Attachment Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment


We all sometimes face difficulty when it comes to making and maintaining certain relationships. It could be because of a conflict that we were unable to resolve, or it could be a simple incompatibility between two people. However, when we begin facing the inability to form and maintain relationships to a level that it becomes disruptive, we may have attachment disorder. 

An attachment disorder, when very simply put, is a behavioural disorder that results in a person facing extreme difficulties in forming bonds or emotional attachments with others. Attachment disorders more readily exist in children and signs can emerge as early as after a few months of the child being born. This article will delve into understanding attachment theory and disorder then its types, helping you identify signs of attachment disorder in your children, what happens if it goes undiagnosed and untreated, and what you can do on your own to build better connections with others so let us begin. 

According to Clinical Psychologist and Mental Health Expert, Dr. Shailaja Pokhriyal, “So, basically, when young adults don’t get the right attention, they can get rebellious and angry over small stuff. And if they get too much attention and care, they might become overly dependent on their parents, thanks to what we call “helicopter parenting.” This kind of parenting can lead to kids being overly reliant on their parents.”

What Is Attachment Theory? 

The parents of attachment theory are John Bowlby, a British psychologist, and Mary Ainsworth, an American-Canadian psychologist. It began all the way back in the 1950s stemming from Bowlby’s experience in the linkage between the loss of a mother and later personality development, and Ainsworth’s interest in the security theory which talks about how feeling safe with a parent affects a child’s personality. Let us hover over the key points of this theory. 

  • The way infants tend to scream, cry and hold onto their parents in order to avoid separation even for a few moments gives a nod to their evolutionary desire for safety.
  • Bowlby gave the term ‘attachment behavioural system’ to denote our patterns of behaviour and habits through which we aim to form emotional bonds and maintain them.
  • There are different attachment styles namely secure attachment, anxious-resistant attachment, avoidant attachment and the later added disorganised-disoriented attachment style. 
  • Harlow, who became famous for setting up the experimental basis for attachment theory, did an experiment that showed that a child’s capacity to love and emotional regulation is majorly affected by the emotional connection the child has with their mother 
  • Erik Erikson, the father of psychosocial stages of development, also talked about how it is as infants that we learn about trust and mistrust dependent on affection received from our parents. 

The theory also holds that the majority of attachment styles are formed within the first 18 months or so of a child’s life. 

You will notice that most of this theory and the experiments conducted within it have been conducted on children. This is because it is a very famous conception that attachment styles are formed in the early stages of life. Adults can also face difficulties similar to the ones in attachment disorder if they had attachment disorders as children but it had gone untreated. 

Read More: Exploring Human Connection: A Look at Attachment Theory

Attachment Disorders and Its Types 

There are such a multitude of ways people form bonds and connections with each other, would it be surprising if there are different attachment disorders as well? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition revised, has listed two types of attachment disorders, these being reactive attachment disorder and disinhibited social engagement disorder. Both of these are explained below. 

Reactive Attachment Disorder

As the name suggests, this sort of attachment disorder is essentially a reaction. RAD exists when the individual has difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships due to being abused or hurt in the past, usually by a parent. For example, in the popular movie Animal, Ranvijay’s father is more of an absent parent and thus, Ranvijay has difficulty in maintaining his marital bond. If a child faces neglect in the early years of childhood, they are likely to develop RAD.

An adolescent with this form of attachment disorder tends to be easily irritated during social situations, expresses very little emotional responses in social gatherings, tends to avoid building connections with others, and may seem unhappy or even scared when dealing with parents, guardians or their caregivers. If the symptoms go untreated, the child may become much more inept at identifying and guiding others’ emotions as well. They may also develop anger issues as a result of emotional dysregulation. 

Read More: Role of Play in Child Development and Emotional Expression

Disinhibited social engagement disorder

Looking at how closed-off individuals with RAD are, people with DSED are the exact opposite. Those who have disinhibited social engagement disorder tend to have little to no risk perception when approaching strangers. They tend to be outgoing to a fault wherein they trust any and everyone. They may also become oblivious to social boundaries and social cues. DSED occurs in individuals who experience neglect socially and also miss out on consistent affection from a caregiver. 

A child may develop this within the first 2 years of their lives. This disorder also manifests itself in the form of hyperactivity, as well as the tendency to ask intrusive questions to others that they may or may not be comfortable with. However, studies have shown that DSED symptoms do decrease over an individual’s lifespan. A popular example of this could be the character of Phoebe from the popular 90s sitcom FRIENDS where she had two absent parents but grew up to be someone exceptionally outgoing and trusting. 

According to Clinical Psychologist and Mental Health Expert, Varsha Rani Choudhary, “Early connections with caregivers shape how we behave and grow. Kids who bond closely with their mothers may get anxious when apart, showing signs like more frequent urination, especially if they have attachment issues. If attachment is shaky or there’s early anxiety, it can lead to certain personality quirks or disorders later on. Dealing with these issues early is key to avoiding long-term mental struggles and trouble forming good relationships as adults.”

She Explains further, “Creating an environment where a child can explore independently, even without their mother present, fosters a healthy personality. They learn that it’s okay to be alone and trust that their mother will return. This early attachment style shapes their personality, making them feel secure in future relationships.”

Who Has Attachment Disorder?

If you are a parent, this section might be especially helpful to you. The symptoms of attachment disorder are much more observable and obvious in children than it is later in life. Moreover, research has suggested that attachment disorders are more common among adopted or fostered children. There are certain signs that may help you identify whether your child or someone else in general may have some form of attachment disorder. Some of these are listed below: 

  • Sudden and Unexplained Negative Emotions: Children with attachment disorder might feel unexplained fear or sadness during interactions with others. Due to the constant feeling of discomfort in social situations, they may even feel more irritable than other children. 
  • Non-responsive and listless demeanour: Those affected might also become very listless in day-to-day interactions preferring to stay quiet and keep to themselves most of the time. 
  • Lowered Inhibition In Speaking To Strangers: This is especially true for those with DSED, but the child might not restrict themselves in conversations with total strangers which can be risky. This comes in addition to the non-waiverable trust in everyone. 
  • Inability To Express Happiness: Children with this are reportedly unable to smile easily even in moments when they are genuinely happy in. 
  • Disinterested in playing games such as peekaboo: For a child, playing becomes an essential component in life. But children with attachment disorder may not wish to partake in activities such as peekaboo which involves the pretence of disappearing and then suddenly coming back. Other such activities may be hide and seek, dark room and so on. 
  • Inability To Socially Engage: Individuals may tend to either entirely avoid social engagements or keep to themselves during social events. They are not comfortable with actively trying to speak with others or enjoying themselves in a social gathering. While this may seem similar to someone basically being an introvert, this behaviour is much more debilitating. 

Related: Permissive Parenting: Its Approach and Impact on Child Development

The above symptoms listed can primarily be seen in children but though the rates are lesser, this can exist in adults as well. For adolescents and adults, the symptoms are listed below: 

  • Inability To Maintain Serious Relationships: Individuals with attachment disorder tend to face difficulty in forming and maintaining long term serious friendships and relationships. If you have ever wondered why some people cannot stay in a relationship for more than 2 months, this could be one of the reasons why. 
  • Detachment. Individuals may feel constantly disconnected with others, even those closest to them. They may have difficulty expressing affection to loved ones which causes them to feel even more detached. This might also be a way to avoid putting trust and love in others for the off chance that they might hurt them. 
  • Distrustful. Speaking about trust, they have a very difficult time trusting others and accepting affection as genuine and true. 
  • Emotional Dysregulation. Individuals with an attachment disorder tend to be easily irritable, frustrated and impulsive. They often have fits of anger and feel sadness especially around social interaction and engagements. 

These symptoms only get worse if it goes undiagnosed and untreated. Since these disorders inflict an individual during early childhood, they are still easier to treat. However, as we go on, the behavioural patterns and cognitive overview become too rigid to change. But not all hope is lost, there are always treatments available at a professional level as well as at your personal level.

As per Varsha Rani Choudhary, “So, basically, when you have an attachment disorder, it’s hard to understand what’s going on, even if you know something’s not right. You might feel like you’ve lost control, but you’re okay with it, even if it bothers you. Sometimes, parents can be overly protective without realizing they’re passing on attachment issues to their kids. They might think it’s fine to be super protective, but it can actually cause attachment disorders in their children. Even though they know something’s not quite right with their attachment, they struggle to see it clearly. It can be tough to overcome these issues. Psychologically, it’s like hitting a five or six on the difficulty scale to fully understand what’s happening.”

Treatment: What Can You Do? 

Treatment for attachment disorder exists both on a personal level and a professional medical level. It is suggested that children who exhibit symptoms of attachment disorders should be taken to a professional for psychiatric assessment and further treatment plans. Without treatment, such conditions can severely hamper a child’s emotional and social functioning. Let us see what you can do on an individual level to either prevent or aid such conditions. 

  • Unconditional Love and Care. Parents are an individual’s primary source of unconditional love. If a child learns what healthy attachment is then they are much less likely to develop attachment disorders. 
  • The Power Of Model Learning. Model learning is a concept given by the social psychologist Albert Bandura. This holds that individuals, especially children, learn most behavioural patterns from their parents. If you, as a parent, advocate for open, honest and respectful communication, your child will do the same. You can teach your children to love. 
  • Bust Negative Thoughts and Perceptions. This tip is especially for parents with an adopted child, you must bust the faulty cognition or thoughts your child has associated with love, care and relationships. You have to show them that neglect and abuse is not the only reality and that they are more than their experiences. 
  • Separate Yourself or The Child From The Abuser. In this case, distance will not make the heart grow fonder, rather it will heal the heart. If the person behind the neglect and abuse is still in the child’s life, it will be very difficult to distance oneself from the memories of it. The only exception to this is if you are able to mend your relationship with said person.

Read more: Bandura’s BOBO DOLL Experiment: Unveiling Child Aggression

The biggest thing to remember about attachment disorders is that it does not have to be permanent. One of the biggest things one must remember is that love is inherent to all and thus, everyone is capable of it. Your past does not define you and you cannot let it guide the rest of your life, especially your connections with others! 

References +
  • Aacap. (n.d.). Attachment disorders. chment-Disorders-085.aspx 
  • Morales-Brown, L. (2023, November 29). What are attachment disorders in adults? isorder 
  • Turner, M., Beckwith, H., Duschinsky, R., Forslund, T., Foster, S., Coughlan, B., Pal, S., & Schuengel, C. (2019). Attachment difficulties and disorders. InnovAiT, 12(4), 173–179. 
  • Ackerman, C. E., MA. (2024, February 27). What is Attachment Theory? Bowlby’s 4 Stages Explained. 
  • Guyon‐Harris, K. L., Humphreys, K. L., Miron, D., Gleason, M. M., Nelson, C. A., Fox, N. A., & Zeanah, C. H. (2019). Disinhibited social engagement disorder in early childhood predicts reduced competence in early adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 47(10), 1735–1745. 
  • Reactive attachment disorder – Symptoms & causes – Mayo Clinic. (2022, May 12). Mayo Clinic. causes/syc-20352939 
  • Alyssa. (2023, February 17). Attachment Disorder in Adults | Banyan Mental Health. Mental Health Program at Banyan Treatment Centers. mptoms-and-help/
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