The Mechanics Of Childhood Dissociation

Dissociation is closely tied to stressful states and situations. If a person has an inner conflict, they may start dissociating when thinking about it.

Or if they are terrified of social situations, they may experience dissociation when around people.

Dissociation is a common response to trauma. This is when our psyche makes us disconnect from what’s happening in order to make it more tolerable to endure.

Dissociation In Children:

A child may stare at nothing and forget parts of their life or what they were doing moments ago. Or they can act as if they just woke up in response to someone calling their name.

Coupled with sudden changes in activity levels (like a child being lethargic one minute and hyperactive the next), these symptoms are often misinterpreted as Attention Deficit Disorder or Bipolar Disorder.

So what does a child do when they experience stress and trauma? Since they can’t resolve it by themselves, sometimes they dissociate.

The Role Of The Child’s Caregivers:

A child’s caregivers may even be the ones who traumatize the child. That’s not to say that it always happens out of spite. But even when done with good intentions or out of ignorance, the effects on the child’s psyche are still the same.

A child can’t attribute responsibility for their trauma to their caregiver since they need them to survive, so they learn to blame themselves for it. This requires that they justify the abusive behavior of their caregivers.

People often think of sexual abuse as the cause of a child’s trauma. But that certainly isn’t always the case. Whatever triggers the child does not have to actually happen to them. It can be something they witness.

Role Of Attachments:

There is no single cause that has been identified explaining the phenomenon known as dissociation.

But some clinicians believe that the attachments formed between the child and their caregiver could play a substantial role in the risk of developing dissociative symptoms.

One form of attachment is called disorganized attachment. It occurs when someone mistreats a child in some way or has unrealistic expectations of the child. Like relying on the child for their own care.

Disorganized Attachment:

Caregivers who act in ways that give rise to disorganized attachment are prone to behave inconsistently. At times they may act intrusive and at other times they might withdraw. This causes confusion for the child.

Then the child has incompatible views that are difficult to reconcile and combine into a coherent structure. This confusion leaves the child to wonder who their parents are, and therefore who they are.

This kind of fragmentation lays the groundwork for dissociative experiences.

The child then faces the dilemma of both protecting themselves and maintaining a relationship with their caregiver, which is confusing.

Concept Of Betrayal Trauma:

An American researcher Jennifer J. Freyd, who is best known for her theories of betrayal trauma, explains that the sense of betrayal explains why some children forget the abuse. Or put it out of their minds altogether.

If the child copes by dissociating, it makes it easier to continue daily life with the parent than if they were fully aware of the traumatic past experiences.

Many of these parents actually experienced the same mistreatment in their own childhood.

Some researchers found that mothers who experience a stressful or traumatic event within the first two years of their child’s life increases the chance that the child will have dissociative symptoms and a disorganized attachment style.


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  1. Another good book is “ Widen the Window. Training your brain and body to thrive during stress and recover from trauma” by Elizabeth A . Stanley, Ph. D.

  2. Well written, Brenda. Currently going through a book again…so much in it, hard to absorb enough in one reading. I highly recommend it to anyone who suffered trauma growing up or in the military or some other horrific event…there is some in there for both adults and children as to when trauma occurred. It is called: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD. I am sleeping better just reading this…there is comfort in finding understanding, even in a book!! Even if we manage to forget most of our abuse, our bodies do not.

    1. Sooooo many credible people have recommended The Body Keeps the Score, including Rachael Denhollander, the brave woman who got the ball rolling to get Larry Nassar convicted of sexually abusing hundreds of females.

      I got the book, and can’t wait to experience the healing it will bring!

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