Reactive attachment disorder disease
- By sahlhealth
- May 18, 2021
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Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. Reactive attachment disorder may develop if the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren’t met and loving, caring, stable attachments with others are not established.
With treatment, children with reactive attachment disorder may develop more stable and healthy relationships with caregivers and others. Treatments for reactive attachment disorder include psychological counselling, parent or caregiver counselling and education, learning positive child and caregiver interactions, and creating a stable, nurturing environment
Reactive attachment disorder can start in infancy. There's little research on signs and symptoms of reactive attachment disorder beyond early childhood, and it remains uncertain whether it occurs in children older than 5 years.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Unexplained withdrawal, fear, sadness or irritability
- Sad and listless appearance
- Not seeking comfort or showing no response when comfort is given
- Failure to smile
- Watching others closely but not engaging in social interaction
- Failing to ask for support or assistance
- Failure to reach out when picked up
- No interest in playing peekaboo or other interactive games
When to see a doctor
Consider getting an evaluation if your child shows any of the signs above. Signs can occur in children who don't have reactive attachment disorder or who have another disorder, such as autism spectrum disorder. It's important to have your child evaluated by a pediatric psychiatrist or psychologist who can determine whether such behaviours indicate a more serious problem.
A pediatric psychiatrist or psychologist can conduct a thorough, in-depth examination to diagnose reactive attachment disorder.
Your child's evaluation may include:
- Direct observation of interaction with parents or caregivers
- Details about the pattern of behavior over time
- Examples of the behavior in a variety of situations
- Information about interactions with parents or caregivers and others
- Questions about the home and living situation since birth
- An evaluation of parenting and caregiving styles and abilities
Your child's doctor will also want to rule out other psychiatric disorders and determine if any other mental health conditions co-exist, such as:
- Intellectual disability
- Other adjustment disorders
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Depressive disorders
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DMS-5)
Your doctor may use the diagnostic criteria for reactive attachment disorder in the DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association. Diagnosis isn't usually made before 9 months of age. Signs and symptoms appear before the age of 5 years.
- A consistent pattern of emotionally withdrawn behavior toward caregivers, shown by rarely seeking or not responding to comfort when distressed
- Persistent social and emotional problems that include minimal responsiveness to others, no positive response to interactions, or unexplained irritability, sadness or fearfulness during interactions with caregivers
- Persistent lack of having emotional needs for comfort, stimulation and affection met by caregivers, or repeated changes of primary caregivers that limit opportunities to form stable attachments, or care in a setting that severely limits opportunities to form attachments (such as an institution)
- No diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder
Children with reactive attachment disorder are believed to have the capacity to form attachments, but this ability has been hindered by their experiences.
Most children are naturally resilient. And even those who've been neglected, lived in a children's home or other institution, or had multiple caregivers can develop healthy relationships. Early intervention appears to improve outcomes.
There's no standard treatment for reactive attachment disorder, but it should involve both the child and parents or primary caregivers. Goals of treatment are to help ensure that the child:
- Has a safe and stable living situation
- Develops positive interactions and strengthens the attachment with parents and caregivers
Treatment strategies include:
- Encouraging the child's development by being nurturing, responsive and caring
- Providing consistent caregivers to encourage a stable attachment for the child
- Providing a positive, stimulating and interactive environment for the child
- Addressing the child's medical, safety and housing needs, as appropriate
Other services that may benefit the child and the family include:
- Individual and family psychological counseling
- Education of parents and caregivers about the condition
- Parenting skills classes
Controversial and coercive techniques
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychiatric Association have criticized dangerous and unproven treatment techniques for reactive attachment disorder.
These techniques include any type of physical restraint or force to break down what's believed to be the child's resistance to attachments â€” an unproven theory of the cause of reactive attachment disorder. There is no scientific evidence to support these controversial practices, which can be psychologically and physically damaging and have led to accidental deaths.
If you're considering any kind of unconventional treatment, talk to your child's psychiatrist or psychologist first to make sure it's evidence based and not harmful.
To feel safe and develop trust, infants and young children need a stable, caring environment. Their basic emotional and physical needs must be consistently met. For instance, when a baby cries, the need for a meal or a diaper change must be met with a shared emotional exchange that may include eye contact, smiling and caressing.
A child whose needs are ignored or met with a lack of emotional response from caregivers does not come to expect care or comfort or form a stable attachment to caregivers.
It's not clear why some babies and children develop reactive attachment disorder and others don't. Various theories about reactive attachment disorder and its causes exist, and more research is needed to develop a better understanding and improve diagnosis and treatment options.
The risk of developing reactive attachment disorder from serious social and emotional neglect or the lack of opportunity to develop stable attachments may increase in children who, for example:
- Live in a children's home or other institution
- Frequently change foster homes or caregivers
- Have parents who have severe mental health problems, criminal behaviour or substance abuse that impairs their parenting
- Have prolonged separation from parents or other caregivers due to hospitalization
However, most children who are severely neglected don't develop a reactive attachment disorder.
Without treatment, reactive attachment disorder can continue for several years and may have lifelong consequences.
Some research suggests that some children and teenagers with reactive attachment disorder may display callous, unemotional traits that can include behaviour problems and cruelty toward people or animals. However, more research is needed to determine if problems in older children and adults are related to experiences of reactive attachment disorder in early childhood.
While it's not known with certainty if reactive attachment disorder can be prevented, there may be ways to reduce the risk of its development. Infants and young children need a stable, caring environment and their basic emotional and physical needs must be consistently met. The following parenting suggestions may help.
- Take classes or volunteer with children if you lack experience or skill with babies or children. This will help you learn how to interact in a nurturing manner.
- Be actively engaged with your child by lots of playing, talking to him or her, making eye contact, and smiling.
- Learn to interpret your baby's cues, such as different types of cries, so that you can meet his or her needs quickly and effectively.
- Provide warm, nurturing interaction with your child, such as during feeding, bathing or changing diapers.
- Offer both verbal and nonverbal responses to the child's feelings through touch, facial expressions and tone of voice.