What Causes A Disorganized Attachment?

If you’ve discovered that your style is Fearful-Avoidant, your first question is probably: …Why? 

Most online sources claim that disorganization is the result of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or abandonment. But for many with this attachment style, they feel their childhood wasn’t particularly bad.

While it is true that abuse or neglect is far more likely than any other factor to lead to a disorganized attachment style, it’s not the only reason. Neither are parental substance abuse, mental illness, violence, or the child’s personality or gender predictive factors. 1

Dr. David & Yvonne Shemmings, leading experts in disorganized attachment, sorted all the risk factors into three variables: unresolved trauma, insensitive parenting and frightening parenting. 1

Unresolved Loss/Trauma

When we don’t process trauma or the loss of a loved one, we repress our feelings in an attempt to get by. This repression takes a tremendous amount of energy, causing extreme avoidance or disassocation when these memories get triggered.

Although this is the attempt of the parent’s mind to protect itself, to an infant seeing their parent disappear mentally and emotionally is terrifying. This effect is demonstrated in a series of videos known as the Still Face Experiment, where babies panic within seconds of seeing their mother’s expression go blank.

This experiment was done with secure babies; imagine the effect on a child of this happening multiple times a day.

Parents who were sexually abused (not physically) or haven’t resolved the death of their parent fall under this category. 1

Frightening Parental Behavior

 Similar to abusive parenting, these FR parental behaviours may place infants in an irresolvable and disorganizing paradox: their parents are the only potential source of comfort and protection while at the same time they frighten their children through their behaviour.
– Out et al., 2009 1


In 2009, researchers at Leiden University sorted fear-provoking parental behavior into 5 categories.

  1. Frightening and threatening behavior towards the child
  2. Behaving frightened of the child
  3. Disassociating while handling the child (freezing, treating them like an inanimate object)
  4. Acting in a timid or subservient manner towards the child
  5. Disorganized behavior (disoriented or contradictory movements and vocalizations)

The more severe these behaviors were, and the more they occurred when the child was seeking soothing, the higher the risk for child disorganization.

Extreme Insensitivity

There are two types of parental insensitivity: withdrawal/neglect, and intrusion/aggression.

Parental withdrawal & neglect happens when the child is distressed or seeking care from the parent, and the parent repeatedly refuses to engage or respond.

Parental intrusiveness happens when the parent overrides the child’s cues, and interactions are solely on the parent’s terms. This can range from an intensity higher than what the child is comfortable with, to outright aggression, hostility, and contempt.

On its own, parental insensitivity typically leads to an organized insecure style (anxious or avoidant).

* * *

The more risk factors you grew up with the higher the chance of developing a Fearful-Avoidant attachment, but none alone necessarily lead towards disorganization.

David Shemmings adds a 4th factor that he believes ties everything together, the Reflective Function (RF).  This is defined as the parent’s ability to appreciate their child as having hopes, intentions and thoughts independently of their own.

A low ability to perceive their child as a separate individual combined with one of the other 3 risk factors seems to almost guarantee a disorganized attachment.

A mother is pushing her toddler in a buggy. It is a very cold day and the child’s shoe and sock have come off. The mother laid them on the top of the buggy and continued pushing. She was accompanied by a friend, who said ‘Shall we stop and put his sock on – his little foot must be getting really cold?’ The mother replied ‘No…no…he’s fine; my feet are like toast’.

– David Shemmings