What Is Reactive Attachment Disorder?

Reactive attachment disorder is a condition in which infants or young children do not form strong, secure bonds with their primary caregivers. Emotional attachment and stable relationships are essential for all humans, especially young children. A child may develop reactive attachment disorder (or RAD) if their basic needs for food, shelter, primary care, affection, and nurturing are not met. However, RAD can also develop in children who do have their basic needs met. For example, adoptive parents who love and care for their child may still see signs of reactive attachment disorder in their child.

Are you wondering, “what is reactive attachment disorder?” and “does my daughter struggle with it?” Let’s take a closer look at this rare, yet serious, condition and how to identify it in your child.

What Is Reactive Attachment Disorder?

Attention, emotional bonding, and nurturing are just as important to the health and well-being of a small child as food, clean diapers, and a place to sleep at night. Children need a safe, stable, and caring environment. Parents and guardians can give children these needs through hugs and eye contact, comforting them when they cry and securing a solid bond between child and parent. There are also instances when the child receives all of this love and care but still has a hard time connecting with their parent(s). Some children feel constantly lonely and abandoned, even though other needs are met. 

When a young child struggles to find this parent-to-child bond, this may lead to reactive attachment disorder. Children who develop this condition have a hard time managing their emotions and may act out. They don’t show or seek comfort, and are often irritable and sad, even if their current caregivers are loving and supportive.

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) typically develops in early stages of life, but can still affect children into their teen years. Most often RAD affects children who spent time in an orphanage, lived with many different foster care providers, have been adopted by a new family, lived with neglectful or abusive parents, or who had traumatic losses early in life. 

How Can I Identify Reactive Attachment Disorder in My Child?

Are you concerned that your daughter may have reactive attachment disorder? This condition typically manifests in early childhood, but older children and teenagers can suffer from it as well, especially if they had a difficult early life.

General symptoms of reactive attachment disorder include:

  • Bonding to one caregiver but not the other
  • Unexplained sadness, fear, irritability, or withdrawal
  • Not seeking comfort, help, or support
  • Not responding when comfort is given
  • Rarely smiling and avoiding eye contact
  • Avoiding physical touch, especially with caregivers
  • Displaying inappropriate affection for strangers and little affection for primary caregivers

Young children may show no interest in social games, such as peekaboo, and won’t reach out to an adult to be picked up. Developmental milestones may be delayed.

Older children and teenagers may have symptoms that fall into one of two patterns:

  • Inhibited: The child is withdrawn and emotionally unresponsive; she may be aware of others and watch them interact, but doesn’t respond or seek affection and keeps to herself.
  • Disinhibited: The child is overly friendly and affectionate toward strangers; she acts younger than her age, seeks inappropriate and unsafe affection, and prefers strangers over caregivers.

How Can I Help My Child?

Do the symptoms above sound like your child? Reactive attachment disorder is a serious problem that can have lifelong consequences, including depression, drug abuse, and even cruelty toward people and animals. Fortunately, there are treatments available. 

If you suspect this condition at all, the best way to help your child is to seek a professional evaluation with a pediatric psychologist. The psychologist will rule out other problems, such as autism, and make suggestions for treatment.

How Is Reactive Attachment Disorder Treated?

Treatments focus on building or repairing attachments with family so the child can bond with their current primary caregivers and develop healthy relationships in the future. This is done through one-on-one psychotherapy with the child and their caregivers, family therapy, social skills, and parenting classes. Both the child and her family learn to work together and show and experience affection in healthy ways.

Fortunately, research has shown that children diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder can, with help, learn how to build healthy bonds with loving caretakers and have stable relationships throughout their lives.

Are you concerned about your teenage daughter? Contact Renewed Hope Ranch to find out how we can help.