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Disorganized Attachment : Effects on Toddlers

Disorganized attachment refers to the relationship between the mother and child being inconsistent, and, from the child’s point of view, unpredictable, as may occur if the mother is emotionally unstable. This leads to the child responding to the mother in a confused manner, particularly when the mother returns to the child after a period of separation (e.g. returning to pick up her toddler from a nursery group).

In such a situation, the toddler becomes deeply uncertain how to respond; sometimes, the toddler may approach the mother enthusiastically but, at other times, the toddler may become immobile, or frozen, as a result of apprehension and fear. Sometimes, too, the approach the toddler makes towards the returning mother may be a desperately confused combination of the two.


Essentially, then, the toddler, due to the mother’s generally inconsistent behaviour, is uncertain as to whether she poses a threat or whether she intends to nurture him/her. Psychologists sometimes refer to this as the ‘APPROACH/AVOIDANCE DILEMMA.’ In cases whereby the relationship between mother and toddler is particularly stressful and distressing for the toddler, s/he may also develop other symptoms such as nervous physical tics or profoundly withdrawing into his/her own personal world, seemingly oblivious to the presence of others for significant periods of time. In such a situation, there is likely to have been a catastrophic breakdown of trust between the toddler and the mother.

Toddlers affected in this way may have developed a fear of the mother because she is aggressive and threatening towards the child in her behaviour (e.g. by shouting, expressing rage by facial expressions etc) or because the toddler senses her severe anxiety which, in turn, causes him/her to feel anxious and under threat.


The toddler subjected to severe stress in this way is at great risk of producing too much CORTISOL (a stress hormone) which, in turn , can have very harmful effects upon brain development. If this occurs, the toddler is put at high risk of developing mental illness and emotional dysfunction in later/adult life. One disorder which research suggests is particularly linked to such early life mother/child bonding dysfunction is BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER (BPD).

Furthermore, the actual volume of the brain may be affected (i.e. the brain fails to grow to the normal adult size). In particular, it seems that the prefrontal cortex can be prevented from developing to the size that it should. This impaired development of the prefrontal cortex leads to great difficulty in controlling reactions to stress in later life.

On top of this, research also suggests that balance between dopamine and serotonin in the brain is also adversely affected, which, in turn, can lead to mood disorders (dopamine and serotonin are both brain chemicals involved in how we feel emotionally).

In this article I have focused on toddlers as research suggests that it is during the first three years of life when the brain is particularly vulnerable to being affected in adverse ways that lead to behavioural and emotional problems in later life. In particular, the toddler affected in such a way is likely to be very susceptible to the damaging effects of stress in later life.



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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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