Infants suffering from attachment disorders are sometimes not able to receive the attention they need from their caregivers. They are unable to form any emotional attachment with their caregivers and struggle to bond with them.
Early connections with caregivers are crucial for babies’ development of secure emotional attachments. When their caregiver is absent, they experience healthy anxiety, and when they are reunited with their caregiver, they experience relief.
Attachment disorders can be treated, but early intervention is crucial. Children who suffer from these disorders may face ongoing problems throughout their life without treatment.
Importance of attachment
The consistent presence of a caregiver helps infants establish a strong attachment. Whenever an adult feeds, changes, or comforts a crying baby, it teaches the baby that they can rely on the adult to care for them and keep them safe.
It is common for children who have a secure attachment to form more positive relationships with others and solve problems more easily. They are more open to exploring and trying new things, and their reactions to stress are less extreme.
When infants experience negative or unpredictable reactions from caregivers, this can lead to an insecure attachment pattern. Adults may not be viewed favorably by these children, since they are perceived as unreliable.
Insecure attachments often lead to avoidance, exaggeration of distress, anger and anxiety in children. They may refuse to interact with others.
Read: Anxious Attachment Style
Types of attachment disorders
Attachment disorders are divided into two categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: disinhibited social engagement disorder and reactive attachment disorder. Children often exhibit these conditions around their first birthdays. In the early stages, failure to thrive and disinterest in interaction are often warning signs.
Disinhibited social engagement disorder
Excessive friendliness with strangers is a classic indication of disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED). Children might turn to a stranger for comfort, sit on someone else’s lap, and not exhibit any distress when their caregivers aren’t around.
They also tend not to ask trusted adults for help before entering a strange or even threatening situation, even when they are in a safe place. It is not uncommon for these children to seek affection from strangers rather than trusted adults when they have this condition.
Reactive attachment disorder
Infants and young children suffering from reactive attachment disorder do not seek comfort from caregivers. Reactive attachments can cause children to withdraw from touch, avoid eye contact or be hypervigilant.
The symptoms of reactive attachment disorder vary according to the child. Children who exhibit such behaviors may display irritability, withdrawal, lack of comfort-seeking, and avoid physical contact with others.
Related: Types of Attachment Styles
Symptoms of attachment disorder
Among the signs of attachment disorder are:
- Intimidation or bullying
- Extreme clinginess
- Failure to smile
- Angry outbursts
- Inability to make eye contact
- Unafraid of strangers
- Inattention to caregivers
- Oppositional behaviors
- Impulse control is lacking
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Playing with others without joining in
- Feelings of withdrawal or listlessness
Attachment disorder is likely to affect a child’s academic, social, emotional and behavioral development. Teenagers are also more likely to develop legal issues during adolescence. Attachment disordered symptoms in children reflect having lower IQs and more difficulty with language.
Additionally, they are more likely to suffer from mental disorders. An examination of attachment disorders in children in 2013 revealed the following:
- 52% had ADHD
- 29% had oppositional defiant disorder
- 29% had conduct disorder
- 19% had PTSD
- 14% had an autism spectrum disorder
- 14% had a specific phobia
- 1% had a tic disorder
On average, 85% of the children had an additional psychiatric condition on top of attachment disorder.
Attachment disorders may develop in some children while they don’t in similar environments. Research studies have shown that attachment disorders are associated with neglect or deprivation, repeated changes of primary caregivers, or being reared in an institutional setting.
Attachment disorders may also be caused by:
- Abuse (physical, emotional or sexual)
- Parents with poor parenting skills
- Anger issues with parents
- Parental neglect
- Psychiatrically ill parents
- Drinking or using drugs during pregnancy
In attachment disorders, many children have been neglected, and they have often been subjected to trauma or frequent caregiver changes.
It is fairly rare for people to suffer from attachment disorders. Foster children and institutionalized children are at the highest risk. The most at risk groups are:
- Foster children who have experienced many different foster care providers
- Orphans who have spent time in orphanages
- Children who have been exposed to multiple traumatic events
- Children who have been removed from a primary caretaker after forming a strong relationship
Attachment disorder treatment
Stable and healthy environments are critical to helping children develop secure attachments. If a child is continuously placed in foster homes or an orphanage, he or she is unlikely to develop a meaningful relationship with his or her caregiver.
The symptoms of an attachment disorder rarely go away right away, even in loving homes with consistent caregivers. People around them tend to pull away from them due to their behavior problems and push them away. Usually, they require intensive treatment that continues over time.
The treatment usually involves the following steps:
- Psychotherapy: Attachment disorders are treated with psychotherapy that identifies problem areas and reduces problematic behavior. A therapist can help you with this on a one-on-one basis, but caregivers may also be involved.
- Social skills training: It is beneficial for children to develop social skills in order to have better relationships with others in the class and social settings. These skills may be practiced with the help of the child’s therapist and caregivers in order to build confidence and competence.
- Family therapy: Families may benefit from family therapy by learning new ways to interact and respond to each other.
Caregivers can provide more secure attachments for children when they are involved in mental health treatment. It is important to treat comorbid conditions as well.
Link to personality disorders in adulthood
An attachment disorder does not disappear on its own. When left untreated, their symptoms may change as they get older, but they will likely have ongoing problems as adults, including difficulties regulating their emotions.
Psychopaths may also exhibit attachment disorders. Researchers found that children with attachment disorders are associated with callousness and unemotionality. It is clear that attachment disorders and antisocial personality disorders are linked, but there is no evidence that attachment disorders lead to antisocial behavior.
Attachment disorder in adults
Attachment disorders that develop in childhood may negatively affect relationships in adulthood, and more research is needed in this area.
When dealing with attachment disorder, a person may have difficulty trusting others or feeling safe in a relationship. Consequently, they may find it difficult to form and maintain friendships or romantic relationships.
There are similar types of attachment in adults as there are in children. Here are a few of them:
- Secure: A secure attachment means that an adult had a very positive relationship with their primary caregiver. In their relationships, they feel comfortable and have little relationship anxiety.
- Avoidant or dismissing: Relationships with these attachments are often characterized by independence and discomfort with closeness. They may have been unaware of their needs as a child.
- Anxious or preoccupied: Relationships with these attachments feel uncertain and adults with these attachments crave intimacy. This style of attachment may develop when a child’s caregiver has intermittent or unpredictable availability.
- Disorganized: This attachment style affects a person’s patterns of relationships, including intense or chaotic patterns in which they seek closeness then push it away. It can be triggered by childhood abuse or trauma.
Consult your child’s physician if you suspect your child has an attachment disorder. He or she can perform an evaluation, diagnose your child, or refer you to a child mental health specialist. When an intervention is made earlier, the better the outcome for the child.
You can also turn to a parenting class for help with an attachment issue. Attachment disordered children need special attention. When your child knows how to respond appropriately, he or she will develop a stronger connection with caregivers.