Attachment disorder


Adoptive Families Association of BC
AFABC Special Needs Database

Attachment disorder is also known as Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Attachment forms the foundation for a child's physical, cognitive, and psychological development. It becomes the basis for development of basic trust or mistrust, and shapes how the child will relate to the world, learn, and form relationships throughout life.

A bond that forms between a child, and his or her parents or primary caregiver, healthy attachment occurs when the caregiver provides not only the basic necessities of food and clothing, but also the emotional essentials through touching, smiling, and making eye contact.

Attachment disorder is a treatable condition, in which individuals have difficulty trusting anyone or creating loving, lasting intimate relationships due to serious disruptions in forming that bond during early childhood.


  • Sudden or traumatic separation from primary caretaker (through death, illness, hospitalization of caretaker, or removal of child)
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect (of physical or emotional needs)
  • Illness or pain which cannot be alleviated by caretaker
  • Frequent moves and/or placements
  • Inconsistent or inadequate care at home or in day care (care must including holding, talking, nurturing as well as meeting basic physical needs)
  • Chronic depression of primary caretaker
  • Neurological problem in child which interferes with perception of or ability to receive nurturing (babies exposed to crack cocaine in utero)

Behaviours associated with problematic attachment are:

1. Unable to engage in satisfying reciprocal relationship

  • Superficially engaging, charming (not genuine)
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Indiscriminately affectionate with strangers
  • Lack of ability to give and receive affection on parent's terms
  • Inappropriately demanding and clingy
  • Persistent nonsense questions and incessant chatter
  • Poor peer relationships
  • Low self esteem
  • Extreme control problems — may attempt to control overtly, or in sneaky ways

2. Poor cause and effect thinking:

  • Difficulty learning from mistakes
  • Learning problems — disabilities, delays
  • Poor impulse control

3. Emotional development disturbed:

  • Child shows traits of young child in "oral stage"
  • Abnormal speech patterns
  • Abnormal eating patterns

4. Infantile fear and rage; poor conscience development

  • Chronic "crazy" lying
  • Stealing
  • Destructive to self, others, property
  • Cruel to animals
  • Preoccupied with fire, blood, and gore

5. "Negative attachment cycle" in family:

  • Child engages in negative behaviours which can't be ignored
  • Parents react with strong emotion, creating intense but unsatisfying connection
  • Both parent and child distance and connection is served

Traditional parenting or therapy often have little impact on children with attachment problems since these rely on the child's ability to form relationships and internalize the parent's values.

The first priority is to make sure the child is currently in a safe environment where emotional and physical needs are met. Therapy and parenting that utilize the elements of basic attachment have been found to be more helpful.

A more directive approach using nurturing touch, eye contact, and physical and emotional closeness can provide a corrective emotional experience and create a foundation for a healthier attachment between child and parent.

If not treated, this condition can permanently affect the child's social interactions. It can be connected with:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems

Children with attachment disorder may also have difficulty maintaining friendships and their self-esteem may suffer from experiencing frequent failure because of their disability.

This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.