What Is Reactive Attachment Disorder?

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) sometimes occurs when a baby or child is neglected or otherwise mistreated. The result is that people with this disorder fail to develop a bond with parents or other caregiving adults. Although rare, RAD can significantly affect a person’s life. This disorder begins during early formative years, yet its effects can continue into adulthood, especially when left untreated.

When the needs of a baby or young child, such as physical touch and nurturing, fail to be met by parents or caregivers, the child may develop reactive attachment disorder (RAD). This is a trauma- and stressor-related disorder that interferes with normal emotional attachment. Although reactive attachment disorder doesn’t occur in every mistreated or neglected child, it does affecting up to 10 percent of children who face severe neglect.

RAD can be confused with other conditions, such as autism, so proper diagnosis is essential. Without treatment, this disorder may continue to affect the person’s emotional and social health into adulthood.

Signs and Symptoms of RAD

Infants and young children with RAD lack attachment or have a drastically reduced level of attachment to caregiving adults. These children exhibit signs and symptoms that differ from normal development. The signs and symptoms of reactive attachment disorder can include:

  • Not looking to adults for comfort and nurturing
  • Not responding to occasional comfort from the caregiver
  • Not asking questions
  • Not interacting with games or social situations
  • Managing emotions independently
  • Showing negative emotions, such as sadness or fear, that do not fit the situation

Reactive Attachment Disorder in Adults

RAD begins in early childhood, with symptoms often exhibiting before the age of 5. the Nonetheless, when not treated it may be persistent and continue into adulthood. The effects of an attachment problem on a person’s adult life are not fully understood. However, early attachment problems are associated with difficulties that could be ongoing.

Unhealthy attachment early in a person’s life brings the risk of problems in the future, such as:

  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Behavioral problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of empathy
  • Difficulty with relationships

RAD in a child may affect one’s future ability to manage stress, positive feelings and daily functioning when they reach adulthood.

Also, research has found that children with RAD have a higher risk of:

  • Co-Occurring disorders
  • Problem behaviors
  • Reduced IQ
  • Disorganized attachment
  • Reduced social skills

Childhood attachment problems have also been associated with substance abuse and addiction as an adult.

These problems could substantially affect a person’s adult life in a negative way.

Treatment from qualified mental health professionals at a residential treatment facility can offer support to help the person heal and manage challenges associated with RAD. Also, a proper diagnosis and targeted treatment can help with any co-occurring disorders.

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Parenting a Child with RAD

Some people believe a problem with the child leads to the lack of attachment, and they focus on trying to change the child. However, this disorder develops as a response, and healing is possible through a change in parenting. In some cases, a mental health disorder or substance use disorder in the parent prevents the child from attaching and needs to be addressed.

RAD symptoms can go away or become less prominent if the child’s environment becomes more nurturing and supportive. Working with a mental health professional could identify the sources of the problem and provide targeted treatment.

Some treatment may need to focus on each party individually. Also, to improve the bond between child and parent, treatment should include both parties with the goal of developing a more nurturing, consistent relationship and environment.

Treatment may focus on areas such as:

  • Therapy for the parent’s mental health or substance use disorders
  • Education on parenting methods
  • Guidance on providing a comforting, supportive environment for the child
  • Attachment-based therapy to strengthen the parent-child relationship

It’s important for parents to find a qualified mental health professional instead of turning to the “attachment therapy” that uses restraint, deprivation or other forms of discomfort to try to change a child’s reactions. These methods are unproven and could be harmful to the child.

Reactive attachment disorder presents itself in a small number of babies and young children when they do not form normal attachments to caregiving adults. Attachment can improve by creating a more caring, stable environment. Also, treatment professionals can support the parent and child, as well as help with the lasting problems created by reactive attachment disorder in adults.