Disrupted Attachment

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Consider how these trauma and attachment experts describe the effects of disrupted attachment between parents and infants or young children:

In order to co-create a secure attachment, the infant seeks proximity to the primary caregiver, who must be subjectively perceived as predictable, consistent, and emotionally available. A caregiving arrangement in this essential time period that deprives the infant of this proximity, consistency and emotional availability will inhibit the development of the attachment system. Prolonged and repeated removal from the regulating primary caregiver not only deprives the child of an external coping mechanism, it also negatively impacts the ongoing maturation of the right brain. Let me say that in another way. If you expose a 9-year-old child, or a 29-year-old to an attachment stressor (say loss of an important emotional relationship), you will see an established system disorganize and regress, with a temporary loss of function. On the other hand, if you stress the system at, for example, 9 months, while it is still in a critical period of growth, you will alter the trajectory of its development. Consequently these internal regulatory structures will not have the maturity and will not have the efficiency to regulate the individual’s emotional state when she is challenged by future interpersonal stressors.

On the matter of a primary caregiver, neuroscience indicates that pre- and postnatally, the mother’s right brain is the key to this role. This is time sensitive, as it is occurring in early critical periods.

When it comes to normal and abnormal development, a key factor is how the child responds under stress. After all, what is developing are the infant’s coping capacities. According to classical attachment theory, babies will cry and protest when they are distressed, bidding for the attachment figure. Very recent research from neuroscience and child psychiatry now shows that under severe interpersonal stress or “relational trauma,” an infant will disengage and shut down. If it becomes chronic, this “relational withdrawal” is the most pathological of all infant responses to stress. In this involuntary disengagement from the social environment the infant is immobile and silent. So, if you’re looking at the external behavior of that infant, you’re not going to see too much. This passive infant state could even be mistaken as being regulated, when internally the baby’s brain and body are biologically extremely out of balance.

A self-preoccupied, nonempathic caregiver might routinely misperceive this noncrying silent state, when the child is not making any eye contact, as if the child is feeling safe. But the fact is the chronically withdrawn infant has moved from a safe state into a danger state of overwhelming emotional stress, and then into a survival state where the function of the developing brain is shut down. The disengaged parent is not available to repair this state, and so it endures. We now know that the key to understanding an infant is not only his emotional states, but the way he regulates these stressful states. And we know more about the early defense mechanisms the infant uses under stress. In an immobile silent state, when the attachment need is shut down, the stress hormone, cortisol, may be even higher than when the infant is crying.

Allan Schore


With disorganized attachments, the child has been confronted with situations of being fearful or terrified of an attachment figure, the person on whom they are dependent. In this situation, the brain has two simultaneously activated circuits that are incompatible. One is the circuit of “I am in a terrified state, I’d better go to my caregiver who will protect me and soothe me.” That is fine. The problem is, the other circuit says, “I am in a terrified state, and I need to get away from the source of the terror, which is the caregiver!” As Erik Hesse says, it is fear without a solution. So, it is understandable that over time, this creates a pattern in which that child has no clear attachment strategies to call upon, and as Hesse says, their attachment strategies collapse. This is a collapse in attentional organization and hence, disorganized attachment. So my brain is in torment without relief. And the best thing I can do is not look inward. The inner world is a Pandora’s box for me; if I go there, I cannot even articulate how confusing it is. And so, I just live outside of my own skin. I have to just do, do, do, do, do. So instead of being a human being, I’ve become a “human doing.” The child’s adaptation to that loss would have to be to shut themselves off from their own feelings, which Allan Schore talks about so beautifully, about the etiology of psychopathology. The state of being separated, for a baby, is equivalent to the feeling of impending death.

Clinically, I use the words “making sense.” Literally, the child has to feel the sensation of the conflict and articulate it, using drawing, play, or the words of storytelling with a neutral person. The child needs to have a place where they make sense of what’s going on. Making sense is a profoundly integrative process in the brain and in our relationships. Making sense mends the mind.

Daniel Siegel


If a trauma is not quickly (integrated) and the changes in anatomy, biology, and neurology become chronic, it makes people more vulnerable to such events in the future. The body loses its natural rhythms for regulating arousal and relaxation, entering a seesaw between hyperarousal and (hypoarousal), moving the person from explosive emotions to numbness, fatigue, detachment and isolation. The adrenal system gets exhausted, and the opioid system throws traumatized people off, altering their sense of time and place. Their attention becomes riveted on the trauma.

G. Ross


Many traumatized children and adults, confronted with chronically overwhelming emotions, lose their capacity to use emotions as guides for effective action. They often do not recognize what they are feeling and fail to amount an appropriate response. This phenomenon is called “alexithymia,” an inability to identify the meaning of physical sensations and muscle activation. Failure to recognize what is going on causes them to be out of touch with their needs, and, as a consequence, they are unable to take care of them. This inability to correctly identify sensations, emotions, and physical states often extends itself to having difficulty appreciating the emotional states and needs of those around them. Unable to gauge and modulate their own internal states the habitually collapse in the face of threat, or lash out in response to minor irritations. Futility becomes the hallmark of daily life.

Bessel A. Van Der Kolk


It is easy to see how toxic parents can become in their ability to serve as a secure base or a haven of safety when they get so preoccupied with their own needs, pride, shame, or selfishness, or their anger at the other parent over betrayal or humiliation. How can I comfort my child when I myself am frightened? How can I tolerate my child having successes under your supervision if it is all about me, not about them?


Healthy Attachment

Recent Posts