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Attachment Disorders in Children

By: Beth Morrisey MLIS - Updated: 3 Feb 2019 | comments*Discuss
Children Attachment Disorders Inhibited

Attachment disorders are conditions in which infants and young children fail to establish any sort of emotional bonding with their primary caregivers. This means that the baby or child’s emotional needs of love, comfort, affection, care and nurturing, go unmet in the first few years of life. Understanding the types, causes and warnings signs of attachment disorders, as well as how they are diagnosed and treated, should help parents and other adults care for children suffering from such a condition.

Types of Attachment Disorders

Though the phrase “attachment disorder” is often used to encompass any kind of attachment issues there are actually two distinct forms of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), the most well known name for an attachment disorder. The inhibited form of RAD is characterised by a lack of expectation of care and comfort. The disinhibited form is characterised by a general and excessive familiarity, even with strangers. Sometimes the disinhibited form is also known as Disinhibited Attachment Disorder (DAD).

Causes of Attachment Disorders

Attachment disorders tend to result from a young child learning that his or her needs will not be met. This can be anything from not having a nappy changed when it is dirty to not being fed when hungry. Children are at risk of attachment disorders when:
  • They suffer abuse or neglect at the hands of caregivers.
  • They are the result of unwanted pregnancies.
  • Their primary caregivers suffer from depression.
  • They are separated from primary caregivers, such as due to death or illness.
  • They suffer from persistent and chronic pain, for example colic or ear infections.
  • Their mothers smoked, drank alcohol or abused drugs during their pregnancies.
  • They are raised in emotionally empty environments.
  • Their primary caregivers change often, for example different relatives or foster carers.

Warning Signs of Attachment Disorders

The warning signs of attachment disorders can be specific to the young children, but there are also warning signs that may be apparent from their parents or other primary caregivers. Very often children who suffer from attachment disorders have:
  • A lack of eye contact with others.
  • No desire to gaze at others when they move around rooms.
  • Poor impulse control.
  • A sad or listless appearance with infrequent smiles or laughter.
  • No interest in interactive games.
  • Consistent self-soothing behaviours, often used instead of seeking soothing from others.
  • Abnormally social, though superficial, behaviours.
  • Hostile, angry, defensive and/or neglectful parents or primary caregivers.

Diagnosing an Attachment Disorder

The diagnosis of an attachment disorder is made by a mental health professional. Children who are diagnosed with such conditions usually have social relationships inappropriate to their ages (and not due to developmental delay), either no interest in social interactions or excessive yet shallow interactions, and either primary caregivers who do not meet physical and emotional needs or frequently changing primary caregivers. A psychiatrist will usually diagnose an attachment disorder following a full evaluation.

Treating an Attachment Disorder

There is no single method of treating attachment disorders rather a mix of counselling, education, family therapy and medication may be used. Children who are a serious risk to themselves or others may be placed in residential treatment, and parents or primary caregivers may be asked to take parenting skills classes if that would be best for the family as a whole. Children who show an aversion to physical contact may also be prescribed physical contact in a therapeutic setting to become more used to such displays of affection.

Attachment disorders in children under the age of 5 are characterised by a lack of emotional bonding with their primary caregivers. Understanding the types of attachment disorders, causes, warning signs, method of diagnosis and common treatment options are important for those caring for or working with children suffering from such conditions.

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Attachment Disorder deserves more recognition here in the UK, I have found a number of sites in the US on RAD yet hardly any in the UK. It’s made out to be such a rare disorder ( only about 10% of the UK population) well I find that hard to believe as two of my step-kids have it, their mother also had it and my mum is a Foster Carer and almost every child in her care was diagnosed with AD. It deserves the funding, therapy and treatment that any other disorder such as Autism or ADHD would get. I have been trying to get help for my step- kids for almost 4 years now and they are approaching their teens, only now as it’s become too apparent to ignore in secondary school have we finally made progress and were given an appointment with the educational physiologist . Have now been told we could be waiting over a year for a CAMHs federal. So my daughters will probs be about 13&15 before we get any diagnosis or help which is partly why this disorder goes on to becoming personality disorder in adult life. I’m sick of being told “there just isn’t the funding” these kids need serious help and sadly,love is not enough!
Nelly - 3-Feb-19 @ 7:28 PM
Hiya my so is 9 and he has just been diagnosed with attachment disorder they keep telling me it's not my fault but everything I am ready on line about it seems to make out its my fault but I did everything as I was a single mum the constantly cuddled him and showed him how much I love him ye we have moved around a couple of times now we are settled in our home 2 years ago I had an new baby and they both show so much affection to each other. I do see the jealousy and the anger and everything else that come with it a just really need advice on how to help him and get him back I am one very broken mummy on the edge of a broken heart ????????????
Weeyin2209 - 28-Apr-18 @ 1:23 AM
Hi is there any group for attachments issues for parents to know how to help your child
None - 13-Jun-17 @ 4:45 PM
My 7 year old granddaughter has recently been diagnosed with attachment disorder and I'm so very upset about how this comes about. My son and his partner split up almost 4 years ago, they have both moved on from one another and are in other relationships, my son has a lovely partner and now both live together. My granddaughter's mother on the other hand left the family home and started a new relationship, (I think even before my son and her parted). She has moved home 3 times so far and now has another baby with her on off boyfriend and my granddaughter was taken from our small local school to a bigger school where her mother lives about 3 miles away. It's only now that we have noticed her behaviour has changed especially in school where she has very little friends (makes me want to cry for her). My son has her every weekend and although children will be children at times, it's not obvious to me that she has this disorder... (I run a public house) and when she comes up on weekends she has no problems communicating and being creative, talking to my customers like any other 7 year old, which only makes me think there is a problem at home. Her mum has stopped her coming up to my son's on several occasions just because she can, and keeps banging on that she is her mother with no regards to her father's feelings. My son has now decided to go to court to get shared access so that my granddaughter can at least have some normality in her life of how a family unit should be, I know she hates it when she's not allowed to come up to her father and I'm just wondering would this be a factor in how she is feeling and how she has been diagnosed with this disorder. Any advice would be greatful, it makes me sad that she is not happy living with her mother.
Nuttynats - 7-Mar-17 @ 12:12 PM
Since my little girl was a baby could see that something was not right as I have other children an she was never at the level where they would have been at her age when see started school she was so fair behind all the other kids her age we spoke to teacher many times an they told us she was fine we took her to the doctor s over and over till someone listened to us know at 5 they have keeper her behind in school so she's no longer with her class mates she's keeps her self to herself and has had all different kinds of test done on her they said they think she had autism but after the doctor's spoke to the school with out us they come to the conclusion that she didn't meet the autism standards because she has most of the things but not all of them so know they are telling us that this is wot they think is wrong with her and after reading this I'm truly heartbroken my and my other half don't drink or take drugs we are very loving parents and alway are there for all are children none of my children have anything like my little girl has she can't talk property she still can't read she's just starting to understand colour she gets mad for no reason an hit out she still needs help to go to the toilet and she loves spinning around and never gets dizzy if she gets something into her head she will ask it over an over again for hours she has to tap the wall when she walks past it every time she doesn't sleep till she drops then we have to put her into bed as she normally ends up asleep on the floor she's on go all the time she can't stop moving and she never stays to do the same thing she's always she's very loud and in ur face but she will not go an play with people she don't know or talk to adults she don't know I don't know wot is wrong with my daughter but I definitely don't think she has this if anyone can help me please feel free to give me ur thoughts thanks
Emz - 20-Jan-17 @ 9:34 AM
After years of trying to get help with my son he has been diagnosed with attachment disorder, when I asked what could have caused this, I was given alot of maybes this or maybe that. I have asked all the professional involved where I can go to get help, as my son's behaviour is becoming more and more worrying but no one seems to know what to do to help me. My son's behaviour is very unpredictable and can change within minutes without warning or reason. He is putting himself in alot of danger and is hurting others,including stabbing a child in his class with a pencil for no reason. If anyone knows of any support groups and advice that would be great
kelly - 29-Feb-16 @ 4:41 PM
Barnie - Your Question:
Are there any support groups for parents whose children have attachment issues?

Our Response:
Try the British Association for Adoption and Fostering
KidsBehaviour - 27-Jan-16 @ 2:45 PM
Are there any support groups for parents whose children have attachment issues?
Barnie - 26-Jan-16 @ 4:05 PM
My story haunts me . My children have been affected by my addiction which I finally after years battling with managed to conquer. I had been using alcohol for many years to cope with my own attachment issues in childhood. 3 Years ago I made a calculated decision to get help so that I could break the cycle and be the best parent I could. I know and understand attachment issues because 1. I have experienced them and2. I studied them at Uni My children were both removed from my care during the difficult times and I went through a process to have them both back. I got my oldest son back first and he seems undamaged and quite resilient to his past, He does however shown signs of attachment and has fear (IE) cant sleep without the light on and internal anger. My youngest son on the other hand is so unruly and defiant that I feel at times he is going to break me. I have tried time out, I have tried a board to catch positive behaviour, I've tried taking his toys from him and I'm very assertive with things but nothing is working. He clearly displays reactive attachment disorder and I've been told by my GP that a Calms assessment may take as long as 18months ... I cannot wait that long he needs to be supported beyond what I can offer. I cannot afford to pay £85 a session for a child psychologistdo you have any information or support you can offer?
Natalie - 25-Jan-16 @ 12:27 PM
Hi, I'm 15 and I was diagnosed with this disorder when I was about 5. I have had therapy ever since. So far I have had about 6-7 different therapists. My adoptive mum said that I opened up to my first therapist but that she then went on maternity leave and I got another one... She said that I never opened up to any of the others because I was frightened. She said that I had a very strong therapeutic bond with my first therapist and when she left it broke the bond and caused a great impact on my ability to open up to others. Could this be true? And if so how do learn to get better? How do I learn to use words to express how I feel? I don't want to hurt myself the way I do. I've been hospitalized 3 times for attempted suicide.... I want to learn how to get better!! Please.... Someone help me.....
dying-angel - 11-Sep-15 @ 3:07 PM
@Raylou. What a sad story. You would need to speak to a specialist about this - it could be that he is covering up his trauma by denying his mother's existencee etc. Maybe one of our other readers has experienced something similar and can comment though so good luck.
KidsBehaviour - 4-Dec-14 @ 2:10 PM
hi im applying for a special guardianship on my nephew, hes been in 3 placements with social services and he calls everyone of the carersmum and is loving towards everyone however he may well be shortly diagnosed with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, his mum(my sister) died 3 years ago he was just 5 and she was an alcoholic, previous to that she was a heroin addict, I don't think he understands things aswell as other kids and he seems to have forgotten his mother already as his now carer says he looks at her picture and asks who is that lady , he also apparently does not recognise his brother unless it is in a family surrounding,please can someone give me some advice regarding his attachments and what he seems to be displaying/?? thanks
raylou - 2-Dec-14 @ 10:07 PM
@bex26. We hope you can find some information on this website and also get support from our readers on this.
KidsBehaviour - 24-Oct-14 @ 2:20 PM
hi i have been informed that my son may have attachment issues so i am currently looking up help and support so i can help my son to overcome this. if anyone could help me with useful sites or support groups etc then can you please reply. thank you.
bex26 - 23-Oct-14 @ 1:32 PM
I would like to know if you can send me out some information on attachment disorder and post traumatic stress disorder as i have a 13 year old nephew living with me and have no information about this to help me and my husband out
kikki - 14-Mar-14 @ 12:08 PM
I had an observation of me and my 7 yr old son by a clinical physcologist, who thinks my son has compulsive behaviour. My son has been placed with the father who made both of us experience his domestic voilence for over 7 yrs now. By social services. This is very damaging for my son. Will my sons compulsive behaviour show up because he feels safe when hes with me?
Blue - 22-Jun-11 @ 9:02 PM
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