In Syndromes & Disorders

Defining Attachment Disorder

So, what is Attachment Disorder?

Physical, mental and emotional bonds that are established between two people are known as attachments. The bonds can be between any of the following:

  • two adults
  • two children
  • an adult and a child
  • a parent and son or daughter
  • a child to a grandparent
  • an adult or child to a pet or object

While the attachment is considered one sided in reference to the connection between a child and an object, such as a favorite toy or blanket, it is still valid on the part of the child. It has been proven that attachments are formed between animals. When two lifelong companion animals are separated, either through death or distance, one or both of the animals can experience depression, aggression and other unpleasant side effects. The same is true for humans.

Individuals who have an attachment disorder are incapable of making and developing those connections. The resulting distance placed between two people can lead to frustration, anger, depression and emotional outbursts that will eventually affect every aspect of their lives. There are several different types of attachment disorders and each one can affect individuals in varying degrees.

What Is Attachment Disorder?

An attachment disorder in adults and children normally stems from their inability to connect to others on a mental and emotional level. This type of disorders presents itself through a person’s unwillingness to associate, communicate or otherwise, interact with others, no matter what their age. Reactive Attachment Disorder is found mostly in children. It is the result of poor care and nurturing on behalf of both the mother and other members of the family as well as caregivers. This disorder is commonly established in children prior to the age of 5 and is the direct result of negligent care on behalf of the individuals who normally would have been the ones to have assumed care and responsibility over the child from birth.

Negative experiences that begin to occur in the earliest years of a child’s development can begin to affect how they interact with others throughout their lifetime. Developing a relationship with another person as an adult is extremely difficult if they were never taught how to accomplish the task when they were children. As a child, the ability to form, establish and nurture relationships begins at birth. When a child is neglected or does not receive positive reinforcement and attention, they can begin to dissociate themselves from those around them.

In the beginning this becomes a form of protection. As they age, however, it can result in destructive habits, poor relationships and severe bouts of chronic depression and mental illness. The ability to create and foster friendships and loving relationships is vitally important to a person’s overall health and well-being. Without the ability to establish these beneficial relationships, many individuals go through life alone and have little hope for the future. Most are rarely aware that what they are experiencing is even considered a treatable disorder. They perceive it as their normal because they were never taught otherwise.

Causes of Attachment Disorder

Attachment disorder can be the result of various forms of behavior on behalf of caregivers. Children who are left unattended and allowed to cry can often develop the disorder. Continued neglect can lead to physical health issues as well as stunted emotional development. A child needs to experience communication and interaction with adults and children to remain stimulated and connected to the world around them. Without them, they can withdraw and begin to avoid any type of connection. Children who are mentally, physically and verbally abused, as well as those who are left to fend for themselves when it comes to even the simplest of tasks such as eating and toileting, can isolate themselves to a point where emotional connection with another person is almost impossible.

The same holds true for adults. Adults can experience the same type of detachment if deprived of human contact or if they are continually ignored or left to fend for themselves without any type of assistance from others. In most cases, adult attachment disorder has its roots in the person’s childhood. Due to uncaring adults or symptoms of the disorder being overlooked as a child, a person can go through life as a recluse with few people even attempting to understand their circumstances. Adults with attachment disorder often stay to themselves. They do not go out nor do they invite others in.

Both adults and children can create an alternate world in which to live where they do not have to make friends and can remain in isolation. While this is in no way beneficial for them emotionally, it does serve to protect them from things they aren’t comfortable with. When the time comes for them to become more social, violent outbursts stemming from aggression and frustration.

Helping them to learn to interact with others is a slow process. All of the trauma associated with their negative experiences must be handled carefully, processed and put into perspective. For each person, adult and child alike, this process will be different and can take several months to complete. For adults, the process may take years for them to overcome.

Attachment Disorder Symptoms

The symptoms of attachment disorders can take several forms. In the very beginning, most parents and teachers consider the child to have behavioral problems and treat them in such a way that reinforces the disorder. As the child or adults’ behavior becomes exceedingly more defiant and out of control, the diagnoses of attachment disorder can begin to become more imminent.

Attachment disorder symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Doesn’t mind being left alone
  • Refuses to or does not initiate eye contact
  • Does not respond to physical touch
  • Does not demand or request attention
  • Expresses little concern over what is going on around them
  • Does not want to be soothed or consoled in any manner
  • Will push away attempts at physical attention or comforting
  • Does not attempt to communicate with noises or cooing sounds
  • Cries constantly and will not allow others to comfort or console them
  • Experiences frustration often
  • Displays outbursts of violent anger, frustration and uncontrollable crying

In adolescents and adults, the symptoms can exhibit themselves as control issues, physical outbursts of aggression, the inability to show compassion or care and the inability to act in a conscientious manner. As adolescents continue to mature and the symptoms become more severe, they can become more and more detached, limiting the amount of interaction they are comfortable with.

While some of the above symptoms can be attributed to acting out and other mental and emotional disorders, when the majority of them begin to appear frequently and in conjunction with others on the list attachment disorder must be looked at as a serious diagnosis. Evaluating and monitoring a child or young adults’ behavior will help determine the cause of the problem. It can take several examinations to obtain an exact diagnosis and great care must be taken to make sure every detail is addressed.

In some cases, other disorders may present themselves as well, which can cause a person to be diagnosed with several different disorders. Children and adults may have emotional or mental conditions that cause caregivers from distancing themselves so they don’t have to put up with the constant behaviors and outbursts. Understanding the connection between both types of disorders can lead to a much quicker and more accurate diagnosis. An accurate diagnosis can mean the difference between someone who exists in life, or someone who truly is allowed to experience and enjoy their life.

Treatment of Attachment Disorders

The treatment of attachment disorder takes many forms. Parents and caregivers must learn to accept the child or adult’s limitations and work at a pace that fosters improvement and encourages positive social and personal interactions. The building of relationships does not occur overnight as most children and adults who have attachment disorders do not trust others easily. When it comes to building and establishing trust, time and patience are needed to ensure the relationships continue to grow and develop in a positive manner.

Realistic expectations are also needed. Individuals who have experienced years of negativity and neglect cannot overcome their circumstances with a few short months of positive reinforcement. It can take several years for a young child to completely overcome the trauma of being neglected and overlooked. For children who begin to recover quickly, they may need constant reinforcement on all levels, especially when it comes to their emotional needs. Continued displays of affection as well as constant lines of communication may be the only things they respond to on a regular basis.

Every person with attachment disorder is different. There circumstances and how they respond to them are exceptionally unique. A saintly amount of patience may be needed as children and adults move forward through the healing process. The building of trust is similar to that of building a structure out of blocks. One small misfortune can send the seemingly strong structure, crumbling. Taking as much time as necessary and employing a strong support system can help to establish and strengthen developing bonds.

Medication and counseling are just two aspects of a well thought out treatment plan. Most of the medications used for this type of disorder include anti-depressants, ant-anxiety medications and those used to control behavioral, aggressive and violent outbursts. The counseling sessions include various types of activities including role playing, acting out and discussing various scenarios and situations in which the person felt as if they had been neglected or abandoned.

Teaching a person how to effectively communicate and interact with others is important if they want to be productive members of society. In some cases, a person diagnosed with attachment disorder may have to be taught how to release their emotions or communicate in a manner that allows them to express their feelings and desires. For children who were left alone to fend for themselves, learning to depend on another person can be difficult. Caregivers must be willing to constantly make themselves available to the person so that a level of trust can be established.

Long Term effects of Attachment Disorder

The long term effects of attachment disorders can remain in place for several years. Even though a person is undergoing treatment, some may never fully get over the more severe or traumatizing aspect of their experiences. Long term effects can lead to dysfunctional relationships between parents and children, siblings and members of the community. Understanding why a person acts the way they do can give insight as to how to correct the problem.

Just because time has passed and treatment plans have been put into place, it doesn’t mean the person has overcome the disorder. Individuals who are overly affectionate or extremely pushy can set off behaviors in a person with attachment disorder. They may have no intention of hurting anyone or upsetting them in any way, but without knowing the person’s prior health problems, they can do an incredible amount of damage. In situations like this, continued treatment begins to put the person back on track and help then recover more quickly.

Individuals with attachment disorder can live a fairly normal and productive life if those around them accept their limitations and are willing to help them work through any issues they may experience. Although in some cases, situations cannot be avoided, the person with the disorder must begin to allow the healing process to begin. This is a gradual process and cannot be forced in any way. Just as with any type of condition, set backs are inevitable. When one is experienced, the key to moving forward again is to immediately begin to re-establish and strengthen the connection. Letting any amount of time lapse will allow doubt and frustration to enter in and cause more damage than necessary.

One of the most important aspects of dealing with a person who has attachment disorder, is understanding the value of trust. It may take several years to establish the level of trust needed for a person to commit to a relationship. Forcing the issue of trust or friendship will only push the person away. Allowing the relationship to build over time continues to lay the groundwork for advancement. Patterns must be established and followed for the person to become comfortable with the situation and allow it to continue.

Nurturing and showing compassion are just two ways a person with detachment disorder can begin to trust those around them. Letting them know the lines of communication are always open, even when they choose not to use them, is vitally important if they are going to continue to develop and enhance their relationships.

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