282

Front office: Monday - Friday 9am-3pm
By appointment only.

© 2024 Inner Balance. All right reserved.

© Inner Balance. All right reserved.