Attachment Disorder
Attachment Disorder--

Why do kids turn to violence?  And why do social workers and school authorities find it so difficult to identify children
with the potential to harm other children?

Often it can be traced back to
Attachment Disorder -- a mental and emotional condition occurring during the first
three years of life where a child does not attach, bond, or trust his or her mother.  

Normal attachment develops during the child's first two to three years of life. Problems with the mother-child
relationship during that time, or breaks in the consistent caregiver-child relationship interfere with the normal
development of a healthy and secure attachment. There are wide ranges of attachment difficulties that result in
varying degrees of emotional disturbance in the child. One thing is certain; if an infant's needs are not met
consistently, in a loving, nurturing way, attachment will not occur normally and this underlying problem will manifest
itself in a variety of symptoms.

Attachment Disorder is characterized by problems in forming and maintaining emotional attachments with others.
These difficulties are usually present by 5 years of age, and may be detected during the first year of life. These
children may appear detached, unresponsive, inhibited or reluctant to engage in age-appropriate social
interactions. Alternatively, some children with Attachment Disorder may be overly and inappropriately social or
familiar, even with strangers.

Attachment Disorder can manifest itself in three ways:

1. When a parent is unavailable or rejecting, a child may become “avoidantly” attached, meaning that the child
adapts by avoiding closeness and emotional connection.

2. An “ambivalently” attached child experiences the parents’ communication as inconsistent and at times intrusive.
Because the child can’t depend on the parent for a positive connection, he develops a sense of anxiety and feelings
of insecurity.

3. “Disorganized” attachment occurs when the child’s’ need for emotional closeness remains unseen or ignored, and
the parents behavior is a source of disorientation or terror. When children have experiences with parents that leave
them overwhelmed, traumatized, and frightened, the youngsters become disorganized and chaotic.

When the
attachment-cycle is undermined and the child’s needs are not met, and normal socializing shame is not
resolved, mistrust begins to define the perspective of the child, and attachment problems result. The cycle can
become undermined or broken for many reasons:

  • Caregivers whose own needs are not met, leading to overload and lack of awareness of the infant's needs

  • Caring for the infant on a timed schedule, or other self-centered parenting

  • Drug or alcohol use by mother during pregnancy

  • Genetic factors

  • Hospitalization of the child causing separation from the parent and/or unrelieved pain

  • Inconsistent/inadequate care or daycare

  • Multiple disruptions in care-giving

  • Parents who have experienced their own relational trauma, leading to neglect, abuse (physical/sexual/verbal),
    or inappropriate parental responses not leading to a secure/predictable relationship

  • Pervasive developmental disorders

  • Postpartum depression causing an emotionally unavailable mother

  • Several family moves and/or daycare or foster placements

  • Sudden abandonment or separation from mother (death of mother, illness of mother or child, or adoption)

  • Undiagnosed or painful illnesses (ear infections, colic, surgery)

  • Unprepared mothers

  • Unwanted pregnancy

Approximately 65% of American middle-class children are thought to have secure attachments with primary
caregivers, whereas 35% exhibit an insecure attachment style.  Not all children who show an insecure attachment to
primary caregivers are diagnosed with Attachment Disorder, either because they did not receive pathological care
or because their insecure attachment is not severe.

No epidemiologic studies of frequency or prevalence of Attachment Disorder in children exist; however, statistical
data regarding adoptions and foster care placement are available. One might estimate, based on the number of
foster care placements and disruptions in relationships, approximately how many children can have Attachment

Symptoms of attachment disorder may include:

  • Affectionate with family and others at the child's discretion -- not on others' terms
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Destructive to self, others, or property
  • Extreme control problems
  • False allegations of abuse
  • Impulsive behavior, lack of self-discipline or self-control
  • Inappropriately demanding or clingy
  • Lack of conscience, empathy, remorse, compassion
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Learning difficulties or disorders
  • Manipulative
  • Obvious lying
  • Oppositional and defiant behaviors
  • Poor peer relationships
  • Preoccupation with fire/fire-setting, blood, gore, and violence
  • Sneaky or bossy personality
  • Stealing
  • Superficially engaging, affectionate, charming, or phony behavior

What can parents do?

When parents are mad or overwhelmed, they will not be able to make a good connection with their child.  In this
case, parents should take a ‘time-out’ before attempting to connect. If a child is overwhelmed or inconsolable, she
may not be available for a good connection until she feels safer. Sensory activities such as rocking, singing, moving,
touching, and feeding can sooth children, but youngsters vary in their sensory preferences. What soothes a parent
may not soothe an infant. Thus, parents may have to become sensory detectives to determine the best techniques
for soothing their child and soothing themselves in order to make a good connection with their child.

Share your child’s experience by ‘feeling it’ to some degree within your own body. This process of shared
experience helps both infants and children regulate their feeling states. It is usually more important to share a
negative state with a child than to problem solve. Sharing enables children to learn to problem solve for themselves.
The shared negative emotional experiences of fear, sadness, anger and shame are as important to the attachment
bond as the shared positive emotional experiences of joy.

No matter how much we love our kids, there comes a point where we are not in agreement with them, a point when
we have to set limits, and say “no.” This is usually a “hot spot” in the relationship as the child angrily protests. Such
protest is to be expected. The key to strengthening the attachment bond of trust is to be available the minute the
child is ready to “cool off.”  

It is also important to make amends when we have done something to hurt, disrespect, or shame a child. Parents
are not perfect. From time to time, we are the cause of our child’s behavior problems. Our willingness to make
amends can strengthen the attachment bond.