Disorganized Attachment: Its Causes and Signs

The disorganized (also referred to as fearful-avoidant in children and disoriented, insecure-disorganized, or unresolved in adults) attachment type is probably the attachment pattern that is the most challenging of all. It is a combination of avoidant and anxious attachment styles.

Individuals who have been verbally, physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused during their infancy and toddler years most often have this attachment style. If the child witnesses their parent/caregiver harm the other parent or a sibling, the disorganized patterns may form too. In other words, if one or more of the baby’s parents or caregivers have made them feel unsafe and anxious, instead of taking good care of them and meeting their emotional needs, the child can become disorganizedly attached. Because the little one grows up in the atmosphere of being scared of the person they seek love from.

As an adult, such a person will have some major trust issues. They will also be very inconsistent in their behavior because on the one hand, they do feel the need to be loved by others; but on the other hand, they are very reluctant to engage in an intimate relationship. They have difficulty managing stress and regulating their emotions, too. It seems like they move from low to high and vice versa too quickly.

Individuals with this type of attachment tendencies may also have poor social skills, lack empathy for others, have mental disorders (for example, borderline personality disorder),suffer from depression, anxiety, and/or substance addiction. Sadly, this attachment style has not been enough researched since it is not encountered as often as the other three attachment patterns.

Disorganized attachment tendencies can be changed, but definitely not overnight. The process, most likely, will be long and challenging; it requires self-help and, in some cases, professional therapy.

In this article, we would like to answer the following questions about the disorganized type of attachment style:

  • How do these attachment patterns form in a person’s childhood?
  • How do infants develop unhealthy attachment tendencies?
  • What are some causes of fearful-avoidant attachment style in children?
  • In what way do fearful-avoidant kids react to their parents/guardians?
  • What is it like to be in a romantic relationship with a disorganizedly attached adult?
  • Is it possible to do something to change disorganized attachment patterns?
  • What are some steps that can be taken to overcome disorganized attachment issues?

So, how do disorganized attachment patterns form in someone’s childhood?

From the first day of a baby’s life, their bonding journey with their parents and/or other caretakers starts. In their early childhood, the little one depends on them entirely. And it is the primary caregivers’ task to meet the infant’s primary physiological needs like shelter, food, etc., and emotional needs like comfort, attention, love, and care.

If the parents or guardians manage to meet the baby’s needs consistently, then the child feels safe and knows that they always have someone who strives to meet their needs. So the little one learns they can trust and rely on others, and thus tends to develop a healthy, secure attachment style. If, on the contrary, the emotional interactions between the infant and their earliest caretakers are unresponsive, neglectful, and/or unavailable, and the baby’s needs for attention, affection, and support are not met, the child fails to build a secure bond with them. And unfortunately, an unhealthy attachment is not something that fades naturally over time.

The way children experience their first social bonds with their parents or guardians often determines how they behave in their close relationships as adults.

How do infants develop unhealthy attachment patterns?

All three types of unhealthy attachment tendencies - whether it be avoidant, anxious, or disorganized - develop as a result of neglectful parenting. Children of parents who ignore their cries for long periods of time, never respond to their requests at all or respond by yelling at the baby or mocking their fears are very likely to develop insecure attachment tendencies.

Because the infant does not know what to expect or if and when the caregiver (s) will meet their needs, they grow up constantly feeling unsafe and, as adults, tend to manifest their unhealthy attachment styles in their relationships, especially romantic ones. The parent’s contrasting behavior - emotionally available at times and cold/unresponsive at other times, can do no less harm to the child.

Such parenting patterns are often intergenerational (not to be confused with genetics) - parents and/or other caretakers respond to the babies taken care of by them in the same way their own parents or guardians responded to them when they were infants.

What are some causes of the fearful-avoidant type of attachment style in children?

These unhealthy attachment patterns are, most likely, a consequence of childhood trauma caused by emotional neglect. It may also result from various kinds of abuse - verbal, physical, and/or sexual.

Let’s imagine a seemingly “innocent” situation where a baby is left with a new nanny. Having to stay with an unfamiliar caretaker causes the infant distress. And a healthy parent who wants to create healthy attachment patterns in their child will soothe and comfort them. If, instead of providing emotional support to the child, their mom or dad yells at them or tries to intimidate them in an attempt to get them to stop crying, that will likely lead the child to develop a fearful-avoidant style.

What is it like to be in a romantic relationship with a disorganizedly attached adult?

Despite individual differences, all disorganizedly attached people tend to show certain behavioral tendencies. Being basically a mix of the anxious and the avoidant styles, the disorganized pattern implies a lack of coherence in the person’s social behavior.

Adults with a disorganized type of attachment style usually view people around them but also themselves in a very negative way. They also have an extreme fear of both getting too distant from and too close to their friends and romantic partners.

In other words, one of their biggest desires is to build deep connections and strong relationships because, unlike avoidantly attached people, disorganized types want to love and be loved. But out of fear of losing it all, they start meaningless and unnecessary drama once they start developing such connections, and oftentimes end up ruining them.

Is it possible to change disorganized attachment patterns?

Being a disorganizedly attached adult is like playing a game without understanding its rules. When it is your turn to play, you make your awkward move but you lose. And then you lose again, and again, and again. Not realizing why.

Luckily, it is possible to heal from disorganized attachment patterns. If you noticed these tendencies in yourself, your loved ones, or your children, it is never too late to start working on eliminating them. If this issue is not addressed promptly, it may have long-lasting negative consequences - such as losing a loved one you really want to have in your life.

What are the steps to take to overcome the disorganized type of attachment style?

One of the main issues disorganized people have is the fear that someone they trust may end up hurting and betraying them. That is why the key step to starting the healing process is to learn to trust people. And since change equals challenge, this process can be very challenging for disorganizedly attached individuals.

Here are some other crucial steps that can and should be taken by a person with a disorganized type of attachment style to overcome these patterns:

  • Writing down their thoughts and feelings and/or opening up to their loved ones about how they are feeling;
  • Start practicing being aware of their thoughts when they feel emotional;
  • Try meditation and/or physical exercise to relax their mind and relieve stress;
  • Remove themselves from any situation that triggers them emotionally if they feel like it is getting out of control.

Working with a trusted attachment therapist might also be a great solution to this issue. A specialist with a vast experience in this field will make it easy for you, your friend, or your romantic partner to open up about any thoughts and worries in a safe environment. A professional therapist also knows that privacy comes first, so they will never disclose confidential information that has been communicated to them.