Unhealthy Attachments: Attachment Disorder Symptoms in Children

Social connection is an essential part of human nature.  We form bonds and connections with others through socialization.  Along with these social bonds comes emotional attachment, we naturally become emotionally attached to our close friends and loved ones.  However, in some circumstances, people have trouble forming healthy attachments to others, which can lead to difficulties forming healthy relationships.  Oftentimes this is referred to as an attachment disorder or the difficulty forming healthy emotional attachments to others.  

How Attachment Disorders Present Themselves

Attachment disorders often initially show up in young children, signs of attachment disorders can appear as early as a child’s first birthday.  Children with attachment disorders show difficulty forming emotional attachments to others.  If attachment disorders are left untreated they can cause a variety of complications later in life.  These problems include delays in development, emotional problems, drug and alcohol abuse, trouble in school, and problems in relationships.  Signs of attachment disorders are typically fairly apparent and appear early in a child’s life.  Oftentimes, parents may bring their child to see a doctor or professional if they display one or more of the following concerns:

  • Severe feeding difficulties (during infancy) 
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Detached and unresponsive behavior
  • Difficulty being comforted 
  • Preoccupied and/or defiant behavior
  • Hesitancy in social interactions
  • Being too close with strangers

In addition to these common concerns, many children display a variety of behaviors that may be related to an attachment disorder.  If you believe your child struggles with attachment issues, look out for the following behavioral symptoms.

  • Irritability
  • Frequent withdrawal
  • Lack of comfort-seeking
  • Lack of interaction with other children
  • Intense bursts of anger
  • Extreme clinginess
  • Bullying or harming others
  • No fear or hesitancy towards strangers
  • Poor impulse control
  • Failure to smile  

Types of Attachment Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders recognizes two main forms of attachment disorders.  Both forms of attachment disorders are generally identified in children between the ages of 9 months and 5 years.  Symptoms and effects of attachment disorders begin in childhood but may persist into adulthood, particularly in cases that are left untreated.  The two main forms of attachment disorders are referred to as reactive attachment disorders and disinhibited social engagement disorders.

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD).  RAD consists of frequent patterns of withdrawal from caregivers.  Children with RAD typically do not seek or respond to comfort, even when visibly upset.  RAD can take on two forms, either causing the child to avoid relationships or excessively seek attention.  RAD is often developed when a child’s basic needs of nurturing, affection, and comfort are not met early in life.   

Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED).  DSED involves being overly friendly with unknown adults or strangers.  Children with DSED have a strong willingness or desire to speak to or trust strangers but do not seem to display this trust with their caregivers.  Oftentimes children with DSED may wander off, approach strangers without hesitation, and hug or touch unknown adults easily.  DSED is commonly developed in children where there is an absence of a solid long-term primary caregiver.

Both forms of attachment disorders can be problematic and potentially dangerous if children do not receive help for their disorder.  Attachment disorders can have negative impacts on a child’s development, making it more difficult for them to form healthy relationships later in life.  Children with DSED are at higher risk of experiencing harm from others due to their over-willingness to approach and connect with strangers.  However, DSED still makes it more difficult for people to form loving and healthy connections with trustworthy adults or peers in their lives.     

Causes of Attachment Disorders

There is no clear explanation as to why some children develop attachment disorders and some don’t, even when living in the same environment.  However, researchers have determined a link between attachment disorders and significant neglect or deprivation, repeated changes in primary caregivers, or being reared in institutional settings.  Other possible risk factors include abuse, poor parenting skills, parental anger issues, parental neglect, parents with psychiatric conditions, prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs.  Attachment disorders are fairly rare in the general population, however certain populations show higher risks and rates of attachment disorders.  These populations primarily include children in foster care or who have been institutionalized.  The populations at the greatest risk include:

  • Children who have had many foster care providers
  • Children who have lived in an orphanage 
  • Children who have experienced multiple traumatic events
  • Children who were taken away from a primary caregiver after forming a bond   

Help for Attachment Disorders

Hearing all of this information about the harmful effects of attachment disorders may be quite scary, but fortunately, there are many options for the effective treatment of attachment disorders that can significantly reduce the impact they have on adulthood.  Children with attachment disorders have the capacity to form healthy attachments so long as they receive the support and help they need.  There is no standard treatment for attachment disorders but the earlier the intervention begins the better.  Commonly practiced treatment options for attachment disorders include:

  • Individual and family psychological counseling
  • Encouraging development with nurturing, loving, and caring tactics
  • Parenting skills classes
  • Providing a positive and interactive environment for the child

Asheville Academy

Asheville Academy is the leading therapeutic boarding school for girls and assigned females at birth between the ages of 10 to 14.  Our campus provides a tranquil environment for students to come and reflect, heal, and overcome emotional as well as academic challenges.  Our program is family-focused and designed to help rehabilitate adolescents in order for them to live happy and healthy adult lives.  Asheville Academy provides students and their families with the skills and experience that they will take with them for the rest of their lives!

For more information about Asheville Academy, please call 800-264-8709 today.