What All Parents Should Know About Attachment Disorders
Attachment is a psychological term used to describe the profound connection developed between a child and adult caregiver in the early stages of a child's life.
Attachment, or a lack thereof, can greatly affect a child's development, capacity to connect with others, and ability to effectively express emotions.
A child with attachment issues or an attachment disorder not only experiences difficulties managing their emotions and connecting with other people, but they also often feel unsafe and alone, commonly distrust others, fear getting too close to anyone emotionally, and commonly experience a lack of self-worth, anger, and a need to always feel in control.
Because a child with attachment issues lacks the skills required to build meaningful relationships with others, parents of children with attachment problems often find themselves emotionally and physically exhausted from trying to connect with their children only to be met with opposition, defiance, or, indifference.
Fortunately, attachment difficulties can be resolved over time with patience, love, a good deal of hard work, and professional assistance.
What Causes Attachment Problems?
Attachment issues occur when children aren't able to connect consistently with a parent or primary caregiver during the first few years of life.
If a young child frequently feels unacknowledged, isolated, uncared for, or abandoned they come to learn that they can't depend on others and that the world is a frightening and dangerous place.
This lack of connection can occur for any number of reasons, some of which may be completely unavoidable. Unfortunately, children under the age of three are unable to understand the reasons behind this lack of connection. To them it simply feels as if the world is unsafe and nobody cares.
Symptoms of Attachment Issues and Disorders
Attachment issues occur on a spectrum. While many children have some attachment issues, most mild attachment problems can be easily addressed, especially if recognized early on. On the other hand, more severe attachment issues such as reactive attachment disorder (RAD), often require professional assistance.
General symptoms of insecure attachment in babies and young children can include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Inconsolable crying
- Rejecting caregiver's efforts to connect
- Lack of smile
- Lack of interest in caregiver's activities
- Disinterest in interactive play
- Frequently rocking or comforting themselves
Reactive attachment disorder is often exhibited by children who've experienced abuse, severe neglect, or have been bounced around from one foster home to another, lived in orphanages, or taken away from their primary caregiver after establishing a bond.
Some signs of reactive attachment disorder can include:
- Anger problems – Children with RAD have extreme difficulty controlling their anger, whether they express it overtly – such as by throwing temper tantrums – or attempt to disguise it in socially acceptable yet passive-aggressive behaviors.
- A need to feel in control – Children with reactive attachment disorder will often do whatever they find necessary in order to avoid feelings of helplessness and maintain control, including being argumentative, defiant, and disobedient.
- Avoidance of physical displays of affection – For children with RAD, being touched and other displays of affection are often perceived as a threat. Therefore, it is not uncommon for children with reactive attachment disorder to avoid being touched or to laugh, flinch, or express pain when they are touched.
- Difficulty expressing affection appropriately – In addition to generally avoiding displays of affection, children with RAD may also be improperly affectionate with strangers while showing little if any affection for parents, primary caregivers, or other family members.
- Lack of conscience – Children with RAD often fail to demonstrate signs of guilt, remorse, sympathy, or empathy towards others when they've behaved badly.
You should keep in mind that simply because a child exhibits one or more of these symptoms it doesn't necessarily mean the child has attachment issues. Additionally, the symptoms listed above are similar to the symptoms of other problems such as autism spectrum disorders and ADHD.
If your child displays any of these symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with your pediatrician for a professional diagnosis. While it's never too late to resolve attachment issues, the earlier they are recognized and resolved the less likely they'll get worse and the easier they'll be to overcome.
If, on the other hand your child has reactive attachment disorder (RAD), it's likely that their early years were so disrupted that all of their future relationships will also be seriously impaired unless they receive professional help.
Getting the Help You Need
If your child is suffering from a severe attachment issues or has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, you should seek professional help as soon as possible.
Professional treatment for attachment disorders usually involves one or more of the following:
- Individual counseling and family therapy – A marriage and family therapist or other qualified mental health professional is likely to work with the child individually and with both the child and his or her primary caregivers in order to strengthen the attachment bond and help all parties involved to better understand and express themselves and communicate with each other.
- Play therapy – A specific type of child counseling known as play therapy can be extremely helpful in helping your child learn to express their emotions in healthy ways as well as develop social skills to help them interact with peers.
- Special education services – Many schools offer programs specifically designed to help children address emotional or behavioral difficulties while they learn the skills required for social and academic success.
- Parent education – Parents and primary caregivers of children with severe attachment issues are encouraged to learn as much as they can about attachment issues as well as attend parenting skills classes to help them learn effective intervention and coping techniques.
It should be noted that, while medication is sometimes used to treat conditions associated with attachment disorders – such as hyperactivity, anxiety, or depression – there is no "quick fix" for attachment problems.
Parenting a child with attachment issues can be an emotionally difficult, frustrating, and physically exhausting experience. It's not uncommon for parents to wonder if all the effort is worth it. Rest assured that it is and extra support can make all the difference!
A counselor or therapist who's experienced in helping children and parents resolve attachment issues can help your child and you create positive, lasting changes in your quality of life.
The sooner you seek help, the better! With time, effort, and a good deal of patience, attachment disorders can be overcome and your child can learn to trust you, feel safe, and enjoy exploring the world around them.
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For more information contact:
Haleh Rambod, M.A., MFT
2111 Geer Road, Suite 505-507
Turlock, CA 95382
4100 Moorpark Avenue, Suite 106
San Jose CA, 95117