Tag Archives: Disorganized Attachment

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).

Types of Relationship Problems The Individual May Experience As A Result Of Childhood Trauma.


Childhood Trauma And Adult Relationships :

Early relationships between the parent and child have an enormous impact upon how the child manages relationships throughout later life.

If the child experiences significant difficulties with relating to his/her parents, it often leads to problems with relating to others later on in life.

Secure Attachment :

The developmental psychologist, John Bowlby  proposed that there were, in very broad terms, two types of attachment that the child could form with the parent/s: SECURE ATTACHMENT and INSECURE ATTACHMENT.

Insecure Attachment :

If INSECURE ATTACHMENT develops, due to problems with how the parent relates to the child, the child often goes on to develop relationship problems with others in later life, because, according to Bowlby, s/he is prone to develop maladaptive (counter-productive) ways of relating to others which Bowlby terms MALADAPTIVE ATTACHMENT STYLES.

Bowlby proposed that there were three main types of maladaptive attachment style which the child could develop due to his/her problematic parenting; these are:


1) Insecure-avoidant attachment style:

Children who relate to others in this way may appear withdrawn, and, sometimes, hostile. By keeping their distance from others, they reduce their feelings of anxiety. However, underlying this there tends to be a great vulnerability and need. In adulthood, they are likely to continue to be distrustful of others and to maintain an emotional distance. Again, though, great vulnerability and need tend to underlie this.

Because the individual who develops this attachment style tends to be constantly expecting to be let down and betrayed by the person s/he is relating to, s/he may overcompensate for this feeling of vulnerability by becoming over-controlling, in an attempt to stop the person from ‘getting away’.

Individuals who develop this attachment style often have parents who were unresponsive to the needs of the child, lacked warmth and showed little love. The parents may have rejected the child’s attempts to form a close relationship with them.


2) Insecure-ambivalent attachment style:

With this style, the child oscillates between ‘clinging’ to others and angrily rejecting them – this tends to occur in ways which are largely unpredictable. Their relationships with others tend to be HIGHLY EMOTIONALLY VOLATILE. Also, they tend to be EXTREMELY SENSITIVE TO ANY SIGNS THEY ARE BEING REJECTED (sometimes misinterpreting signals and reading negativity into them when none was intended) and can become extremely angry if they believe that they are being rejected. Underneath this display of anger, however, the individual experiences deep hurt and emotional pain in response to the perceived rejection.

This pattern of relating to others often continues into adulthood. As with insecure-avoidant attachment styles, they may overcompensate for their profound fear of being abandoned by becoming over-controlling.

Individuals who develop this attachment style have often had parents who were unreliable and unpredictable in their manner of relating to the child – sometimes being available and sometimes not.

3) Insecure-disorganized attachment style:

This attachment style develops more rarely and is usually connected to particularly severe trauma during childhood.

Children with this attachment style tend to be HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS of others and EXTREMELY CAUTIOUS about forming relationships.

In adulthood, this tends to lead to profound difficulties with developing any kind of relationship and maintaining it – in any relationship the individual does manage to form, s/he will tend to behave in a highly unpredictable way and be highly vulnerable to sustaining further emotional wounds when they are, all too frequently, rejected for being too ‘difficult.’

A deep seated fear of others often underlies this attachment style which can lead to exploitation.

Individuals who develop this attachment style have often suffered severe abuse and have, also, often been brought up in environments which were extremely CHAOTIC and NEGLECTFUL.

This post is based upon John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.

To read my post on types of relationship difficulties individuals may experience as a result of childhood trauma, please click here.

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