Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development

pp 514-515

Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment

  • Tasha R. HoweAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Humboldt State University Email author 


Attachment disorder; Insecure attachment; Reactive attachment disorder


Disorganized/Disoriented attachment is characterized in Ainsworth’s “strange situation” task as a child who exhibits behavioral disorganization or disorientation in the form of wandering, confused expressions, freezing, undirected movements, or contradictory (i.e. “unorganized”) patterns of interaction with a caregiver. Most of these children have histories of maltreatment and may exhibit fear of the caregiver.


In Mary Ainsworth’s original work on attachment classifications [1] three categories of infant–parent attachment were elucidated. The majority of children were securely attached and showed appropriate distress upon separation from mother, willingness to explore in mother’s presence, and fear of strangers. Mothers of securely attached infants can readily soothe a distressed child and children feel comfortable exploring new environments while in their mothers’ presence. The other two categories represented insecure relationships, with appeared to be avoidant in nature, or ambivalent, alternating between approach and avoidance during laboratory observations of the “strange situation” (a series of manipulated separations and reunions).

Mary Main and Judith Solomon [2] noticed that a fourth category could be reliably coded during strange situation procedures. They noted that a small minority of children (about 5%) could not be placed into the original three attachment categories and often appeared to dissociate or show stereotyped movements in the presence of the caregiver. Many of these children appeared afraid of the mother, wandered away from her, showed variable affect, often avoiding the mother and then approaching her with intense desire for interaction. These children show no “organized” pattern of relationship with their caregiver and often appear disoriented during laboratory observations. While any type of family can develop a disorganized/disoriented attachment style, most work finds that parents of disorganized children are abusive or neglectful, and exhibit frightening or unpredictable behavior toward their infants. Moreover, these parents often have histories of past trauma and unresolved attachment problems in their own childhoods [3].

Because insecure attachments are related to poor child outcomes including emotional, cognitive, and behavioral dysfunctions, recent research is attempting to prevent attachment problems through parent education and training programs [4] and through brief interventions such as video feedback sessions in the home [5]. These methods are felt to be effective because attachment problems are related to parents’ lack of understanding of child development, little warmth or responsiveness to infants’ needs, as well as parental stress and psychopathology [6].

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
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