Sometimes, when children struggle with mental health problems, it’s because they’re coping with a seemingly common issue, like separation anxiety or ADHD. For some children, though, a label like anxiety or ADHD doesn’t adequately capture their symptoms. In the case of a child who has a history of trauma, neglect, or extreme stressors, attachment issues may be at play. If you’re worried about a child in your life, it’s helpful to understand the causes, symptoms, and treatments for attachment disorders.
What are attachment issues?
In many instances, the term “attachment issues” is applied to children who show a broad range of symptoms related to difficulties bonding with others. These issues with attachment can begin as soon as infancy, and they are often noticed when a child struggles to emotionally connect with important adults in their life, such as parents and other caretakers.
Regardless of their age, children with attachment problems have a challenging time in personal relationships. They may seem as if they are disconnected from their parents or caretakers, or they might act as if they do not trust the adults around them. Attachment problems often occur because of significant problems in early relationships, most often with a parent.
For instance, it is believed that attachment disorders develop in response to neglect and emotional or physical abuse. They can also develop in children who have been removed from their parents or received inadequate care in institutional settings. Some children with attachment problems have experienced the traumatic loss of a parent, or they have had significant changes in their primary caregiver.
Some children who demonstrate difficulties bonding with caretakers are broadly referred to as having attachment problems. In contrast, others may be formally diagnosed with a mental health disorder related to poor attachment. For example, a condition called reactive attachment disorder is diagnosed in children who have a history of seriously inadequate parental care, coupled with a chronic pattern of emotional withdrawal.
Another attachment-related condition that may affect children is disinhibited social engagement disorder, in which children show unusual social behaviors, such as walking away from their caretakers and being comfortable leaving a caretaker to go with a complete stranger. Children with this disorder are also likely to engage in inappropriate physical contact with adults, such as giving a hug to a stranger.
Signs and Symptoms of Attachment Disorders
The signs and symptoms of attachment disorders can vary based on a child’s age. For instance, infants may display behaviors like extreme colic, difficulty feeding, and poor weight gain, whereas older children may present as detached from caretakers and unresponsive to comfort from adults.
Attachment disorders can also lead to acting out or defiant behavior. Furthermore, some children with attachment difficulties may be hesitant to interact with others, whereas other children will be extremely uninhibited in their interactions and will become inappropriately close with strangers.
Children who meet the criteria for a formal diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder show symptoms including:
- A pattern of emotional withdrawal that manifests as not seeking comfort when distressed or being unresponsive to comfort that is offered
- Lack of responsiveness to other people
- Negative moods
- Extreme reactions to everyday stressors
- Outbursts of irritability, fearfulness, or sadness with no explanation
A child experiencing symptoms of disinhibited social engagement disorder will show the following behaviors:
- Lack of shyness around unfamiliar adults
- Willingness to depart from a caregiver to go with an unfamiliar adult
- Failing to check in with a parent or caretaker while in unfamiliar settings
- Being too physically or verbally close to strangers (ie: jumping on a stranger’s lap or sharing intimate details with an unfamiliar person)
Attachment and Trauma Therapy for Children
Children who show symptoms of attachment disorders benefit from comprehensive psychological treatments to improve their ability to bond with parents and other caretakers. When attachment issues are left untreated, problems can last into adulthood and negatively affect a person’s ability to form meaningful, healthy relationships.
While children with attachment disorders require individualized treatment plans that meet their unique needs, there are some general principles that apply to treating these problems:
- The importance of caretakers: When children with attachment problems, like reactive attachment disorder, are placed in families that provide adequate care, attachment problems often resolve. If a child is experiencing symptoms of reactive attachment disorder, and they are in a dangerous, abusive, or neglectful situation, placing them with an appropriate caretaker can make a significant difference. If parents are struggling with mental health concerns, such as trauma or their own attachment problems, they may benefit from counseling or parent training to help them develop the skills for being emotionally present with their children.
- Family therapy: Counseling and therapy can be beneficial for treating children with attachment problems. In family counseling sessions, parents and caretakers can learn to repair bonds that have been broken due to a history of abuse or neglect. Family sessions can also be helpful for learning healthy communication patterns.
- Individual counseling: A child with attachment problems and a history of abuse or neglect may benefit from individual counseling. In individual sessions, they have a safe space for processing their emotions and learning new coping strategies.
Bridge to Balance offers counseling and therapy services in New Jersey, with offices in Voorhees, Hamilton, and Piscataway. We have recently expanded our office locations to include Portland, Maine, and we offer services for individuals and families. Contact us today for more information.