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Friend, if you’ve stumbled upon this site because you’re tearing your hair out over your child’s behaviour and attitude, and wondering if attachment difficulties might be at the heart of it all, welcome.
You are not alone – I’m an adoptive mum, and battle attachment difficulties every day with my wonderful, but traumatised, twin boys.
Attachment is a complicated subject, but if you’re looking for a clear and concise overview, check out my post The Four Types of Attachment Styles Explained – it’s simple, no-fuss, and you’ll be speaking the lingo in no time.
It’s also very possible – fairly likely, even – that your child is exhibiting signs of a combination of attachment styles. After all, these are only labels created by psychologists – every individual is unique, and every individual will have their own set of struggles. So don’t forget to check out my posts on ambivalent attachment and avoidant attachment too.
In this post, I’ll be giving the lowdown on what is disorganized attachment, understanding disorganized attachment, and how we can parent our children if they’re presenting symptoms of it.
In cheesy YouTube style, let’s get started…
What is disorganized attachment?
Disorganized attachment (also called ‘disoriented attachment’) is one of three attachment styles commonly put under the umbrella of ‘insecure attachment’ (the others being avoidant and ambivalent attachment).
Disorganized attachment in children presents itself in a number of different ways. The child tends to see themselves as bad (this is often referred to as ‘shame’ – the feeling of being bad, as opposed to merely doing something bad), and – perhaps as a result of this non-existent self-esteem – relates rather superficially to others, struggling to make and maintain close friendships.
This then has a knock-on effect to a child’s mental health, and can lead to depression and anger – both in childhood and further on into adulthood.
Children with disorganized/disoriented attachment are highly likely to get involved in abusive or abusing relationships, further harming their sense of self.
Understanding disorganized attachment
Disorganized attachment in children typically arises from a caregiver who is abusive and/or frightening to the child. There is a great deal of unpredictability in whether or not the child’s needs are met.
Because a child doesn’t know if his/her needs will be met – and because they don’t know what mood their caregiver will be in – the tendency will be to avoid expressing their needs, and even trying to become ‘invisible’, staying out of the way as much as possible.
A child with disorganized or disoriented attachment may develop an unhealthy ‘numbness’ to their own emotions: If no one is meeting my needs, perhaps they’re not important. If my needs are not important, maybe they’re wrong. If they’re wrong, maybe I can ignore them and they’ll go away.
How can I parent my disorganized attachment child?
Besides being incredibly patient and persistent – two verbs which have come up in every single one of my attachment blog posts – there are some specific ideas which might help us in understanding disorganized attachment better, and thus parenting our children them with slightly different aims.
It goes without saying that a child with disorganized or disoriented attachment will need consistent ‘re-parenting’ so that they gradually come to relax in the security of knowing that their needs will be met. They will also need very frequent ‘top-ups’ of self-esteem boosts, and possibly some help with making and maintaining friendships.
It is hoped that by investing in these areas, we can help to lower our children’s risk of developing serious mental health problems and/or ending up in an abusive or abusing relationship.
If you’re reading this, however, and your child does have mental health problems, or is in such a relationship, despite your best efforts, please know that the circumstances which led to your child’s disorganized attachment were traumatic. They always carried a potential of long-term damage. What your child is experiencing now is not your fault.
Sometimes we can do the best we can, and our children still struggle – but we have done our best, and can do no more. Please be encouraged that your child’s outlook right now might look even worse were it not for your involvement in their life. (And you may like to read Gail’s story of how her off-the-rails children came back into healthy, positive lifestyles.)
For those whose children are younger and/or able to be re-parented, consistency is absolutely key. When routines and rhythms change, your child will feel more secure if these are explained – especially if you’re able to assure them that things will return to normal.
Example: “We’re going away this weekend to a big house where we’ll stay with our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. There’s a big garden and lots of rooms. On Sunday we’ll come back home and sleep in our own beds.”
We can also help our children by giving them frequent boosts to their self-esteem. I’ve heard our kids described as ‘leaky buckets’ – where they haven’t had the foundation of a securely-attached child, any compliments or positive statements have a tendency to fall out! So we must regularly praise our children – not generally, but with specific, detailed comments.
Examples: “You worked so hard on that piece of artwork – I saw you concentrating really well” or “You’ve been really good at following instructions today – that’s helped us be on time”.
Finally, we can support our children in making and maintaining friendships. While at pre-school age, we can encourage our children to make friends by organising playdates with friends who have similar-age children (or, if we don’t have any, by getting out to toddler groups and making some!). Playing first with our friends’ children helps our own children to learn how to make friendships in the relative safety of a family who will understand their sometimes unusual behaviour or difficult meltdowns.
Once at school age, we will have less control over what goes on in the classroom, but we can support our children outside the classroom, by getting to know the parents of their friends. Building honest, open relationships with these parents means that, should any issues arise, they will be more positive about speaking with us, listening to what we can share with them about our children’s attachment difficulties, and working with us to maintain our children’s friendship.
This blog post has only really scratched the surface of disorganized attachment in children, but I hope it’s given you a few thoughts as to what might work in your family.
I do, however, recommend that if your child is struggling with disorganized/disoriented attachment, you grab a copy of Sarah Naish’s excellent A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting, which is full of life-saving strategies for over 60 common behaviours in adopted/fostered children (read my honest review here).
I’d also encourage you to approach your adoption agency for support. We did this last summer and, as a result, are nearing the end of a really useful Enhancing Adoptive Parenting programme (EAP). We hope to also do some Theraplay with our children in the future.
Whatever action you take next – whether it is to send an email, make a phone call, or simply to mull over what you’ve read – please know that you don’t have to do this on your own. There is a whole adoption community waiting for you online, ready to support and empathise.
Sign up to my mailing list and join our very own supportive adoption community right here on Desertmum. Search for Facebook groups and pages where you will find support. Go to local adoption events and meet other adopters, if you don’t already know some.
But, above all, know that you are not battling your child’s attachment issues on your own. You’ve got this – you really have.