Complicated Attachment Dynamics

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Close up of young, serious girl clinging to her mom's leg, with both wearing yellow summer dresses
There are several reasons that attachment between children and their caregivers may be disrupted. Here, the natural and environmental risks to forming secure attachment, and the consequences, are discussed.

For so long, the topic of disrupted attachment has been regulated solely to abandoned, orphaned, abused or neglected children. That’s not the case. While children from these difficult situations are very susceptible to attachment disorder, there are other issues that can disrupt secure attachment – issues in nature – that can impact even healthy intact families.

Attachment is critical to a child’s healthy development and yet it’s also very fragile. There are a number of situations – natural and environmental – that can disrupt the cycle of interaction between infant and caregiver.

Natural Risks to Secure Attachment

Through no fault of the parent whatsoever, there can be situations that can cause the attachment cycle to be disrupted. Things such as:

  1. A difficulty pregnancy; prenatal trauma. This includes any number of medical complications during pregnancy from a small hemorrhage or hypoxic episode, to stress, depression or anxiety the birth mother experiences.
  2. A difficult delivery or medical complications during the birthing process.
  3. Early hospitalization of the infant for medical complications because of a pre-mature birth or a required extended stay in the neo-natal intensive care unit; an early surgery that is necessary to insure the life and health of the infant.

Environmental Risks to Secure Attachment

  1. Physical, sexual and/or emotional abuses of an infant or young child will most like disrupt attachment because the need to be kept safe has not been met. Abuses of this nature are particularly damaging and confusing because the abuser is the very person who is supposed to be the protector.
  2. Neglect of a child’s needs is actually more damaging on the attachment process than abuse. The message of neglect is “You’re not valuable enough to be cared for.”
    Abuse is doing something bad to the child. Neglect is not doing something good to/for the child that is necessary for his wellbeing.
  3. Trauma. Different than being abused, if the child experiences loss, disasters, or lives in a constant state of chaos in the home his need for safety, familiarity and consistency may not be met adequately enough.

Any of these risk factors – natural or environmental – can disrupt secure attachment in your child. They will produce changes in the way he thinks, attaches and responds to stress; even in the way his brain develops neurologically and chemically. Any or all of these things can put him at risk for mental illness in the future.

How Attachment Gets Disrupted

How attachment gets disrupted


  1. Need. The child has a need. This could be a tangible need (tired, wet diaper, cold, hungry) or and intangible one (quiet time, stimulation, being held, validation, encouraged or reassured).
  2. Express. The child expresses that need either by crying or some other attempt to make his need known.
  3. Need is not met often enough. The primary caregiver does not provide the necessary aid so his need is not met, enough. Even if his needs in the past were met occasionally, the pattern of uncertainty does not allow him to have any confidence (trust) that the need will be met “this time.”
  4. Trust is not established. The child experientially comes to realize his environment is not safe enough and the primary caregiver is not consistent enough to be relied upon. Trust doesn’t develop. It’s not that he knows how to trust, but doesn’t because he’s been “burned” enough; he has no capability, no ability, no knowledge of how to trust at all.
  5. Attachment is disrupted. Since his environment is not safe enough and his primary caregiver is not consistent enough to be relied upon there’s no reason to make an attachment to his primary caregiver or then with others.

The key thinking pattern becomes something like “The only person I can trust to look out for me is me. So I’ll do whatever I have to do to take care of me. It’s me against the world.” The child’s brain is in a near-constant state of hyper-alertness because the whole world is perceived as unsafe. He will tend to be very reactive with a fight, flight or freeze behavioral response.

Three Classifications of Insecure Attachment

Without a secure attachment, your child will develop one of three insecure attachment styles.

  1. Avoidant. The avoidant child appears on the surface to be self-reliant, self-confident, and independent; often seen as the “ideal child” and one who is “low maintenance.” He doesn’t express his needs because he’s already figured out he can’t expect his needs to be met consistently anyway. He doesn’t fuss, whine or ask for anything. He often seems disconnected, doesn’t tend to share much emotionally and may not want to be held, cuddled or touched.
  2. Ambivalent. The ambivalent child has a constant fear of being abandoned. He may be very anxious, prone to anger outbursts and seems to be caught in a vicious cycle of “come close to me – no, stay away.” He is often inconsolable because he attempts to keep your attention – and avoid being abandoned – by being needy and dependent.
  3. Disorganized. The disorganized child is just that, disorganized in his behaviors as well as his interactions with people in general. He may isolate, tend to be a loner, be seen as aloof or look like he’s disoriented at times. He may also display random symptoms of either the Avoidant or Ambivalent attachment styles.

Take Notice

Just because your child has been exposed to either a natural or environmental risk to attachment doesn’t automatically mean he has a disrupted attachment. It’s wise however, to look carefully into how your child is interacting with you and the environment around him. If you see any of the symptoms mentioned above keep notes to see if there’s a pattern to the symptoms. If you conclude the behaviors are fairly consistent, seek a professional assessment from a licensed clinician specifically trained in attachment dynamics.

While the lack of attachment can produce any number of negative behaviors that seem daunting, take heart, once accurately diagnosed, a mental health professional can guide you in using therapeutic parenting intervention techniques that are designed to create an attachment prone relationship between you and your child.

© 2018 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

Your Teen Needs You Most of All

No teen parent is perfect and even the best can learn how to better connect with their son or daughter. Get practical action steps to better connect with your teenager in 8 Essential Tips for Parenting Your Teen in this FREE video series!

Used with permission.

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