Attachment disorder in children

Written by Ellen Hoggard

Ellen Hoggard

Counselling Directory Content Team

Head of Content

Last updated on 1st August, 2017

As soon as a child is born, they begin to develop a deep bond with their parents or main caregivers. This attachment is what helps us learn and develop in a trusting, loving environment. It helps us develop the ability to express emotion and learn how to build relationships. We know even from a young age, that we are loved and our parents are there for us.

But, this bond isn’t formed for all children. While there are many reasons why this attachment isn’t formed, typically there will be a situation where the caregiver is unable to provide the necessary care and attention. This may be due to neglect, the child being abused, separation or another reason. Whatever the cause, this lack of attachment can lead to a number of difficulties for the child, and in severe cases, a condition called reactive attachment disorder.

Attachment difficulties

By the age of nine months, most babies will have developed a close bond with their caregiver. They will know who to rely on for food, shelter, love and protection. For this reason, it’s common for babies aged between six and nine months to go through a ‘clingy’ stage. They will get upset when separated from their parents, as they associate them with safety.

But these bonds aren’t always made. When the security and safety element is lost, the child can find it extremely difficult to cope with new experiences and form bonds with others. When this bond is not made, the child can be at risk of developing behavioural and emotional difficulties. If untreated, there is a risk of developing mental health problems in later life.

Signs of an attachment disorder

Common signs of an attachment disorder in children include:

  • a lack of eye contact
  • problems expressing anger
  • a need for control
  • difficulty showing affection
  • seeks affection from strangers
  • difficulty showing remorse or regret after bad behaviour

For very young children, the following behaviours may also indicate an attachment problem:

  • They dislike being touched.
  • They show little to no affection towards their caregivers.
  • They appear anxious or tearful.
  • They avoid interaction with other children.
  • They give little response (and doesn’t smile) when interacting with adults.

The effects of attachment difficulties work on a spectrum. Some will experience minimal effects, and for others, the effects can be traumatising. But there are treatments available and there are ways to overcome these issues, even as an adult.

How counselling can help

If a child is experiencing attachment difficulties, seeking a diagnosis from a professional should be your next step. Symptoms will be assessed and if the child is showing signs of attachment disorder, a physical examination may be needed. If there is no physical cause, a mental health professional will be required to assess the child’s symptoms and offer a diagnosis.

If left untreated, these problems can worsen and may lead to further behavioural problems. For this reason, the earlier the problems are addressed, the better. Treatment for attachment difficulties will typically involve a combination of counselling and parental guidance. For children with attachment disorder, treatment may include:

For children of school age, special education programmes may also be recommended. This can help them develop the skills needed for academic success, while also addressing any behavioural and emotional problems they may have.

Advice for parents

Being a parent to a child with insecure attachment can be both physically and emotionally challenging. You’ll likely feel exhausted, angry and hurt, but be assured that your efforts are worth it. Attachment disorders can be treated and as difficult as it is, with time and patience, a bond can be developed.

To help a child with attachment problems, be sure you:

Have realistic expectations - It’s a long journey and it won’t be easy, so try not to think too far ahead. It’s important you focus on small achievements and celebrate these each time.

Be patient - Your patience is an essential part of this process. Prepare yourself for bumps along the way and focus on small improvements - this will help create a safe, comforting atmosphere for your child.

Share joy and adopt a sense of humour - Joy and humour go a long way when it comes to managing attachment difficulties, even during a stressful time. For the benefit of both you and the child, be sure to have a couple of activities that make you feel good.

Stay positive - Children can pick up on emotion easily and if you’ve lost hope, they’ll start to feel that too. If they sense you’re giving up or feeling discouraged, they’ll know and this can only knock them further. Try to remain hopeful and turn to friends for support when you’re feeling down.

Ask for help and seek further support - If you can, rely on your friends and family for support. See what support is available locally to you - in the form of community resources or parent support groups. It’s difficult but try to ask for help before you really need it - leaving it until you’re at breaking point won’t help anyone. If you can’t turn to friends, consider seeking professional help. A counsellor can be there to listen to you, as well as offer guidance and advice.

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