The Tragedy of Disorganized Attachment
What if your mother was a Tyrannosaurus Rex? You desperately need your mom to keep you safe. You turn to her when you are afraid, you rely on her touch to comfort you. Human babies need mommies (or daddies- a safe, loving caregiver) for survival. What if the one person who could keep you safe was a scary, loud, rough Tyrannosaurus Rex, with a terrifying roar and sharp pointy teeth?
What happens when you come face to face with a velicoraptor? What do you want to do? Where do you want to run? You run to the person who keeps you safe- your mom! So, what if your mom is a Tyrannosaurus Rex? Then what do you do?
Humans are blessed with an attachment system that serves many purposes. The attachment system lays the building blocks for mental health, relationship skills, and self-regulation. The attachment system is also a biological system that ensures our survival. It is through the attachment system that little babies keep their parents close. When babies are distressed, they behave in ways that brings a parent toward them. As babies get older, they move toward their parents- with their legs or with their eyes- seeking out closeness and safety. This system works because parents aren’t supposed to be scary. When a small child is feeling anxious, nervous, uncomfortable, scared, or terrified their attachment system becomes activated and draws them closer to their attachment figure.
When the attachment figure is the source of the anxious, nervous, uncomfortable, scared or terrifying feelings children are left with an unsolvable dilemma. When your fight/flight/freeze system is activated by the SAME person who activates your attachment system, you’ve got a big problem. It is this unsolvable dilemma that is the basis for disorganized attachment.
Hebb’s Axion tells us that “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Children who experience terror, fear, or neglect at the hands of the person who is supposed to keep them safe experience a simultaneous activation of both the attachment system and the fight/flight/freeze system. This simultaneous activation weaves together these experiences in the nervous system, linking these two systems in a deep way.
Over time, in a new, safe home, children’s attachment system begins to be activated by the new, safe caregiver. But due to the previous tangling of the attachment system and the fight/flight/freeze system, this new, safe caregiver activates the attachment system AND the fight/flight/freeze system. Our children become caught in this impossible paradox of “come close, run away.” This horrifying confusion, which leaves children feeling vulnerable, exposed, and at risk of death, is the driving force behind their bizarre and confusing, sometimes dangerous, behaviors.
This entangled circuitry- of attachment and fight/flight/freeze- can be slowly untangled overtime. It is a slow, methodical process which solidifies our understanding of the importance of parenting with connection. It is the piece we can turn back to when we begin to doubt “trust-based parenting” (Purvis & Cross, TCU) because it reminds us that we must never be sources of fright or terror to our children. That if we become triggered and behave in ways we regret- with a spanking or a threat or any attempt at gaining better behavior through fear or coercion, that it is imperative to repair that breech and continue to repattern our children’s nervous system. We cannot simply reassure our children that we are safe. We must prove to them- over and over and over again- that we are safe. We must commit to never reinforcing in their nervous system that “attachment figure” and “danger danger” goes together.
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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.