Helping a Loved One with Dissociation

What is Dissociation?

Dissociation is a tendency to unlink from the present moment, and disconnect (dis-associate) from what is going on. Everybody does this from time to time, when we stop concentrating or daydream. Some people do this in a more pronounced way, and may become vague, numb, or unresponsive.

Some people who learned to dissociate at a young age may have difficulty linking up their experiences from one mood to another, or one moment to the next, and may be diagnosed with a dissociative disorder.

What Causes Dissociative Disorders?

Research on dissociation suggests that the primary cause of dissociative disorders is unmet emotional needs during infancy, childhood and/or adolescence. All children are born unable to meet their own survival needs, and unable to settle their own emotions; the care of loving adults is essential to healthy human development.

When a child's caregivers are unable to tune in to the child's needs and respond appropriately, a child may learn to dissociate either their needs, their emotions, or their emotional responses to the pain of their unmet needs. Learning to cut off from and be unaware of one’s needs or painful experiences can help a child to cope with a difficult environment, and can even help a child to survive without adding stress to their family, or inviting potentially dangerous reactions from their family.

Unfortunately, using dissociation as a survival strategy can leave the child -and the adult that the child eventually becomes- vulnerable to strong, painful and overwhelming emotional experiences later in life when those early experiences are mirrored or triggered by events in the present.

How Can I Help my Loved One Who Dissociates?

Taking an interest in your loved one's treatment, if they want you to, may help them to feel more secure, meaning that they will dissociate less- recall that they learned to dissociate because they didn’t feel safe, emotionally or otherwise, when they grew up. If your loved one is willing to share some information about what triggers their dissociation, and what other emotions or parts of themselves they dissociate into, you may learn how to help your loved one to stay more present, how to make each part of them to feel safe and secure, and how to build links between all their parts.

Patience, kindness, care and concern are the things that will most help them to establish safety in the present, which will help them to re-integrate their emotions and their personalities and become more emotionally stable.

Do's and Don'ts

  • Do:
    • Learn about dissociation and their therapy if they want to involve you. Validate their needs and their attempts to heal through therapy, and help them to make use of their therapy by understanding and being curious.
    • Learn about grounding skills and helping your loved one to stay in the present.
    • Learn about what triggers your loved one to dissociate, and help them to avoid triggers where possible, and manage triggers when needed.
    • Do your best not to be a trigger yourself, and recognise that this will not always be possible.
    • If your loved one has been triggered, focus on being a safe, kind, compassionate presence, and help your loved one to ground back into the present.
    • Give your loved one space when they ask for it, and nurturing when they ask for it, and ask them what they want and need.
    • Get help for yourself if you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed by your loved one's distress, or your own difficulties in life.
  • Don't:
    • Expect a quick recovery. Recovery from a dissociative disorder is definitely possible, but it takes time, courage and enormous effort from the person who dissociates.
    • Expect your loved one to learn to stay grounded straight away, or be able to ground quickly every time they dissociate.
    • Invalidate your loved one's feelings; they may be reacting to something overwhelming from a long time ago with a very valid and proportionate reaction to that past event. Respond to how they are feeling, and guide them back to the present: "I can see that you are really frightened right now, but it's me. Look at me. You are safe with me."
    • Assume that your loved one is fully present, and able to behave like the competent adult that they sometimes are if they look distracted or are acting in an unusual way.

For More Information

Academic References

Dell, P F & O’Neil, J A., Eds. (2009) Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders: DSM-V and Beyond. London: Routledge.

Forgash, C & Copeley, M (2008) Healing the Heart of Trauma and Dissociation with EMDR and Ego State Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Krakauer, SY (2001) Treating Dissociative Identity: the power of the collective heart. New York: Brunner-Routledge.