Attachment Disorders in Adults and Children
If your child falls under one of these types of attachment disorders, remember only a licensed professional can truly diagnose the condition, and there are treatment options available.
Types of Attachment Disorders
There are four styles of attachment according to the attachment theory formulated by psychiatrists John Bowlby and James Robertson in the 1950s.
Four Attachment Styles in Children
The four styles of attachment for children are secure attachment, avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment, and disorganized attachment.
Secure attachment is the healthiest of the four attachment styles as your child realizes that even if you leave, you will return at some point. They can depend on you. You demonstrate positive nonverbal communication such as offering a hug when they are feeling down.
Avoidant attachment can develop in children who have learned not to show any emotion for fear of being rejected by their parent or caregiver. These children often withdrawal from types of physical touches such as hugs.
Ambivalent attachment can form when a primary caregiver or a parent is absent a great deal due to various reasons. For example, it could be that the parent doesn’t want the responsibility or is in a residential rehabilitation therapy facility for addiction. The child wants the parent to be within proximity but may ignore them to avoid the pain of rejection and abandonment.
Disorganized attachment is the hardest attachment style as it can follow a child into adulthood. When the parent is loving one moment and abusive or emotionally distant the next, this can create an unreliable relationship between the parent and the child. The child may never fully learn to trust anyone or to communicate openly.
Attachment Styles in Adults
The attachment styles for adults are similar and include secure attachment, anxious-preoccupied attachment, dismissive-avoidant attachment, and fearful-avoidant attachment.
Just as with secure attachment for children, this style is the goal for mentally healthy adults. Secure adults tend to have reliable and loving relationships, as well as high self-esteem.
Anxious-preoccupied attachmentAnxious-preoccupied attachment is birthed from the (anxious) insecure-avoidant attachment style from childhood. As an adult, this person may look for security and self-worth through their partner. This can create unbalanced relationships with the adult unable to fully give their trust while depending too much on their significant other.
Dismissive-avoidant adults will place distance between themselves and another person in an attempt to protect themselves from rejection and abandonment. Close personal or romantic relationships may elude an adult with this attachment style.
Fearful-avoidant adults fear the closeness of a personal relationship. They desire the emotional connection; however, they fear to love another person deeply, only to be rejected later.
Attachment disorders can manifest in children with emotional issues stemming from their parental relationships during childhood. Two of the most common are Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED).
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) can develop in children whose childrearing was inadequate. During their infanthood or as young children, the basic needs of these children were not met. It may have been due to the baby being left alone for hours, not fed when hungry for a long time, or having been under the care of several different guardians.
A child with RAD may not make eye contact with others, pull back from physical touch, become disruptive to gain attention or throw temper tantrums (anger outbursts). These children also struggle with displaying appropriate emotions, such as grief, guilt, or remorse.
Children with RAD have difficulty forming emotional bonds with people. When surrounded by others, the child may prefer strangers to their parent or caregiver. The child may even display fear or anger towards the parent. They may look for love and acceptance from unsafe sources, and distance themselves from their parents. These signs are knowns as Disinhibited RAD symptoms.
Inhibited RAD symptoms in a child show up as emotionally distant and withdrawn behaviors. These children may not react to loving guardians or friends but will prefer to stay isolated. Although they seek solitude, they are completely aware of their surroundings and the people within proximity.
Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED)Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED) is also referred to as Disinhibited Attachment Disorder. Children with DSED do not feel emotionally connected to their parents or primary caregivers. They will act closer to strangers than to their own guardians. Unfortunately, this means that the children tend to freely interact with strangers which can be an unsafe behavior.
Children with DSED become excited when strangers enter a room and will leave willingly (if not initiate leaving) with people they’ve never met before. Their behavior may not be age-appropriate and may be overly physical. This type of risky behavior is worrisome for any loving guardian.
Researchers believe children develop DSED when they have not received adequate emotional care from their caregivers or are the product of trauma, abuse, or neglect. Children who do not have a stable home, such as those in multiple foster homes or orphanages, are at a higher risk of developing DSED.
Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder rarely follows a child into adulthood, however, teenagers can display symptoms of DSED. They may ignore or talk back to their parents or caregivers in front of strangers, and yet share secrets with people they’ve only just met. Their willingness to please strangers can lead them into harmful and dangerous situations.
How Attachment Disorders Can Affect Adults
Many of the attachment styles transfer over into adulthood. Reactive Attachment Disorder is typically diagnosed in children ages nine months to five years. Adults with RAD struggle to make emotional connections and maintain a healthy sense of self-worth. Not only are their personal relationships at risk, but also their romantic and work relationships.
Someone with RAD symptoms may lack a sense of belonging and feel overwhelming loneliness. This person can become detached during relationships. They want to be loved and to love in return, but they resist the feeling and may react in anger or try to control other people.
Some adults with attachment disorders may turn to substance abuse as a way to numb the pain of isolation and drown out the memories of abuse and/or rejection.
Common Treatments Available
A professional mental health care team can help children and adults heal their wounds from attachment disorders. Since some patients feel a detachment from people, the therapist may focus on rebuilding emotions and trust.
If your loved one is suffering from an attachment disorder, remember that their behavior stems from insufficient caregiving as infants or small children. As children and adults, they can learn how to communicate and strengthen relationships.
Children suffering from RAD should work with a mental health care professional and their parents or current caregivers. Treatment may include talk therapy for the family and one-on-one sessions and parenting education. Adults with RAD should seek counseling and consider bringing close loved ones to sessions to learn how to connect with them on an emotional level.
Children and teens with DSED will need family counseling to rebuild trust and learn to connect emotionally with their caregivers. If you are the parent or caregiver of a child with DSED, the therapist may provide you with techniques to implement at home to help you connect with your child between family sessions. Therapy sessions may include talking, playing, and art therapy.
Both children and adults with attachment disorders may find Christian counseling beneficial. The Bible teaches that God is a loving Father and shepherd who does not reject those He has called. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” (John 6:37, New King James Version). Learning to rebuild emotional bonds will give you a greater sense of self-worth and acceptance.
“Isolation”, Courtesy of Dhyamis Kleber, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Left Hand”, Courtesy of Daria Shevtsova, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Mother Holding Her Baby”, Courtesy of Kristina Paukshtite, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Helping Hand”, Courtesy of VisionPic.net, Pexels.com, CC0 License