Reactive Attachment Disorder

The ability to form lasting, loving relationships makes human beings unique. The cycle of a loving relationship begins at one of our most vulnerable times, our birth. Most of us were fortunate enough to be placed in anxiously awaiting, loving arms, while adoring eyes gazed down at us. As our mother held us, she calmed the fears produced during the birthing process and our entrance into a strange new world. This is how a healthy attachment begins. For the attachment to continue to develop, this cycle repeats thousands of times as we grow. Eventually, we learn that the world is a safe place and we can trust the person who cares for us.

This is what was intended to happen so healthy attachments could begin, first with our mother, and then with others. But what happens to those who were not so fortunate? What message is sent to a child who wasn’t wanted or who was abused or neglected by the very person who was supposed to keep him safe? How do children placed in orphanages or multiple foster homes view the world? What happens to children whose mothers were emotionally unavailable due to depression, divorce, mental illness, or drug or alcohol abuse? These children’s basic emotional needs—for affection, comfort, and nurturing were not met. In some cases, neither were basic physiological needs—for enough food or proper hygiene. Because their needs were not met, these children see the world very differently. To them, the world is not a safe place, but a terrifying one, one in which the adults cannot be trusted or depended upon, where infants quickly learn to depend only upon themselves. To survive, they must take care of their own needs. They learn to manipulate and control others to get their needs met on their terms. Having learned that they can trust no one to take care of them, they no longer allow themselves to appear needy or vulnerable. Children who cannot trust cannot attach, and attachment forms the basis for any healthy, intimate relationship.

The majority of children who have the most severe attachment problems spent their early years in orphanages or the foster care system. When parents are emotionally available and ready to love and care for this child, they may expect that their love will be enough to undo years of damage and restore the child to wholeness. However, these children have internalized their early experiences and environment. Because they lack a healthy attachment, they do not view the world the same way as children who have developed such an attachment. They seek to manipulate every circumstance and interaction. In their minds, being in control is the only way they can stay safe in an unsafe world. They do not know the value of a parent or how to have a healthy relationship. The new parent is seen as someone else to manipulate and control for their purposes. Unfortunately, traditional parenting and over indulgence are not part of the formula that helps this child heal and succeed.

Parents face many obstacles when they become caregivers for a child who does not know how to attach. He might lack cause-and-effect thinking and lie and steal with no regard for the consequences. Discipline that would correct a healthy child’s misbehaviors has no effect. Many unattached children have behaviors that lead to diagnoses of ADD/ADHD. They may have abnormal eating habits. Some children aim to dominate social situations with nonsense questions and chatter, always wanting to be the center of attention, while others withdraw, avoiding contact with others. Some may show indiscriminate affection toward strangers and behave in a superficially charming manner; while in their own homes seek to triangulate parents or other caregivers. They might avoid eye or physical contact on the parents’ terms, but can be controlling and clingy on their own terms. They can be destructive to property and sometimes harm pets, other people, or themselves. Others can be drawn to disturbing things such as blood and gore or be obsessed with fire.

For parents expecting a “normal” or only slightly delayed child, these problems can be overwhelming. The difficulties that arise can devastate relations among parents and biological children, extended family members, or friends. Outsiders may not understand that the primary caregiver, usually the mother, becomes the prime target of these children’s attempts to control and manipulate. Others do not pick up on the tactics the child is using to push his mother away. The mother may begin to feel misunderstood by those closest to her, including her husband, as their child pits them against each other. Others may see her as unfair and unloving when she tries to put limits on the child, who then plays the victim. Therapists who don’t understand attachment disorder may even advise that the child would heal if only the mother would love him more.

On the contrary, all the love that she has given her child has not been received because of the wounds from his early life. Children with attachment issues view any intimate relationship as threatening, especially with their primary caretaker. The initial abandonment the child experienced, whether physical, emotional, or both, stirred up intense feelings of fear and sadness. Because no one was available to comfort him or help him grieve this loss, he suppressed those feelings. Most children with attachment problems have an internal rage from the abandonment they experienced. When they finally have an adult who wants to take away their control so that love can get in, they will either act out in extreme ways or shut down altogether.

Many families live with children who have attachment issues. Their problems can range from mild to extreme. On the mild end, families may experience mere irritation with their child. On the extreme end, the child may be running the family, controlling everyone, and making life unbearable for all. These parents have tried traditional parenting, to no avail. Nothing seems to work with this child. They may begin to lose hope that their child will ever be able to form a healthy relationship.