Attachment Issues in Children: a Guide to Treatment Options for Parents
Most children develop secure attachments to their caregivers at an early age; however, attachment issues are common among a wide range of children, as they often result from any kind of relational problem early in life, with family members, siblings, or even friends. They not only affect a child’s relationships but also their beliefs about their ability to achieve their goals. As early interactions with others play a significant role in shaping relationship style, children who have had positive social support early in life are more protected from the effects of later relationship issues, such as being bullied or getting into arguments with family members.
Attachment issues can cause large obstacles in forming meaningful, healthy relationships with others, if negative beliefs and fears about relationships aren’t challenged early on. At Asheville Academy for Girls, we work with children with attachment issues and their families to help them re-establish a secure relationship with a healthier communication style.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
What is Attachment?
Everyone has a primary attachment style, although it can vary from relationship to relationship. The most significant relationships that shape teenagers’ attachment styles are their relationships with their parents. Attachment styles are usually formed in early childhood based on consistency and availability of their caregivers while they were first establishing trust in relationships.
What are Attachment Issues?
Attachment refers to the ability to form emotional bonds and empathic, enjoyable relationships with other people. Relationships with family members typically model attachment style later in life with both friends and intimate partners. Many children with attachment issues have often learned that their needs will be met inconsistently or not at all and are sensitive to perceived rejection. This may lead to self-sabotage to confirm their beliefs about relationships.
Some children who struggle with insecure attachment often become anxious and withdrawn around other people. Others will seek out approval or attention in unhealthy ways to get their needs met. Types of attachment issues include avoidant attachments, ambivalent attachments, and disorganized attachments. Common themes include a fear of intimacy and abandonment that gets in the way of forming healthy, positive relationships.
Types of Attachment Issues:
Signs of attachment issues depend on the individual’s style of attachment and may be more obvious in some relationships than others. Most children have a primary style of relating to others, but it depends on a variety of other situational and internal factors.
Ambivalent attachment is often caused by inconsistent availability of caregiving and may include:
- Feelings of anger or helplessness in relationships
- Anxious around and mistrusting of strangers
- Separation anxiety
- Reluctance to get close to others
- Fear of rejection and abandonment
- May desire attention but are less likely to seek it out
Avoidant attachment is often caused by emotionally unavailable caregiving and may include:
- Social isolation
- Overestimating self reliance
- Emotionally detached or lack of emotional awareness
- Unwilling to be vulnerable with others
- Fear of being clingy or needy
- More likely to seek out relationships but stay at a distance or avoid them altogether
Disorganized attachment is often caused by inconsistent attention in caregiving and may include:
- Often unpredictable combination of avoidant and ambivalent attachment styles
- Switching between caregiving and pushing others away
- Attracted to others who are similarly disorganized
- More likely to seek validation from others
What are the Causes of Attachment Issues in Teens?
Trouble Building Trust
Causes of attachment issues depend on the individual, although they usually are established in early childhood when babies learn the concept of basic trust. Essentially, secure attachments are formed when babies learn that they can rely on their caregivers to meet their basic needs. They internalize that the world is safe, and that people are inherently good. While relational styles may change depending on the relationship in question, attachment styles are based on ingrained beliefs about how to approach relationships.
In order to build secure attachments, children need a safe, consistent and nurturing environment where they can get their physical and emotional needs met. Not all children with attachment issues have a history of trauma, although it is a common risk factor for attachment issues.
Fear of Trust
Other factors include neglect, bullying, rejection, adoption, moving frequently, young parents, parent mental illness, parent divorce, parent remarriage, multiple caregivers, and growing up in foster care. Unstable or inconsistent attachments in childhood can be strong predictors for difficulty making friends, staying in relationships, and domestic abuse later in life. Attachment issues are also associated with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and low self esteem.
When Does Your Child Need Treatment for Attachment Issues?
The primary form of treatment for attachment issues is establishing a safe, consistent, and nurturing environment to help children change narratives around what healthy relationships should look like. Even when surrounded by positive mentors and like-minded peers, people with attachment issues struggle with trusting that their support is authentic and will continue. Some of the innovative Interventions offered by some of our therapists include EMDR, Theraplay, and Art therapy.
How Do Therapeutic Boarding Schools, like Asheville Academy, Help Teens Struggling with Attachment Issues?
Letting Go of Past Fears
Asheville Academy for Girls is a therapeutic boarding school that understands how parent-child relationships have profound effects on cognitive, social, and emotional functioning. Many of our students struggle with attachment issues that have led to conflict at home or insecurity in friendships. Teenagers with attachment issues have a difficult time adjusting to traditional talk therapy due to its social nature and benefit from a holistic and multidisciplinary approach that focuses on identifying their personal strengths and building social skills to help with these interactions.
Challenging Beliefs about Relationships
One of the therapeutic modalities we use, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, focuses on helping teens think more about their thoughts, feelings, and behavior and replace negative thoughts with ones that are more realistic and positive. Between group therapy discussions on attachment issues and taking on a community role in one’s “tree group,” students explore healthier ways to connect with others and find evidence that many relationships are, in fact, positive when they share positive values.
Building a Close Community
Our residential model emphasizes the benefits of milieu therapy and group therapy in building connections with a consistent peer group. Our community is divided into separate teams with their own Academic Advisors, Residential Advisors, and Clinicians based on students’ age and shared past experiences. Our staff rotate in weekly shifts to improve consistency and deepen connections. We use equine-assisted therapy and offer grief, attachment, and adoption processing groups for students struggling with attachment issues.