Entropy Rules

Disorganized Attachment:

Cognitive Conflict, Schemata And Affect

    When a parent is unable to help their child regulate distress, the child fails to receive the co-regulative scaffolding that comes from the parent's emotional support during attachment interactions marked by child distress (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Ideally, the parent is able to balance competing objectives in the parenting interaction in a way that promotes the development of emotion regulation within the developing child. When this type of attuned interaction is lacking, the result is a developing child who is unable to cope healthily with difficult emotions (e.g., Bailey et al., 2007). This lack of parental emotional support, also called emotional neglect, is itself a form of maltreatment.
    The resulting compromised emotion regulation capacities may persist indefinitely (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Emotions in general, rather than becoming meaningful internal emotional signals, become confusing and problematic as the child lacks the experiences that help them connect their experience of emotions to the causes of emotion (e.g., unmet needs) and strategies for coping with the emotion (e.g., asking for help; Kobak & Madsen, 2008). As the person continues to develop, implicit memory traces of emotional states of mind become detached from the original context of maltreatment, and these states can be reactivated in future attachment-related contexts (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014).

Cognitive Schemata

    Maltreatment also shapes the development of internal working models, or cognitive schemata, that impact how a person perceives the self, others, and the world at large. Cognitive schemata shape self-concept and expectations of other people in relationships, which in turn affect behaviors. Maltreatment negatively impacts cognitive self-system development and representational processes in problematic ways that can compromise social-emotional functioning (e.g., negatively biased social information processing and impaired school functioning, [Cicchetti & Valentino, 2006; DeBellis, 2001/2005; Teicher, 2002]; dissociation and impaired metacognition [Fonagy, 1997] as well as lower IQ and cognitive functioning [Shonkoff et al., 2011; Palasznski & Nemeroff, 2009; Norman et al., 2012].
    The explicit cognitive effects of maltreatment may become evident only later in life as the child capacity for cognition grows. In the moment of maltreatment, the child is faced with an unsolvable dilemma: the person that the child feels biologically driven toward in an effort to be soothed is simultaneously the source of distress. The attachment system powerfully motivates the developing child to maintain proximity to the primary caregiver for the sake of survival, so the child is unlikely to construe maltreatment as such. Over time, the developing child may begin to understand the harsh treatment they receive and resultant feelings as evidence of their own unworthiness, a construal that maintains a perception of the maltreating caregiver as competent. This construal destroys the child's developing sense of self-esteem, but makes continued dependence on the caregiver more tolerable to the child. This may in part explain the problematic self-concepts that are characteristic of survivors of child maltreatment, such as viewing the self as fundamentally flawed and unworthy of kind treatment (Freyd & Birrell, 2013).
    Biases in deployment of attention and memory retrieval also underlie the associated working models based in traumatic maltreatment. Lynch and Cicchetti (1998) found that child maltreatment predicted insecure caregiver models. Maltreated children showed a memory bias towards negative caregiver events and associated negative affect compared to securely attached children who showed well-developed memories for both positive and negative events (Kirsh & Cassidy, 1997). Insecure maltreated children reported the highest proportion of negative mother stimuli, indicating maltreated people preferentially direct attention and processing towards negative, threatening interpersonal information (Lynch & Cicchetti, 1998). This may help to explain why adult survivors of traumatic childhoods often report intense preoccupation with intrusive memories of traumatic events and hypervigilance to current and future threats (Lynch & Cicchetti, 1998).
    Maltreated children have been shown to more easily assimilate aggressive stimuli into their existing worldview, which may help explain why maltreated children are hypervigiliant for aggressive stimuli (Rieder & Cicchetti, 1989). However, this could be harmful when this negative attention and memory bias is applied to neutral or ambiguous situations. The increased anxiety and biased cognitive tendencies demonstrated in survivors of child maltreatment can lead to outcomes such as impaired ability to concentrate on schoolwork, contributing to poor school performance (Rieder & Cicchetti, 1989).
    To summarize, child maltreatment leads to negative internal working models, compromised social cognition (weakened sense of self and other), and biases in attention and memory towards negative and aggressive stimuli. Together, these difficulties impact not only interpersonal relationships, but also the ability to concentrate and succeed in school.


⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.

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