Attachment Disorders in Children

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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