Attachment Theory and Dissociative Identity Disorder

Everyone has attachment behaviors depending on their upbringing. So, it is important to understand this vital part of who we are as human beings. John Bowlby’s attachment theory helps to explain the behaviors of those who experienced severe and repeated childhood trauma.

This article will attempt to explain attachment theory and how it is related to the experiences of those diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder.

Piaget and Abnormal Development of Personality in Children

Jean Piaget

At the turn of the century, a pioneer psychologist named Jean Piaget began developing a new model of how children develop. He believed that children construct their own world view based on what they experience. This theory is known as the Cognitive Development Theory.

Piaget’s work, as well as many like Adler and Erikson, showed that they believe the most crucial part of a human’s psychological development happens in the early years of childhood somewhere between birth and five years.

That fact, more than any, may explain why trauma in early childhood can be very damaging to a child’s personality development.

Young children who face severe and/or repeated victimization fail to integrate the parts that make up the ego states of every human being. Not only this, but the trauma causes impaired growth and development of important brain regions such as the amygdala and hippocampus.

John Bowlby

John Bowlby was a psychologist from England and a psychoanalyst who postulated that early childhood attachments play a vital role in later life. Dr. Bowlby, along with the work of Dr. Mary Ainsworth greatly impacted to the development of attachment theory.

Basically, attachment theory states that infants have an inborn need to form an attachment bond to a caregiver. Bowlby defined this attachment to a caregiver a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”

This is an evolutionary response to increase a baby’s survival chances that goes along with cooing and crying to get the baby’s needs met. Bowlby believed children come into the world biologically programmed to seek close attachment to a caregiver.  

How children are treated by their mother or other caregiver impacts the attachments they will form in adulthood.

Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth and the Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth took Dr. Bowlby’s theory a step further and tested infants to see if there was a difference in how children attached to their caregivers. She devised the “strange situation paradigm” to see the nature of attachment behavior and to identify of two-year old children.

Her research rocked the world of psychology.

In 1970, Ainsworth identified three main attachment types including secure, insecure avoidant, and insecure ambivalent/resistant. Later further research identified disorganized attachment style.

Healthy Development: Secure Attachment

Secure attachment refers to the emotional bond between a child and its caregivers where the child shows a small amount of distress when they are separated from their caregivers for short lengths of time.

This relatively calm behavior occurs because the child knows they can trust their caregivers to always meet their needs and to respond with warmth and soothing when they are distressed.

A child’s ability to establish secure attachment depends wholly on their caregiver’s sensitivity to their needs and how those needs were consistently met. The benefits later in life are enormous. Children who develop secure attachment develop healthy relationships later in their lives because they felt safe and cared for at home growing up.

They grow up have a sense of security and confidence in future relationships outside their original home.

Since there are no barriers to normal personality development, children who display secure attachment are successful at integrating their ego states at around age five and experience their lives as a stream of memories that, while not perfect, give them a sense of continuity.

Kids and Trauma

Children who have been victims of trauma did not have the chance to identify with a safe and rational adult. Therefore, they form a vision of the world as dangerous and that no one is trustworthy. They may withdraw, or they may become aggressive, and seem unable to form normal bonds with anyone.

These children have often been forced to lie and steal to stay alive and have a mixed-up idea of what is good and bad social behavior.

They often have had to fend for themselves in terms of survival of their emotional and physical states and can appear aloof to other children. They are thus prone to bullying which intensifies their feelings of the world not being a safe place.

These feelings are often accompanied by the destructive decision that the child has no place in the world and should never have been born.

Disorganized Attachment

Unlike children who have securely attached to their caregivers, children who experience extreme trauma do not have a stable environment to grow up in. This deficit of caring sets these children up for the perfect storm in that their development is changed from the normal course forever.

Developing a unified sense of self also called associating the self, depends hugely on attaching securely to caregivers before the age of five. Severe and repeated trauma inhibits this connection, so, the child misses this important developmental milestone and the sense of self remains dissociated.

The Formation of Alters in Dissociative Identity Disorder

Because these children’s development has been arrested, their ego state formation becomes frozen in time.

As each traumatic event occurs, the ego state formed during the trauma to handle the situation is unable to interact with the total sense of self and thus becomes a splintered off time capsule of memory.

This means that as the child goes through their life, when they encounter new experiences, they do not simply recall how they handled this situation before. Instead, the ego state that was formed previously is activated and the child “becomes” who the child was in the previous event.

In Conclusion

Although attachment styles are set from early childhood, that does not mean adults cannot learn to live with their past and have a successful future. It does mean, however, that these adults will need to work harder to remain in relationships of all kinds.

To obtain an equilibrium and find peace, adults who have a disorganized attachment style will need to enter therapy. This means facing their past head-on and that is a painful and sometimes lengthy process. However, science has taught us that our brains are elastic in that we can and will learn different ways of dealing with our traumatic pasts.

One must never give up or use your attachment style as an excuse for bad behavior. Always remember that the tears will one day cease, and you will be, in many ways, healthier and more self-aware than most humans.

“Once we face our fear, once we treat our anxiety itself as a thing, we can then choose otherwise. Instead of filling the unknown in our minds with expectations of the tragic, we can choose to fill the void with a different expectation – the expectation of adventure.” David W. Jones

“Inevitably if we are to grow and change as adults, we must gradually learn to confront the challenges, paradoxes, problems and painful reality of an insecure world.” ― James P. Krehbiel

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