What is an Attachment Disorder? Types and Treatment

Imagine rooms full of babies where none of them cry. Picture children sitting in a room together completely silent with blank looks on their faces. Walking into this space you might not even realize there were dozens, sometimes hundreds, of children present because it is so quiet.

At first we wonder if there’s some sort of powerful abuse going on. Perhaps they are hurt or filled with fear of being loud? Then we realize these infants and children are suffering from attachment disorders. They do not cry because they know nobody will respond. There is no laughing and fun because they’ve never been given a chance to trust someone enough to experience this joy.

These are memories many of us have from viewing orphanages on TV throughout the years. Some of us have even traveled to these orphanages and witnessed first hand what it is like to be surrounded by silent infants. It’s a chilling realization that they do not trust anyone will take care of them if they cry, so they remain silent.

When babies and children act more like robots than people, it’s heartbreaking and disturbing. During the ’80s and ‘90s we saw much more footage of these types of places than we see now. However it is still a stark reality for millions of children worldwide.

We also see these types of reactions and responses in American children. In some cases, they are this profound and obvious. In other cases, it may be a child who does not believe their parent or caregiver is reliable.

A child who would prefer to find comfort from a stranger as much as comfort from their parents. Teens who withdraw more than usual and suffer from oppositional defiant disorder often are dealing with insecure attachments.

What is an Attachment Disorder?

It can be easy to believe attachment disorders would affect abandoned and neglected children. Harder to accept is that our own children, teens, or even ourselves might be struggling with one. The statistics on attachment disorders are staggering and seem to be rising. Perhaps it’s a result of disconnection from social media.

Maybe it’s a result of the high-stress and high-sensory input world we live in. Parents, couples, friends, and children alike may all struggle with developing strong attachment and relationships.

Even loving families can struggle with insecure attachment. Attachment disorder is a broad term for those who struggle to form meaningful relationships. These can take on many different forms and have a wide array of consequences in one’s life.

Types of Attachment Disorders

Most attachment disorders are only diagnosed in children. Adults can certainly display signs and symptoms of an attachment disorder but obtaining a diagnosis is much less likely. Disorders can vary from mild to severe. Sometimes the impact on daily life is minor and almost unnoticed to totally debilitating and pervasive.

Infants who are severely neglected and ignored can develop failure to thrive. Even if the child is fed enough, has proper hygiene, and is otherwise safe, a lack of attachment will influence their growth.

When babies are not held or gazed upon lovingly they can develop lifelong consequences in terms of physical, emotional, social, and behavioral development. They’ll often grow up smaller in stature and display various mental and emotional difficulties that may persist throughout their life.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is the most well-known attachment disorder. This most often presents as emotionally withdrawing from caregivers, friends, a spouse, children, etc. People with RAD usually don’t respond to comfort or desire to be comforted. Future relationships are usually impacted as well because the child feels unsafe and alone throughout their lifetime.

Anxious Attachment often manifests in children who are afraid of abandonment. This can occur as a result of neglect or after the birth of a new sibling. Extreme cases of separation anxiety are seen as well as a preoccupation with their parent or caregiver.

Ambivalent Attachment displays as extreme rage. These children often become preoccupied with death, gore, and pain. They may hurt others and display no ability to understand or feel emotion about the pain they are causing. Animals may become a target of their rage and they seem to be unable to recognize why it is wrong to hurt an animal.

Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder can seem like the opposite of RAD. These individuals are often incredibly friendly and affectionate with strangers. Children show no fear of strangers and no shyness. They might seek comfort from strangers, engage with strangers on a deep level rather quickly, or be physically close to strangers without hesitation.

These disorders develop when a child’s needs are not met or they are not receiving appropriate attention. Lack of eye contact, constantly distracted parenting, or emotionally unavailable parenting may lead to an attachment disorder later in life.

This can occur in loving parents as a result of illness, postpartum depression, divorce, trauma, or other uncontrollable situations. Or they can occur as a direct result of abuse and neglect.

Children coming out of foster care, from orphanages, or children’s homes frequently have attachment disorders. At the very least, they often struggle to form healthy attachments or are wary of trusting. This has developed as a defense mechanism against all the hurt they’ve experienced throughout their lives.

It’s not a result of a child being defiant, stubborn, or mean. Children who develop attachment disorders are protecting themselves from further pain and are unable to believe or trust others can be trustworthy and care for them well.

Neurologically Disorganized Attachment Disorder is a unique attachment disorder. It develops as a result of fetal drug or alcohol exposure, premature birth, genetic predisposition or other causes. Children with this disorder have significant neurological symptoms as well as attachment symptoms. These can display themselves as severe anxiety, unusual behavior or speech, hallucinations, and many other symptoms.

Common Signs of an Attachment Disorder

These disorders can present with different signs and symptoms. These are some of the most common.

  • Lack of eye contact
  • Ignores others
  • Extreme withdrawal
  • Disinterest in toys, games, and other children
  • Silent rocking
  • Absence of crying when in pain
  • Excessive crying
  • Extreme anger or rage
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  •  Impulsivity
  • Unable to display emotion
  • Lack of empathy
  • Refusal to be comforted or lack of seeking comfort
  • Seeks comfort from anyone in any situation
  • Excessive need for physical touch
  • Pushes people away when they try to initiate physical touch
  • Stiffen upon being touched
  • Does not smile
  • Hyper-Awareness of surroundings without response to anything that happens
  • Unable to recognize or adhere to social boundaries
  • Defiance
  • Argumentative tendencies
  • Excessive disobedience
  • Acting much younger than one’s age
  • Addiction

As you’ll notice, many of these symptoms are present in learning disabilities and special needs. Sometimes attachment disorders go alongside these, but not always. Don’t assume your child has an attachment disorder if they’re displaying any of these symptoms. It’s important to reach out to someone who is highly trained to help. Present your concerns and allow them to help assess what might be going on.

Treatment for Attachment Disorder

Insecure and damaged attachments can follow individuals from childhood into adulthood. In some cases, adults struggle to form healthy bonds with their own children. Healing and treatment will vary from person to person.

Fortunately it is possible to overcome attachment disorders, no matter how severe. Forming healthy relationships and finding safety and security will be a process but it is fully possible.

Counseling is a good and necessary first step. The counselor can determine the type of attachment disorder, the severity, and the best type of treatment. Bonding activities, relationship building work, and other healing practices will be part of the counseling process. Other types of treatment might include:

  • Consistent routine and schedules to provide security and predictability
  • Massage, craniosacral therapy, or other types of gentle touch
  • Play therapy
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Screen time adjustments or removal
  • Music or art therapy
  • Nature therapy
  • Diet, lifestyle, sleep, and exercise changes
  • Intervention and special services at school

If you or a loved one could use help from a professional counselor to work through a particular attachment disorder, please don’t hesitate to contact our office to schedule an appointment.

Photos:
“Solitude”, Courtesy of Fabrizio Verrecchia, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Roman Kraft, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Alone”, Courtesy of Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Heart and Hands”, Courtesy of Tim Marshall, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
By |2019-11-21T17:07:46+00:00November 14th, 2019|Abandonment and Neglect, Featured, Individual Counseling, Relationship Issues, Trauma|