Does your child struggle with attachment issues? (RAD)

What is attachment?

Attachment is the connection (deep connection) between parent and child (the primary caregiver whoever that may be!)

This deeply affects the child’s ability to display their emotions and to build relationships with friends and loved ones in the future. A lot of children have attachment issues for various reasons, but they can be mild and if noticed early on in their lives, they can be treated with the help of a good children’s therapist. However, the most serious form is known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and is a condition whereby the child is not able to have a healthy attachment with the parent or primary caregiver.

The child will have difficulty making a connection with people and managing his feelings. He will have problems trusting people and will have a very low self- esteem, he will definitely have a fear of getting close to anyone, he’ll become angry and will have a strong desire to be in control. The child with an attachment disorder will feel insecure and alone.

The main reasons for this, is because the child’s life has been seriously disrupted, from a very early age. They may be delayed in their development and their speech may be delayed.

Client Story

One client who brought her adopted son (5 years old) to me went through a miserable time – I will let her tell you the details:

“When we adopted Joseph, he was only three years old. The first few months he was just very quiet and withdrawn and even though I had noticed that when I tried to comfort him, if he was upset or I had had to discipline him over some little thing, he would never really let me comfort him or cuddle him. He would back away from me and of course all I wanted to do was wrap him in my arms and hold him, but this would cause a HUGE meltdown. We don’t know the full extent of what Joseph had been through in the three years before he came to us but whatever it was it had left him with serious attachment issues.

Elaine explained to me that when a child has been abused, neglected, left alone, abandoned, they develop a flight or fight temperament where they are always on high alert and they feel that the world is a frightening place and they cannot depend or trust anyone, especially that person who is supposed to be looking after them – in my case it was me, the new mum! However, Elaine worked with both Joseph and I (and a few sessions with my hubby too) and within a couple of months we began to see a huge change in Joe’s behaviour. He started to trust us more because Elaine had taught us to back off a little, and how to speak to him in a quiet and calm, but assertive manner so that he knew he was safe.

I really don’t know where we would have been now if we hadn’t found Elaine – she has helped us so much so I would recommend that if anyone does have issues with a child who perhaps has been adopted – to ask for help. I already had a child of my own but I wanted to adopt to give another child a good life – I knew that this behaviour wasn’t normal and I knew deep down that my little boy was really a lovely little soul. He is still a little distrusting at times – but we are getting there!”

Amanda Hughes, London.

Reasons that a child develops Reactive Attachment Disorder:

  • A child cries and no one attends to him.
  • An infant is hungry or wet, and they have been left on their own for hours on end
  • No one talks to the little one – no one even smiles at him.
  • A young child gets will act out or display other extreme behaviours just to get some attention
  • A young child is sexually abused
  • Sometimes the child’s needs are met and sometimes they aren’t. The child never knows what to expect so he is always on high alert.
  • The infant or young child is hospitalized or separated from their parents.
  • A child is physically abused or constantly shouted at
  • A baby or young child is constantly moved from one place to another (the result of foster care, or the loss of a parent, for example).
  • The parent is emotionally unavailable, an alcoholic or drug addict, because of depression or illness

Occasionally the reasons that the child has developed an attachment disorder just can’t be helped, but the child will be too immature to understand this. The young child just feels that nobody cares at all.

What are signs of an attachment disorder?

  • The child will avoid eye contact
  • He won’t smile very often
  • If he is an infant, he probably won’t hold his arms out to you to pick him up.
  • He will cry uncontrollably
  • He won’t make normal “baby” noises
  • He will show no interest in playing with toys
  • He may rock himself
  • He will reject his parent’s efforts to soothe and comfort him

Some of these symptoms appear similar to those of Autism Spectrum Disorder, however if you see any of these symptoms you should ask for a professional assessment.

Symptoms of reactive attachment disorder

  • Child will flinch when he is touched, even from his primary caregiver
  • Most children with RAD are disobedient, argumentative and defiant.
  • The child will be very controlling
  • He will have tantrums and meltdowns and show passive – aggressive behaviours.
  • The child may hide their bad behaviours in some social situations
  • The child will show little or no affection to his parents
  • He may act inappropriately affectionate towards strangers.
  • The child will show no remorse after he has hurt another child

How to parent your child with attachment issues

Being a parent to a child with an attachment disorder can be exhausting, frustrating, and quite often you will feel that you are literally at the end of the road with him or her. Not having a loving and relationship with your child is hard but rest assured that you can do it! The main thing is to remain calm but make sure you are assertive with him, then he will feel safe and eventually will trust you. Remember that the child with an attachment disorder is already on high alert and experiencing an awful lot of stress, so it is important that you manage your own stress levels before you can help your child.

To help a child with attachment issues, it’s important to:

  • Be patient. The process may not be as fast as you would like, and you can expect teething problems along the way. But by remaining patient and focusing on baby steps, you create an atmosphere of safety for your child.
  • Keep a sense of humour. Fun and laughter will always go towards helping repair attachment problems and keeping you sane even in the bad times. Find at least a couple of activities (and friends) that help you laugh and feel good.
  • Look after YOU!  Reduce some other demands on your time, make time for YOU, and make sure you get enough rest.
  • Support from family and friends.  If you are able to rely on friends, family, community resources, and respite care (if available) you will feel a lot better. Try to ask for help before you really need it as this will take away some of the stress. You could also consider joining a support group for parents of children with attachment disorder.
  • Keep positive. Children pick up on feelings if the child senses that you’re discouraged, it will be discouraging to him.

How do I make my child with Reactive Attachment Disorder feel safe, secure and loved?

The main reason that a child feels so unsafe and distrusting is because he has probably been abandoned, abused ( sexually or physically) neglected, left alone crying for hours on end, not fed or had his nappy changed as a baby etc. So, the very first thing you must do is make him feel “safe” and build up his sense of security. Set boundaries right from the beginning and behave in a consistent way with him so there are no surprises. He will need to know he can count on you to look after him.

Don’t panic if there is some bad behaviour initially because the child doesn’t know how to behave or handle his emotions. By remaining calm you will be able to establish a good relationship. If there is a conflict (which there will undoubtedly be!) when he has calmed down, give him time to cool off and then be ready to reconnect with him, this will help your child develop a trust that you will be there for him.

Maintain routines and schedules as a child with an attachment disorder may feel threatened by transitions and changes. A familiar routine will help build his confidence. You can help your child by being a good role model. Allow him to see YOU being kind to others and saying loving things to other family members.

Remember that your child may or may not be resistant to physical touch, so go very slowly and if you feel he pulls away when you go to give him a hug, don’t get upset about it, just say something like “I’m here to give you a hug whenever you are ready”.

Children with an attachment disorder are quite often very immature, so you may have to treat him as you would a younger child until he catches up. Make sure you give your child some good one on one quality time every day. He will feel that you are focussed on him and him alone!

Does my child with an attachment disorder need therapy?

If your child is struggling with an attachment disorder it would be wise to get help from a therapist as the extra support will make a dramatic difference to the child’s future.

Family therapy would be useful if you are experiencing lots of tantrums and meltdowns. However, the main thing is to treat the child’s anxiety and if he has a therapist who he can open up to he will feel so much better and his behaviour will more than likely improve. If the child is very young – play therapy is brilliant!

For further information on how to cope with a child with an attachment disorder do contact me: Elaine Hodgins at

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