When babies are born, they’re completely dependent on their caretakers for survival.
It’s this dependence that hardwires humans to seek connection and develop attachment to the people who will help them survive: their parents or primary caregivers.
As a baby grows and develops, how their caretakers respond to and meet — or don’t meet — their needs will inform whether they develop a healthy, organized attachment or an unhealthy, disorganized attachment.
When a baby or child has developed an organized attachment to their caregiver, their caregiver provides a safe, secure base for them.
The child knows they have somewhere and someone safe to return to, someone who will always strive to meet their needs. This allows them to feel confident venturing out independently and taking chances as they explore the world.
When a baby or child has developed a disorganized attachment, their caregiver hasn’t created a safe, secure base for them to confidently return to.
Instead, they may have created a relationship with the child in which the child loves and cares for them, but also fears them.
This leaves the child consistently unsure of how the caregiver will respond to their needs. A child’s instincts are thus conflicted. They’re hardwired to seek support and security from their caregiver, but they’re also scared of them.
Disorganized attachment develops from a parent’s consistent failure to respond appropriately to their child’s distress, or by a parent’s inconsistent response to their child’s feelings of fear or distress.
For example, a child might be distressed to be left with a new babysitter or unfamiliar caregiver. Instead of soothing the child or providing support, the parent might yell at the child or attempt to use fear or intimidation in an effort to get them to stop crying.
Alternatively, the parent might speak reassuringly, but avoid physical contact or true connection.
In another example, the child might be afraid of being left alone in bed at night. They might cry out for the parent. While the parent might sometimes respond with kindness and support, they might at other times:
- ignore their cries for long periods
- never respond
- respond by yelling or mocking the child’s fears
Disorganized attachment is often the result of intergenerational parenting patterns. This means parents are responding to their children in the same unhealthy ways their own parents responded to them when they were children.
Parents might recognize disorganized attachment in their baby or child if they seem constantly on edge.
They may consistently crave the attention of their parents or caregivers but then frightfully respond to that attention. Parents might also note their child responds to their presence with tears, avoidance, or another fearful response.
Attachment experts have conducted a number of experiments to learn more about attachment in babies and children.
In one older experiment, researchers asked parents to briefly leave the room while their babies played.
Babies with an organized attachment to their parent cried or became upset when they left, but then calmed quickly when their parent returned and began to soothe them.
Babies with a disorganized attachment also often cried when their parent left the room. However, upon their return, they either continued to cry or ran toward and then away from them, or had trouble calming down no matter the parent’s response.
These babies with disorganized attachment were distressed when their parents left, but they remained distressed when they returned. They both craved and feared their parents.
Parents who foster a disorganized attachment in their children often respond to their distress without the calm, soothing temperament that would foster a secure attachment.
They may also send mixed signals: one moment soothing, the next angry or overwhelmed.
Instead of attending to their child’s needs, they might respond to their child’s fear or distress by:
- laughing at a child’s fears or tears
- yelling at a child to stop crying
- sometimes responding to a child’s cries, but ignoring them for long periods at other times
- briefly soothing a child before losing patience and yelling or intimidating the child
- mocking a child in distress
If you’re concerned about a disorganized attachment forming between you and your child, it’s important to seek help. This sort of attachment may have lifelong negative consequences if not addressed.
If you recognize any of the signs of disorganized attachment in your family, a therapist can help you untangle the parenting patterns that led to it. They can help you develop the tools you’ll need to create strong, positive attachments in your family structure.
Therapists focusing on attachment will often work individually with the parent to help them understand their own unresolved fears. They’ll help the parent make sense of the way they related to their own caregivers when they were children.
They can also work with the parent and child as a team to help them develop new, healthier ways of relating to one another. This sort of parent-child therapy often involves the therapist guiding a parent through soothing a child in distressing situations.
A therapist can also focus on helping develop a range of coping skills to avoid becoming overwhelmed. They can help the parent recognize and respond to their own emotions as they relate to parenting and attachment.
While disorganized attachment may be difficult to treat, it is preventable. Parents can work to prevent disorganized attachment by recognizing they may have lingering issues from childhood and seeking counseling before the start of, or early in, their parenting journey.
Parents can also work to develop appropriate responses to their child’s distress. Group or individual therapy can help develop these responses. Support from friends, relatives, and a partner can help, too.
Developing positive parenting patterns is an important part of preventing disorganized attachment. While it may be more or less difficult for different people, it’s possible even for those who didn’t grow up with an organized attachment to their own parents.
While parents are right to be concerned about developing a healthy, organized attachment with their children, it’s important to note that attachment is formed over time. No one interaction will shape a child’s entire attachment style.
It’s normal to become overwhelmed by parenting from time to time, or to respond to children in ways we might later recognize as less than ideal.
But as long as we’re striving to be kind, empathetic, and respond appropriately to our child’s distress, the chances of raising a child with a secure, organized attachment are very likely.
Julia Pelly has a master’s degree in public health and works full time in the field of positive youth development. Julia loves hiking after work, swimming during the summer, and taking long, cuddly afternoon naps with her sons on the weekends. Julia lives in North Carolina with her husband and two young boys. You can find more of her work at JuliaPelly.com.