Attachment Disorder

Attachment is the deep connection established between a child and caregiver that profoundly affects his/her development and ability to express emotions and develop relationships. A child with insecure attachment or an attachment disorder lacks the skills for building meaningful relationships. However, it is possible to repair attachment challenges.

Understanding attachment problems and disorders


Children with attachment disorders or other attachment problems have difficulty connecting to others and managing their own emotions. This results in a lack of trust and self-worth, a fear of getting close to anyone, anger, and a need to be in control. A child with an attachment disorder feels unsafe and alone and the disorder has to do with the attachment process, which relies on the interaction of both parent and child.

Attachment disorders are the result of negative experiences in this early relationship. If young children feel repeatedly abandoned, isolated, powerless, or uncared for—for whatever reason—they will learn that they can’t depend on others and the world is a dangerous and frightening place.

Reactive Attachment Disorder


Reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems occur when children have been unable to consistently connect with a parent or primary caregiver. This can happen for many reasons:

A baby cries and no one responds or offers comfort.
  • A baby is hungry or wet, and they aren’t attended to for hours.
  • No one looks at, talks to, or smiles at the baby, so the baby feels alone.
  • A young child gets attention only by acting out or displaying other extreme behaviors.
  • A young child or baby is mistreated or abused.
  • Sometimes the child’s needs are met and sometimes they aren’t. The child never knows what to expect.
  • The infant or young child is hospitalized or separated from his or her parents.
  • A baby or young child is moved from one caregiver to another (can be the result of adoption, foster care, or the loss of a parent).
  • The parent is emotionally unavailable because of depression, an illness, or a substance abuse problem.
  • As the examples show, sometimes the circumstances that cause the attachment problems are unavoidable, but the child is too young to understand what has happened and why. To a young child, it just feels like no one cares and they lose trust in others and the world becomes an unsafe place.


Early warning signs and symptoms of insecure attachment


Attachment problems fall on a spectrum, from mild problems that are easily addressed to the most serious form, known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD).

Although it is never too late to treat and repair attachment difficulties such as reactive attachment disorder, the earlier symptoms of insecure attachment are seen, then steps can be taken. With early detection, you can avoid a more serious problem. Caught in infancy, attachment problems are often easy to correct with the right help and support.

Signs and symptoms of insecure attachment in infants


  • Avoids eye contact
  • Doesn’t smile
  • Doesn’t reach out to be picked up
  • Rejects your efforts to calm, soothe, and connect
  • Doesn’t seem to notice or care when you leave them alone
  • Cries inconsolably
  • Doesn’t coo or make sounds
  • Doesn’t follow you with his or her eyes
  • Isn’t interested in playing interactive games or playing with toys
  • Spend a lot of time rocking or comforting themselves
  • It’s important to note that the early symptoms of insecure attachment are similar to the early symptoms of other issues such as ADHD and autism. If you spot any of these warning signs, make an appointment with your pediatrician for a professional diagnosis of the problem.


Making the Child Feel Safe and Secure

Safety is the core issue for children with reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems. They are distant and distrustful because they feel unsafe in the world. They keep their guard up to protect themselves, but it also prevents them from accepting love and support. So before anything else, it is essential to build up the child’s sense of security. You can accomplish this by establishing clear expectations and rules of behaviour, and by responding consistently so the child knows what to expect when s/he acts a certain way and—even more importantly—knows that no matter what happens, you can be counted on.

Set limits and boundaries. Consistent, boundaries make the world seem more predictable and less scary to children with attachment problems such as reactive attachment disorder. It’s important that they understand what behaviour is expected of them, what is and isn’t acceptable, and what the consequences will be if they disregard the rules. This also teaches them that they have more control over what happens to them than they think.

Take charge, yet remain calm when your child is upset or misbehaving. Remember that unacceptable/inappropriate behaviour means that the child doesn’t know how to handle what s/he is feeling and needs your help. By staying calm, you show the child that the feeling is manageable. If s/he is being purposefully defiant, follow through with the pre-established consequences in a cool, matter-of-fact manner. Being visibly cross with a child with an attachment disorder when you’re in an emotionally-charged state will make the child feel more unsafe and may even reinforce the unacceptable behaviour, since it’s clear it pushes your buttons.

Be immediately available to reconnect following a conflict. Conflict can be especially disturbing for children with insecure attachment or attachment disorders. After a conflict or tantrum where you’ve had to stop a child behaving in a negative way, be ready to reconnect as soon as s/he is ready. This reinforces your consistency and care and will help him/her develop a trust that you’ll be there through thick and thin.

Own up to mistakes and initiate repair. When you let frustration or anger get the best of you or you do something you realise is insensitive, quickly address the mistake. Your willingness to take responsibility and make amends can strengthen the attachment bond. Children with reactive attachment disorder or other attachment problems need to learn that although you may not be perfect, they will be cared for, no matter what.

Try to maintain predictable routines and schedules. A child with an attachment disorder won’t instinctively rely on loved ones, and may feel threatened by transition and inconsistency—for example when traveling or during school vacations. A familiar routine or schedule can provide comfort during times of change.

Repairing insecure attachment by helping your child feel loved
A child who has not bonded early in life will have a hard time accepting love, especially physical expressions of love. But you can help them learn to accept emotional support with time, consistency, and repetition. Trust and security come from seeing loving actions, hearing reassuring words, and feeling comforted over and over again.

Respond to the child’s emotional age. Children with attachment disorders often act like younger children, both socially and emotionally. You may need to treat them as though they were much younger, using more low-verbal methods of soothing and comforting. However, we must always remember age-appropriate behaviours.

Help the child identify emotions and express his or her needs. Children with attachment disorders may not know what they are feeling or how to ask for what they need. Reinforce the idea that all feelings are okay and show them healthy ways to express their emotions.

Listen, talk, and play Carve out times when you’re able to give the child your full, focused attention in ways that feel comfortable to him or her. It may seem hard to drop everything, eliminate distractions, and just be in the moment, but quality time together provides a great opportunity for your child to open up to you and feel your focused attention and care.

A child’s eating, sleep, and exercise habits are always important, but they’re even more so in kids with attachment problems. Healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way in reducing your child’s stress levels and leveling out mood swings. When children with attachment disorders are relaxed, well-rested, and feeling good, it will be much easier for them to handle life’s challenges.

  • Diet – Make sure the child eats a diet full of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein. Be sure to skip the sugar and add plenty of good fats – like fish, flax seed, avocados, and olive oil—for optimal brain health.
  • Sleep – If the child is tired during the day, it will be that much harder for them to focus on learning new things. Make a sleep schedule (bedtime and wake time) consistent.
  • Exercise – Exercise or any type of physical activity can be a great antidote to stress, frustration, and pent-up emotion, triggering endorphins to make your child feel good. Physical activity is especially important for the angry child. If the child isn’t naturally active, try some different classes or sports to find something that is appealing.


Any one of these things—food, rest, and exercise—can make the difference between a good and a bad day with a child who has an attachment disorder. These basics will help ensure your child’s brain is healthy and ready to connect.

Types of treatment for reactive attachment disorder


Treatment for reactive attachment disorder usually involves a combination of therapy, counseling, and parenting education, designed to ensure the child has a safe living environment, develops positive interactions with caregivers, and improves peer relationships.

While medication may be used to treat associated conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or hyperactivity, there is no quick fix for treating reactive attachment disorder. Paediatricians may recommend a treatment plan that includes:

Family therapy. Typical therapy for attachment problems includes both the child and his or her parents or caregivers. Therapy often involves fun and rewarding activities that enhance the attachment bond as well as helping parents and other children in the family understand the symptoms of the disorder and effective interventions.

Individual psychological counseling. Therapists may also meet with the child individually or while the parents observe. This is designed to help your child directly with monitoring emotions and behavior.

Play therapy. Helps your child learn appropriate skills for interacting with peers and handling other social situations.

Special education services. Specifically designed programs within The Collett School could help him or her learn skills required for academic and social success, while addressing behavioral and emotional difficulties.

Parenting skills classes. Education for parents and caregivers centers on learning about attachment disorders as well as other necessary parenting skills.