Reactive Attachment Disorder: How To Support Your Child

Learn About Reactive Attachment Disorder

Preteen girl hugging knees, looking out window
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If you are the parent or adoptive parent of a child with a traumatic past of harsh abuse and neglect, your child may experience long-term emotional and possibly also behavioral problems. In the most severe cases, these children may develop reactive attachment disorder, a rare psychiatric disorder. To understand an attachment disorder, it is necessary to understand attachment theory. Research and studies into this disorder have confirmed that parents must realize that a child requires love and nurturing from birth to adulthood to overcome this disorder.

A newborn baby is dependent on their parents for love, care, and touch, and if these these caring traits are not provided, this can create emotional detachment in the child in later life. Love and nurturing is what every child craves, and this helps to create the ability to form safe and trusting bonds with others. Babies form an almost instinctive bond with their parents, and it is this love and attention that ensures your child will grow up feeling secure and loved.

A healthy upbringing will ensure that the child can form healthy bonds with other children and adults. A healthy attachment to people creates empathy, which is the ability to relate to another person's emotional discomfort. In turn ,this encourages the growth of a conscience - to learn right from wrong. A healthy upbringing for a child can be beneficial in the following ways:

  • It gives the child a feeling of self-worth and healthy dependence.
  • It develops the child's empathy and conscience.
  • It encourages positive relationships with peers.
  • It creates a strong defense against stress and suffering.


How Does Reactive Attachment Disorder Occur?

If a child has not received a healthy upbringing, this can affect their ability to develop future relationships with others.

There may be a deep, hidden inability to trust that has never been acknowledged or healed. Many children with this disorder go on to experience severe problems in future relationships. Abuse or neglect can also be the cause of reactive attachment disorder. Children who were brought up in an institutional care facility may also develop trust issues and find it difficult to communicate with and relate to others. Although each of these can trigger problems an adult who has experienced severe abuse during their childhood, it is not known exactly what causes reactive attachment disorder.

Reactive attachment disorder is typically diagnosed in a child from about the age of five onwards, and it can be a difficult time for the parents or caregiver. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV describes reactive attachment disorder in depth.


The Two Types of Reactive Attachment Disorder

There are two types of this disorder - inhibited and disinhibited reactive attachment disorder. The inhibited type presents a withdrawn child who is unresponsive to its parents or caregiver, while a disinhibited type presents a child with poor judgment who is overly and inappropriately friendly or affectionate.

Studies have shown that both types can lead to functional impairments throughout their life. A child who has experienced abuse or neglect can experience difficulty in connecting to others. They have a low sense of self-worth and, this affects how they experience life. These children often reject compliments and affection. There is no level of empathy; therefore the child can experience highs and lows in emotions and may display aggressive behavior. Violence among these children is often is a way of rebelling and generating attention from parents and authority figures.


Helpful Ways to Treat Reactive Attachment Disorder

As this disorder occurs because of neglect or abuse, there is no medication that can treat it. However, reactive attachment disorder can bring with it other psychiatric problems, which can be treated with medication or counseling. Other beneficial therapies include family therapy, behavioral therapy, and psychotherapy. One controversial method of treatment, that is unproven, is rebirthing, where the child is regressed, through hypnosis or role playing, in attempt to childhood to repair the damage.

Reactive attachment disorder can occur in children who have received a difficult upbringing including severe neglect or abuse. Although there is no clear evidence of how this disorder develops, reactive attachment disorder can cause significant behavioral and emotional problems in the child and is difficult for families to manage. Children and families who receive comprehensive treatment early in the child's life have the best prognosis. Delay in treatment or lack of treatment places the child at risk of growing into a severely impaired adult.

Learning to develop healthy relationships through therapeutic play can be a good way to build positive, trusting relationships. Exposing children to safe play and learning environments, like school and park playgrounds, can help to facilitate relationship building with parents and other children.

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