Attachment & Reactive Attachment Disorders
Warning Signs, Symptoms, Treatment & Hope for Children with Insecure Attachment
Attachment is the deep and lasting connection established between a child and caregiver in the first few years of life. It profoundly affects your child’s development and his or her ability to express emotions and develop relationships. If you are the parent of a child with an attachment disorder, such as reactive attachment disorder, you may be physically and emotionally exhausted from trying to connect with your child, only to be met with opposition, defiance, or, maybe hardest of all, indifference.
A child with insecure attachment or an attachment disorder doesn’t have the skills necessary to build meaningful relationships. However, with the right tools, and a healthy dose of time, effort, patience, and love, it is possible to treat and repair attachment difficulties.
Understanding attachment problems and disorders
Children with attachment disorders or other attachment problems have difficulty connecting to others and managing their own emotions. This results in a lack of trust and self-worth, a fear of getting close to anyone, anger, and a need to be in control. A child with an attachment disorder feels unsafe and alone.
So why do some children develop attachment disorders while others don’t? The answer has to do with the attachment process, which relies on the interaction of both parent and child.
Attachment disorders are the result of negative experiences in this early relationship. If young children feel repeatedly abandoned, isolated, powerless, or uncared for—for whatever reason—they will learn that they can’t depend on others and the world is a dangerous and frightening place.
What causes reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems?
Reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems occur when children have been unable to consistently connect with a parent or primary caregiver. This can happen for many reasons:
- A baby cries and no one responds or offers comfort.
- A baby is hungry or wet, and they aren’t attended to for hours.
- No one looks at, talks to, or smiles at the baby, so the baby feels alone.
- A young child gets attention only by acting out or displaying other extreme behaviors.
- A young child or baby is mistreated or abused.
- Sometimes the child’s needs are met and sometimes they aren’t. The child never knows what to expect.
- The infant or young child is hospitalized or separated from his or her parents.
- A baby or young child is moved from one caregiver to another (can be the result of adoption, foster care, or the loss of a parent).
- The parent is emotionally unavailable because of depression, an illness, or a substance abuse problem.
As the examples show, sometimes the circumstances that cause the attachment problems are unavoidable, but the child is too young to understand what has happened and why. To a young child, it just feels like no one cares and they lose trust in others and the world becomes an unsafe place.
Early warning signs and symptoms of insecure attachment
Attachment problems fall on a spectrum, from mild problems that are easily addressed to the most serious form, known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
Although it is never too late to treat and repair attachment difficulties such as reactive attachment disorder, the earlier you spot the symptoms of insecure attachment and take steps to repair them, the better. With early detection, you can avoid a more serious problem. Caught in infancy, attachment problems are often easy to correct with the right help and support.
Signs and symptoms of insecure attachment in infants:
- Avoids eye contact
- Doesn’t smile
- Doesn’t reach out to be picked up
- Rejects your efforts to calm, soothe, and connect
- Doesn’t seem to notice or care when you leave them alone
- Cries inconsolably
- Doesn’t coo or make sounds
- Doesn’t follow you with his or her eyes
- Isn’t interested in playing interactive games or playing with toys
- Spend a lot of time rocking or comforting themselves
It’s important to note that the early symptoms of insecure attachment are similar to the early symptoms of other issues such as ADHD and autism. If you spot any of these warning signs, make an appointment with your pediatrician for a professional diagnosis of the problem.
Signs and symptoms of reactive attachment disorder
Children with reactive attachment disorder have been so disrupted in early life that their future relationships are also impaired. They have difficulty relating to others and are often developmentally delayed. Reactive attachment disorder is common in children who have been abused, bounced around in foster care, lived in orphanages, or taken away from their primary caregiver after establishing a bond.
Common signs and symptoms of reactive attachment disorder
- An aversion to touch and physical affection. Children with reactive attachment disorder often flinch, laugh, or even say “Ouch” when touched. Rather than producing positive feelings, touch and affection are perceived as a threat.
- Control issues. Most children with reactive attachment disorder go to great lengths to remain in control and avoid feeling helpless. They are often disobedient, defiant, and argumentative.
- Anger problems. Anger may be expressed directly, in tantrums or acting out, or through manipulative, passive-aggressive behavior. Children with reactive attachment disorder may hide their anger in socially acceptable actions, like giving a high five that hurts or hugging someone too hard.
- Difficulty showing genuine care and affection. For example, children with reactive attachment disorder may act inappropriately affectionate with strangers while displaying little or no affection towards their parents.
- An underdeveloped conscience. Children with reactive attachment disorder may act like they don’t have a conscience and fail to show guilt, regret, or remorse after behaving badly.
Inhibited reactive attachment disorder vs. disinhibited reactive attachment disorder
As children with reactive attachment disorder grow older, they often develop either an inhibited or a disinhibited pattern of symptoms:
- Inhibited symptoms of reactive attachment disorder. The child is extremely withdrawn, emotionally detached, and resistant to comforting. The child is aware of what’s going on around him or her—hypervigilant even—but doesn’t react or respond. He or she may push others away, ignore them, or even act out in aggression when others try to get close.
- Disinhibited symptoms of reactive attachment disorder. The child doesn’t seem to prefer his or her parents over other people, even strangers. The child seeks comfort and attention from virtually anyone, without distinction. He or she is extremely dependent, acts much younger than his or her age, and may appear chronically anxious.
Parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder: What you need to know
Parenting a child with insecure attachment or reactive attachment disorder can be exhausting, frustrating, and emotionally trying. It is hard to put your best parenting foot forward without the reassurance of a loving connection with your child. Sometimes you may wonder if your efforts are worth it, but be assured that they are. With time, patience, and concerted effort, attachment disorders can be repaired. The key is to remain calm, yet firm as you interact with your child. This will teach your child that he or she is safe and can trust you.
A child with an attachment disorder is already experiencing a great deal of stress, so it is imperative that you evaluate and manage your own stress levels before trying to help your child with theirs. Helpguide’s mindfulness toolkit can teach you valuable skills for managing stress and dealing with overwhelming emotions, leaving you to focus on your child’s needs.
Tips for parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder or insecure attachment
- Have realistic expectations. Helping your child with an attachment disorder may be a long road. Focus on making small steps forward and celebrate every sign of success.
- Patience is essential. The process may not be as rapid as you’d like, and you can expect bumps along the way. But by remaining patient and focusing on small improvements, you create an atmosphere of safety for your child.
- Foster a sense of humor and joy. Joy and humor go a long way toward repairing attachment problems and energizing you even in the midst of hard work. Find at least a couple of people or activities that help you laugh and feel good.
- Take care of yourself and manage stress. Reduce other demands on your time and make time for yourself. Rest, good nutrition, and parenting breaks help you relax and recharge your batteries so you can give your attention to your child.
- Find support and ask for help. Rely on friends, family, community resources, and respite care (if available). Try to ask for help before you really need it to avoid getting stressed to breaking point. You may also want to consider joining a support group for parents.
- Stay positive and hopeful. Be sensitive to the fact that children pick up on feelings. If they sense you’re discouraged, it will be discouraging to them. When you are feeling down, turn to others for reassurance.
taken from helpguide.org website