Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Frightened, threatening, and dissociative parental behavior in low-risk samples: Description, discussion, and interpretations

  • ERIK HESSE (a1) (a2) and MARY MAIN (a1)

In 1990 we advanced the hypothesis that frightened and frightening (FR) parental behavior would prove to be linked to both unresolved (U) adult attachment status as identified in the Adult Attachment Interview and to infant disorganized/disoriented (D) attachment as assessed in the Ainsworth Strange Situation. Here, we present a coding system for identifying and scoring the intensity of the three primary forms of FR behavior (frightened, threatening, and dissociative) as well as three subsidiary forms. We review why each primary form may induce fear of the parent (the infant's primary “haven of safety”), placing the infant in a disorganizing approach-flight paradox. We suggest that, being linked to the parent's own unintegrated traumatic experiences (often loss or maltreatment), FR behaviors themselves are often guided by parental fright, and parallel the three “classic” mammalian responses to fright: flight, attack, and freezing behavior. Recent studies of U to FR, as well as FR to D relations are presented, including findings regarding AMBIANCE/FR+. Links between dissociation, FR, U, and D are explored. Parallel processing and working memory are discussed as they relate to these phenomena.The work described in this paper was supported by a Guggenheim fellowship to the second author and by grants from the William B. Harris Foundation and the Amini Foundation for the Study of Affects. We are grateful to Alberto Amengual, Giovanni Liotti, and John Watson for directing us to varying portions of the literature discussed. Alvin Nye Main first pointed to the relevance of the quotation from Darwin.

Corresponding author
Address reprint requests and correspondence to: Erik Hesse, Department of Psychology, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720.
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Allen, J. P., Hauser, S. T., & Borman-Spurrell, E. (1996). Attachment theory as a framework for understanding sequelae of severe adolescent psychopathology: An 11-year follow-up study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 254263.

Arnsten, A. F. T. (1998). Catecholamine modulation of prefrontal cortical cognitive function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2, 436447.

Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1994). Developments in the concept of working memory. Neuropsychology, 8, 485493.

Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Schuengel, C., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (1999). Unresolved loss due to miscarriage: An addition to the Adult Attachment Interview. Attachment and Human Development, 1, 157170.

Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2003). No association of the dopamine (DRD4) and -521C/T polymorphisms with infant attachment disorganization. Attachment and Human Development, 6, 211218.

Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Juffer, F. (2005). Disorganized infant attachment and preventive interventions: A review and meta-analysis. Infant Mental Health Journal, 26, 191216.

Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 701725.

Bokhorst, C. L., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Fonagy, P., & Schuengel, C. (2003). The importance of shared environment in mother–infant attachment security: A behavioral genetic study. Child Development, 74, 17691782.

Carlson, E. A. (1998). A prospective longitudinal study of disorganized/disoriented attachment. Child Development, 69, 11071128.

Carlson, V., Cicchetti, D., Barnett, D., & Braunwald, K. (1989). Disorganized/disoriented attachment relationships in maltreated infants. Developmental Psychology, 25, 525531.

Cicchetti, D., & Rogosch, F. A. (1997). The role of self-organization in the promotion of resilience in maltreated children. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 799817.

Crick, F., & Koch, C. (1998). Consciousness and neuroscience. Cerebral Cortex, 8, 97107.

DeOliveira, C. A., Moran, G., & Pederson, D. R. (2005). Understanding the link between maternal adult attachment classifications and feelings about emotions. Attachment and Human Development, 7, 153170.

Elzinga, B. M., & Roelofs, K. (2005). Cortisol-induced impairments of working memory require acute sympathetic activation. Behavioral Neuroscience, 119, 98103.

Hesse, E. (1996). Discourse, memory, and the Adult Attachment Interview: A note with emphasis on the emerging “Cannot Classify” category. Infant Mental Health Journal, 17, 411.

Hesse, E., & Main, M. (2000). Disorganization in infant and adult attachment: Description, correlates, and implications for developmental psychopathology. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 10971127.

Hesse, E., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (1999). Propensities towards absorption are related to lapses in the monitoring of reasoning or discourse during the Adult Attachment Interview: A preliminary investigation. Attachment and Human Development, 1, 6791.

Hughes, P., & McGauley, G. (1997). Mother–infant interaction during the first year with a child who shows disorganization of attachment. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 14, 147158.

Kermoian, R., & Campos, J. J. (1988). Locomotor experience: A facilitator of spatial cognitive development. Child Development, 59, 595624.

Kihlstrom, J. F. (1987). The cognitive unconscious. Science, 237, 14451452.

Lakatos, K., Toth, I., Nemoda, Z., Ney, K., Sasvari-Szekely, M., & Gervai, J. (2000). Dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) polymorphism is associated with attachment disorganization in infants. Molecular Psychiatry, 5, 633637.

Lyons-Ruth, K., Bronfman, E., & Parsons, E. (1999). Maternal frightened, frightening, or atypical behavior and disorganized infant attachment patterns. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 64(3), 6796.

Lyons-Ruth, K., Connell, D. B., Zoll, D., & Stahl, J. (1987). Infants at social risk: Relations among infant maltreatment, maternal behavior, and infant behavior. Developmental Psychology, 23, 223232.

Lyons-Ruth, K., Yellin, C., Melnick, S., & Atwood, G. (2003). Childhood experiences of trauma and loss have different relations to maternal unresolved and Hostile–Helpless states of mind on the AAI. Attachment and Human Development, 5, 330352.

Macfie, J., Cicchetti, D., & Toth, S. L. (2001a). The development of dissociation in maltreated preschool-aged children. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 253234.

Macfie, J., Cicchetti, D., & Toth, S. L. (2001b). Dissociation in maltreated versus nonmaltreated preschool-aged children. Child Abuse and Neglect, 25, 12531267.

Madigan, S., Moran, G., & Pederson, R. (2006). Unresolved states of mind, disorganized attachment relationships, and disrupted mother–infant interactions of adolescent mothers and their infants. Developmental Psychology.

Main, M. (1990). Cross-cultural studies of attachment organization: Recent studies, changing methodologies and the concept of conditional strategies. Human Development, 33, 4861.

Main, M. (2000). The Adult Attachment Interview: Fear, attention, safety and discourse processes. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 10551096.

Main, M., & Cassidy, J. (1988). Categories of response to reunion with the parent at age 6: Predicted from infant attachment classifications and stable over a 1-month period. Developmental Psychology, 24, 415426.

Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton & E. Waters (Eds.), Growing points of attachment theory and research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50, 66104.

Main, M., & Stadtman, J. (1981). Infant response to rejection of physical contact by the mother: Aggression, avoidance and conflict. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 20, 292307.

Manassis, K., Bradley, S., Goldberg, S., Hood, J., & Swinson, R. P. (1994). Attachment in mothers with anxiety disorders and their children. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 33, 11061113.

Minde, K., & Hesse, E. (1996). The role of the Adult Attachment Interview in parent–infant psychotherapy: A case presentation. Infant Mental Health Journal, 17, 115126.

Mink, J. W. (1996). The basic ganglia: Focused selection and inhibition of competing motor programs. Progress in Neurobiology, 50, 381425.

Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Vanderlinden, J., & Spinhoven, P. (1998). Animal defensive reactions as a model from trauma-induced dissociative reactions. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11, 243260.

Ogawa, J. R., Sroufe, A. L., Weinfield, N. S., Carlson, E. A., & Egeland, B. (1997). Development and the fragmented self: Longitudinal study of dissociative symptomatology in a nonclinical sample. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 855879.

Ohman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108, 483522.

Putnam, F. W., Helmers, K., & Trickett, P. K. (1993). Development, reliability and validity of a child dissociation scale. Child Abuse and Neglect, 17, 731741.

Schuengel, C., van IJzendoorn, M., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J. (1999). Frightening, maternal behavior linking unresolved loss and disorganized infant attachment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67, 5463.

Sroufe, L. A., & Rutter, M. (1984). The domain of developmental psychopathology. Child Development, 55, 1729.

Tellegen, A., & Atkinson, G. (1974). Openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences (“absorption”), a trait related to hypnotic susceptibility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 83, 268277.

van IJzendoorn, M. H. (1995). Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment: A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the adult attachment interview. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 387403.

van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J. (1996). Attachment representations in mothers, fathers, adolescents, and clinical groups: A meta-analytic search for normative data. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 821.

van IJzendoorn, M. H., Schuengel, C., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J. (1999). Disorganized attachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, and sequelae. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 225249.

Vorra, P., Papaligoura, Z., Dunn, J., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Steele, H., & Kontopoulou, A. (2003). Early experiences and attachment relationships of Greek infants raised in residential group care. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 12081220.

Weinfield, N., Whaley, G., & Egeland, B. (2004). Continuity, discontinuity and coherence in attachment from infancy to late adolescence: Sequelae of organization and disorganization. Attachment and Human Development, 6, 7397.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 9
Total number of PDF views: 139 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 654 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.