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A disorganized attachment style is common among children who have experienced severe inadequate care, and poses a particular risk of developing later mental and personality problems. Here you read what characterizes these children, and what can be helpful.

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When the person who was supposed to be a security person becomes the source of fear

The White Paper on Better Protection of Child Development NOU 2012: 5 (1) states: 

When a child is traumatized by one of the parents, or when one of the parents himself is traumatized or in some other way can be a source of insecurity and unpredictability for the child, this can have extensive consequences for the child's development. When the person who is to represent a source of security also represents danger, this can lead to an insoluble conflict for the child when the child needs comfort and security. The child then comes into a conflict between the need for comfort, as well as the need to stay away from what represents danger. In such cases, the child may show a behavior that seems disorganized and chaotic. This can be called a disorganized attachment pattern.

Psychologist Teija Ankeskriver in Tidsskrift for Norsk Psykologforening (2) elaborates that disorganized attachment strategies come from the child being faced with an insoluble situation, namely that the child is dependent on the parent as an attachment person, while it is the parent who represents the source of fear and insecurity.

It must be emphasized that a child may have a disorganized attachment style in relation to one parent, but not in relation to the other, and then the prognosis is better.

Parent-child interaction: What's good enough?

With this as a starting point, many parents may be concerned about whether they have caused the child permanent damage, because they recognize that there have been situations where the children have been frightened because of the parents, or that the parents themselves have experienced being frightened in the face. with the restless child. 

Then it is important to say that all parents can experience getting into such unfortunate situations - but the important thing lies in the repair - that the good relationship between parents and children is restored, and that it thus does not become a pattern in the relationship that the child are intimidated by their caregivers.

In an article on interaction between parents and children, Kari Kiléen focuses on what is "good enough" interaction, which interaction is in a "risk zone" for developing problems, and what characterizes the interaction between parents and children that in reality is care failure. It is recommended to use the Care Index as a mapping tool to distinguish between these forms of interaction.

How common is a disorganized attachment style in children and young people?

In the governmental report (NOU 2012: 5) it appears that there is a high connection between traumatization and the development of disorganized attachment. Psychologist Teija Anke writes that it is quite rare with a disorganized attachment pattern in the normal population, where the incidence is 15%.

On the other hand, this form of affiliation is common in risk groups and clinical populations, where the incidence should be 70–80% (2). According to NOU 2012: 5, studies have been conducted that show an incidence of disorganized attachment of 80% in children who have experienced violence and sexual abuse in their own caregivers.

If these figures are correct, in other words it will be very common and widespread with a disorganized attachment style in children who have been exposed to neglect in their early childhood years, and the problem is then also widespread among foster children who have acquired a new care base on initiative from the child welfare service.

Film: Understanding disorganized attachment style


Symptoms of disorganized attachment in children

Psychologist Teija Anke writes:

In the event of a disorganized attachment pattern, the child may show both avoidant behavior and ambivalence. It has peculiar symptoms, for example in the form of "freezing" movements, performing stereotype movements, performing contradictory actions, staring and distant contact.

Behavioral problems and dissociative symptoms are common, and associations have been shown with poorer stress regulation, in the form of elevated cortisol levels during and after stress, in children with disorganized attachment.

The central drama of a child with disorganized attachment is a pervasive distrust in the child that he or she will receive help, support, attention and love from his or her caregivers. Based on this deep mistrust, the child may display a wide range of behaviors that may be difficult to understand at first glance. 


A basic mistrust of getting their needs met

The governmental report (NOU 2012: 5) writes about children with disorganized attachment:

The child is given an inner "working model", which means that one should be careful not to get too close to other people as this can be dangerous. The child, and eventually the adult, in this way easily has difficulty with closeness and distance to other people, and will find that there is always a dilemma between approaching others, or keeping distance. Every time one approaches one gets anxiety and wants to move away, while when one moves away, the feeling of loneliness comes and one approaches again.

The result is an often disorganized and chaotic behavior in the child, which becomes especially evident when the child is exposed to stress, insecurity and anxiety.


Worried about the child, but does not reach

Psychologist Teija Anke mentions "Hanna" as an example of a child with a disorganized connection, a three-year-old girl who was moved to a foster home after being exposed to neglect in her biological family: 

Hanna was very vulnerable and unstable in her functioning; small adversities and strains could trigger strong and incomprehensible reactions, while she did not receive comfort and care from the foster parents. They perceived her as "lonely". Hanna was not interested in sharing experiences or interactions with the others in the family. The foster parents felt that Hanna in many of her expressions and actions was incomprehensible to them, and they were in doubt about how much they meant to her and how they could help her further.

This experience that the foster parents had towards "Hanna", is a common experience in meeting the disorganized children: You are worried, you offer comfort, but it is not accepted. One feels the behavior of the children as difficult to understand, and it spreads a powerlessness and despair about "how to get in." 


The disorganized attachment style is activated during stress or anxiety

A key key to understanding these children is to keep in mind that children's attachment patterns become apparent and activated when the child experiences insecurity, anxiety and stress. That is, it is only when the child experiences negative emotions that its disorganized attachment pattern becomes apparent. 

Children with disorganized attachment will then not be able to express their difficult feelings, or seek comfort and support in an understandable way, but will rather be able to act with a confusing and contradictory behavior - a behavior that makes little sense precisely because it is disorganized and chaotic.

Here it should be remembered that many of these children have experience that needing comfort and help from adults has been an impossible and insoluble situation, because precisely the adults have been an important source of insecurity and anxiety, and hence the child developed strategies that are very poorly connected when the child in various ways needs help.


What helps children with disorganized attachment styles to feel safe?

An individual assessment of the individual child that shows a disorganized attachment pattern is important, and where emphasis is placed on establishing a general care situation around the child that is justifiable.

A calm, caring predictability from the primary caregivers around the child is the whole foundation for helping the child to break out of the insecure and disorganized attachment pattern. Here, both the child's closest parents, teachers, and kindergarten staff will be counted as caregivers, and it is in the relational interaction between the child and these people that the child can rebuild trust in the world, and learn new ways of behaving.

For all these caregivers, the important question becomes: "What does it take for this child, with his story, to feel safe in this relationship?" 

Important measures can then be:


  1. When the child experiences emotional chaos and loses control of himself, the adults around the child must train their ability to appear safe, calm, and to help the child in a predictable way to regain calm.
  2. The principle from the Circle of Security (COS) is that the adults should always be "bigger, stronger, wiser and good" in meeting with the children, and skills development with COS can be useful both in terms of parents, teachers and employees in kindergarten.
  3. It is not acceptable for the child to have to deal with caregivers who themselves become emotionally chaotic, confusing or threatening when the child shows disorganized behavior. This applies both at home, at school or in kindergarten. Then it becomes important to equip the adults to meet the child with calm and care - even when the child shows chaotic and disorganized behavior.
  4. It is a very important point to maintain caring and comforting behavior, even if it seems that the child does not want or need it.

Getting this done in practice can be demanding, and it will often be necessary to seek professional help to strengthen the caregivers around the disorganized child. And so you remember: It takes time to change attachment patterns - but if you manage to stand in the way of providing calm, caring predictability from the primary caregivers around the child, then this is what can change the child's development in a positive direction.



  1. Better protection of children's development. NOU 2012: 5.

  2. Connection between foster children and foster parents. Journal of the Norwegian Psychological Association

  3. Attachment and attachment difficulties. Advice for parents, teachers and kindergarten staff.

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