Role of attachment in Dissociation

Role of attachment in Dissociation

"It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change."
-Leon C. megginson
An individual, be it an infant, child or an adult - seeks some consistency in life in terms of relationships, experiences and expectations. Imagine each time the brain has to work on new reactions, it will cause so much of uncertainty and overloading on the brain that at some point, you will give up. To some extent, change is required for constant growth in every individual but too much inconsistency in life can lead to poor coping. When we talk of attachment, the first experience of attachment in an individual is of the parent and child. Attachment helps in shaping the baby’s brain by helping it provide a secure base in which physical and emotional needs are met and thus ensuring the child’s healthy psychological development. It is hence important that a child’s early attachment experiences are healthy since that would be the foundation for their social, emotional and cognitive development in the later years. When the child is shown consistency by parents/caregivers whenever needed, positive attachment experience gets internalised and reinforced and helps in forming a positive and healthy internal model of self and others. This child grows to have a positive self-concept and self-esteem.

When this attachment is disorganised, wherein children are in an environment where there are unpredictable parents/caregivers, it forms disorganised attachment which is associated with dissociative symptoms. These children have a difficult time in establishing a consistent view of parents and of themselves. Dissociation is one of the defense mechanism used to manage this unpredictable and inconsistent behaviour of parents/caregivers by escaping psychologically from the experience which looks threatening and overwhelming to a child. Dissociation acts as a way of coping wherein the brain compartmentalizes traumatic experiences to keep people from feeling too much pain - be it physical, emotional or both. Dissociation makes you detach from reality, you are physically there, but dissociated yourself from associated sensations, feelings, thoughts and memories.
Everybody dissociates to some degree in day to day life, like being immersed in a book or film, children getting absorbed in their play and fantasizing about the characters. But some children continue to dissociate when there is a need to escape their environment. They may escape into dissociate imagination with imaginary companions or any other way. Dissociation is mediated through the release of endorphins. At first it may be an adaptive behaviour, but dissociation becomes maladaptive in becoming a learned response to all feelings and sensations which are even positive. This results in reduced emotional processing, impaired thinking and cognitive processing causing cognitive distortions and dichotomous thinking. Children are particularly vulnerable and these early inconsistent, unresponsive or traumatic experiences through parents or caregivers can become locked into the right brain which is seat of subconscious and hence preventing access to left brain which is logical side to process and analyse.

In case of attachment, a disorganised model of attachment is developed when the child sees that instead of responding sensitively to the child’s need, parent’s behaviour is perceived as inconsistent and incapable of dealing with emotional, stressful and challenging situations on day to day basis. The child on one hand is looking for a secure attachment when is feeling stressful and frightened and instead of getting the same has to deal with incapable state of responding to its needs by the parents. When this happens on continuous basis, the child starts to get confused and does not get a clear understanding as to what makes them a good or a bad child, as the parent’s behaviour is often confusing and unpredictable. The child looks in times of distress for a secure attachment figure for security and protection, only to find the that this attachment figure is itself showing the same emotions during this stressful event and unable to handle the situation.This behaviour of parents or caregivers could be due to own childhood traumas of the parents which are unresolved and triggered by even a child’s normal behaviour such as crying or throwing a tantrum. A loving caregiver who has experienced trauma can also behave in a confusing way with the child. The parents may exhibit inconsistent behaviour each time this happens - sometimes by being frightened, sometimes by frightening the child, by showing agitation or anxiety towards the child’s normal behaviour too. Anger or fear can explode suddenly and devastate the child. The parents due to own traumas would not be available to provide the protection and security that her child is seeking or responds when he/she signals that he/she needs peace, security, and help with affect regulation.
Often the parents who were raised in abusive families are unaware of how to suitably cater to a child’s emotional needs because they themselves did not have their own needs met when they were children. Under these circumstances, the child may be susceptible to acquire a disorganised working model. For a child, both the parents are required, some children simply overlook or refute the exploitation. Forgetting or denying trauma is a sign of dissociation. It is an adaptive and defensive approach that permits the kid to perform within the relationship but it often indicates growth of a fragmented sense of self. Research has demonstrated that disorganised model of attachment is formed by the end of the second year if the child endures to go through these circumstances and starts to detach self and ego-states.

Hence, it is very crucial that the parents dealing with own trauma seek help to learn to cope with problems upsetting them and how they can cope emotions better and show uniformity in same. It is vital that a child has sensitive parents who are able to notice his signals, permit him/her to cope with stress and affect appropriately, and in this way, anchor a safe emotional illustration of attachment in the child’s neuronal networks. This is because children with a secure attachment style have a cohesive and rational internal working model of attachment. Children with an insecure attachment style also have a structured inner working model of attachment. For instance, avoidant or ambivalent attachment style - but it is insecure. However, children with disorganised attachment style have a model in which a range of working models of attachment cooperate concurrently because no proper working model has been put in place.To sum up, the toddler’s attachment disorganization is in itself a dissociative procedure and prompts an individual to react with pathological dissociation to future traumas and life stressors. Hence, it is essential from the beginning that parents/caregivers who are carrying own traumas, seek help and resolve the same so that they are able to nurture children with reliable and optimistic images of self with an ability to tackle changes in a healthy way.  

About the Author

Sarika Kumar
Psychologist.

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