Attachment Disorders: What are they? How do we cope?

Attachment is one of those things you just don’t think about when it is going well, and is all you think about when something has gone wrong.

Elizabeth Curry June 15, 2016
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If you have been around adoption for any amount of time, you know that “attachment” is a buzzword that is thrown around a lot. In fact, it’s thrown around so often, it’s easy to let it become background noise and not pay it much attention. The trouble is, attachment is one of those things you just don’t think about when it is going well, and is all you think about when something has gone wrong.

What is Attachment? 

Before we can look at what attachment disorders are, we have to first define what attachment is. At its most basic, attachment is the developing of secure and healthy relationships, beginning with the child to his parents and then moving outward to others. Secure attachment allows a child to feel safe, to explore her world, to self-regulate, and to reciprocate affection. It is built by parents responding to an infant’s needs in appropriate ways over and over in the first months of life and beyond. Problems arise, though, when our children do not experience these secure, loving relationships, especially at the very beginning of their lives. As a result, they are left feeling fearful, distrustful, and angry.

Secure attachment allows a child to feel safe, to explore her world, to self-regulate, and to reciprocate affection. It is built by parents responding to an infant’s needs in appropriate ways over and over in the first months of life and beyond.

While some children who struggle with attachment do attach to their new parents, other children struggle and develop an attachment disorder. This is a spectrum disorder from mild all the way to the dreaded letters RAD, otherwise known as Reactive Attachment Disorder, on the severe end.

On the mild end (and in the middle), children are not unattached, but have insecure attachment styles due to their past experiences. They can show a range of behaviors, from being overly self-sufficient to extremely anxious when the parent is not visible, to a child who alternately wants to be close to the parent and then pushes the parent away again. These children have learned to be distrustful of the adults in their lives.

It can be difficult to be the parent to a child who doesn’t want your help . . . ever, or who never lets you go and screams if you move to another room, or who cries to be picked up only to bat you in the face. It can make you wonder if you are good parent. It can make it difficult for you to attach to your child. It is very easy to allow poor interactions to spiral into a bigger problem.

Children want to be attached. They want to feel secure and loved and cared for. Often they just don’t know how and are at the mercy of the trauma caused by their past experiences. But these children are not doomed. With wise and consistent parenting, children can learn to attach appropriately.

Children want to be attached. They want to feel secure and loved and cared for. Often they just don’t know how and are at the mercy of the trauma caused by their past experiences.

On the extreme end of the spectrum lies the unattached child, the child diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder. This is an official diagnosis in the DSM-IV by the American Psychiatric Association and can only be diagnosed by a therapeutic professional. Some of the symptoms which characterize RAD include: an inability to give or receive affection; destructiveness; cruelty to animals; preoccupation with fire, blood, and gore; and lying, stealing, and cheating. While there is hope and help, professional intervention, often of an intense nature, is called for as soon as possible. RAD is not something to be taken lightly. If you suspect that your child could fall into this category, please search for and enlist professional help. You cannot do this on your own.

Overcoming Attachment Difficulties

I realize that reading about attachments disorders is distressing. I live in this world on a daily basis and even just reviewing the literature can raise my heartrate and cause my breathing to become shallower. I get how scary it can feel. But don’t let the fear overwhelm the hope . . . because there is hope. Our children can learn to attach to us and learn to function in the world. Our job is to equip ourselves with the best knowledge out there, to enlist professionals when needed, and to love our children even when it is hard.

I understand the fear and the uncertainty and the disappointment. I had to work at a relationship with a child I loved desperately enough to travel around the world to bring home. But here is the thing I wish I could go back and tell myself right at the beginning: We so often focus on the child attaching to us, the adults, as if it is something they are responsible for and we are the recipients of. But the truth is, the child is responsible for nothing. Nothing. They are acting in response to the events of their lives over which they had no control and for which they did not ask, including being adopted into their new home.

We are the ones who make the conscious decision to love and care for this child regardless of what the child does or how the child acts or how much they give us in return. We are the ones who must transform first.

Our job as the adults is to take responsibility for at least this last move. We initiated it; we brought them home. Thus, it is also our part to attach to our child. We are the ones to make ourselves the loving and secure people to whom they will want to attach. We are the ones who are knowledgeable and do not ask for unreasonable things. We are the ones who make the conscious decision to love and care for this child regardless of what the child does or how the child acts or how much they give us in return. We are the ones who must transform first.

The other thing I would tell (or remind) myself is that this dance of attachment is not just one dance . . . it is a dance marathon. That my part of the dance will not feel natural for quite some time. That there are some times that I won’t want to be part of the dance, much less leading it. Yet by deciding to bring this child into my family, this is what I signed up for. Sure we can arrange times (respite and breaks) that allow us to sit one or two dances out, but we have already agreed by signing the papers that we are in this for the long haul.

When a parent and child are in sync and in love with each other, it is a beautiful thing. But I can tell you from experience that even more beautiful are the glimpses of appropriate attachment that come through hard work and hard love. There is hope.

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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