What is Disorganized Attachment And How Does it Work?

By William Drake|Updated April 8, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Amanda Andrews, LMHC

According to attachment theory, children form attachments to their caregivers when they are young. These attachments fall into the categories of secure attachment and insecure attachment. Depending on the interactions between the caregiver and child, these attachments can be healthy or unhealthy. Unfortunately, learning to develop unhealthy relationships during childhood can cause problems down the road, and one of these problems is disorganized attachment. Disorganized attachment in adults can cause many issues in your adult life. Read on to learn how attachment problems can affect relationships.

What Is Disorganized Attachment?

Attachment Issues Are Not Your Fault. But It Is Your Responsibility To Heal.

A disorganized attachment style is one of the insecure attachment patterns that develops when a child is unable to count on a caregiver to be a safe place for them. In general, children naturally look to parents or guardians when they need a safe place to go in times of danger. Unfortunately, children who are abused usually feel that they're in danger when they're around their caregiver, as well. This creates a distressing situation for the child because they fear a parent and also seek out this parent to quell their fear. This is when issues with the attachment figure can turn into disorganized or avoidant attachment. Adult attachment styles are based largely on the styles we developed as children. Many securely attached adults got the love and support they needed to feel safe in the world.

Unfortunately, not everyone grows up in a loving home. While this is incredibly difficult, there is help available to cope with childhood abuse at any age. People who have experienced trauma can still find hope, love, and compassion so they can heal their childhood wounds.

How Does It Happen?

When a parent abuses or neglects a child, it's highly likely that this child will develop a disorganized attachment style. In addition, parents who are victims of trauma or loss can experience extreme anxiety, which can be transferred to their children with a similar result. When you speak with a therapist, you'll learn more about your style in an attachment interview.

During the attachment interview, your counselor will ask you specific questions about your experiences. Regardless of how your adult attachment style developed, disorganized attachment makes it difficult for these children to form healthy relationships. In fact, the children may have difficulty acclimating to their surroundings and forming attachments to other people throughout their lives.

What Happens to the Children?

To better understand attachment styles, research has been conducted to determine how children react to parental figures in a controlled environment. This research is often conducted by putting a parent and a child in a room together. Then, the parent is removed from the environment, and the child is monitored. Children with healthy attachment styles generally experienced some distress when the parent leaves, but when the parent returns, things usually change. The child comes to the parent to be soothed and then returns to their play.

On the other hand, a child with a disorganized attachment style tends to react oddly when the parent returns. First, they might move toward the parent, but then they might change their mind. They might act indifferent, run away, or even act out violently, depending on the nature of the relationship. These types of behaviors show that the child has an intrinsic need and impulse to go to the parent for reassurance and comfort, but at the same time, the child feels fear and uncertainty about what will happen if they follow this impulse.

As they grow older, this type of child will be unable to self-soothe, so they tend to struggle with social interactions and may have trouble opening up to anyone. They also tend to have problems making friends and may have difficulty with emotional regulation. As a result, they can act out in hostile or aggressive ways and may have trouble controlling and moderating levels of stress. They do not feel safe or secure in the world, so they may constantly be on guard for what could happen to them next. Without intervention, these children are likely to carry these traits with them into adulthood.

When they become parents, these individuals are likely to exhibit similar behavior with their own children. They may be erratic, unpredictable, and disorganized. They may even be frightened during stressful moments, creating fear in their child. Because they don't understand their own experience and likely can't explain it, the cycle continues from parent to child until someone seeks help. Fortunately, it's possible to change this behavior and stop the cycle if the individual truly wants to change.

Getting Help With Disorganized Attachment

Usually, disorganized attachment is the result of some kind of trauma. By understanding and working through that trauma, it's possible to develop a more secure attachment style and a sense of emotional wellbeing. It's important to do this as early as possible, so the individual can create healthy relationships and start to develop trust in others and in life—but it's never too late. Even if the work is difficult, it can be done at any age.

Working with a qualified mental health professional is an important part of the process because it's difficult to affect your attachment style with reflection and lifestyle changes alone. Luckily, there are professionals out there who can help you overcome your trauma. Whether you want to have better relationships, or you want to make sure you don't pass a disorganized attachment style on to your own children, it's crucial that you reach out to someone, especially if your trauma was severe.

Online Therapy Can Help

Attachment Issues Are Not Your Fault. But It Is Your Responsibility To Heal.

Research shows that online therapy is an effective method of treating symptoms that may stem from specific attachment styles. One study found that attachment insecurity is an important consideration when treating patients, noting that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was a successful method for managing symptoms arising from insecure attachment styles. This is in line with prior research showing that online CBT can help individuals manage a wide array of mental health issues. Internet-based CBT allows participants to reframe the negative thoughts that may cause stress and anxiety, and can often result from a disorganized attachment style.   

As discussed above, online therapy can provide you the tools to better understand and manage the complicated emotions and behaviors that have developed because of your attachment style. BetterHelp is an online service that connects you with licensed counselors throughout the country. Without being limited to the therapists in your area, you’ll have a better chance of being matched with an expert who knows how to precisely address your concerns. Also, you’ll be able to schedule appointments quickly and easily—no more coordinating with your therapist months in advance, or scheduling sessions during your lunch break so you can fit them in. You'll be able to meet with your counselor from the comfort of your own home, or anywhere you have an internet connection. Read the reviews below to learn more about BetterHelp counselors who have helped people in similar situations.

Counselor Reviews

"Dr. Baggs has been very helpful in helping me deal with anxiety, and I've been overall satisfied with the experience. She's helped me work through and understand trauma from my childhood, as well as help me realize I'm on the right path to getting help and improving my life. Overall a very good experience."

"I had some trauma when I was younger that was severely affecting my life and my relationships in a negative way. I also didn't have even the kind of money to afford this service for a long period of time. But Danny took the time and discussed treatment options for PTSD that I did not know much about before. I had tried different forms of therapy with limited success, but being able to write out my feelings, thoughts, and experiences allowed me to express myself in a way that I would not feel comfortable doing while sitting one on one with someone in the same room with me. Maybe that's a sign of me being on the older side of the texting/dm/instant message generation, but the messenger discussion was a game changer for me. Danny and BetterHelp helped me so much in a short amount of time, and they didn't dismiss me or treat me as less important just because of my adverse financial situation. Because of Danny, I found a local EMDR therapist that I can see, and it has been so helpful. Thank you so much."


Childhood trauma can affect people for the rest of their lives. The good news is that there is hope for those who seek help. With the right tools, you can live a truly fulfilling life.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.