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Attachment Disorders

  • Author: Roy H Lubit, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Caroly Pataki, MD  more...
 
Updated: Oct 08, 2015
 

Practice Essentials

Attachment disorders are the psychological result of significant social neglect, that is, the absence of adequate social and emotional caregiving during childhood, disrupting the normative bond between children and their caregivers. These disorders, formerly considered a single diagnosis, are now, according to DSM-5, divided into reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED).

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of RAD may include the following:

  • A child who rarely or minimally seeks comfort when distressed
  • A child who rarely or minimally responds to comfort when distressed
  • Minimal social and emotional responses to others
  • Episodes of unexplained irritability, sadness or tearfulness
  • Limited expressions of positive affect or joy
  •  Evidence of inadequate basic emotional and social caretaking

Symptoms of DSED may include the following:

  • Lack of reticence in approaching and interacting with unfamiliar adults
  • Overly familiar verbal or physical behaviors such as hugging strangers, or sitting on the laps of unfamiliar adults
  • Willingness to approach a complete stranger for comfort or food, to be picked up, or to receive a toy
  • Diminished or absent checking back with adult caretaker when in unfamiliar situations
  • Evidence of inadequate social and emotional caretaking, sometimes with a history of repeated changes in the primary caretaker

No specific physical signs of attachment disorders exist. Nevertheless, associated signs may be present, such as the following:

  • Signs of physical maltreatment
  • Effects of undernutrition 
  • Excessive appetite in children, and/or hoarding food
  • Growth retardation (in severe cases)

Complications of attachment disorders may include the following:

  • Defiant behavior
  • Refusal to cooperate
  • Pervasive anger and resentment
  • Cognitive delays
  • Language delays
  • Stereotypies
  • Conduct disorder
  • Difficulties in social settings
  • Academic difficulties

See Presentation for more detail.

Diagnosis

No laboratory studies yield results that are directly relevant to attachment disorders. Studies related to neglect and nutritional deprivation exist. No imaging studies are used to diagnose attachment disorders. No specific histologic findings are related to attachment disorders.

The specific DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for RAD are as follows:

  • A consistent pattern of inhibited, emotionally withdrawn behavior toward adult caregivers
  • A persistent social and emotional disturbance
  • A pattern of extremes of insufficient care
  • The care described in the third criterion is presumed to be responsible for the disturbed behavior described in the first criterion
  • The criteria for autism spectrum disorder are not met
  • The disturbance is evident before age 5 years
  • The child has a developmental age of at least 9 months

The specific DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for DSED are as follows:

  • A pattern of behavior in which a child actively approaches and interacts with unfamiliar adults in an impulsive, incautious, and overfamiliar way
  • The behaviors described in the first criterion are not limited to impulsivity but also include socially disinhibited behavior
  • A pattern of extremes of insufficient care
  • The care described in the third criterion is presumed to be responsible for the disturbed behavior described in the first criterion
  • The child has a developmental age of at least 9 months

With both RAD and DSED, if the disorder has been present for longer than 12 months, it is specified as persistent; if the child exhibits all the symptoms of RAD or DSED, with each symptom manifesting at relatively high levels, the disorder is further specified as severe.

See Overview for more detail.

Management

Principles of treatment for RAD and DSED include the following:

  • Most of the treatment is provided by modifying the behavior of the primary caregivers (eg, parents or substitute parents) in their everyday interactions with the child
  • Referral to a mental health professional who is aware of the emotional needs of children, the phenomenology of attachment disruptions, and the need to repair and recreate the sense of security in the child may be critical
  • Pharmacologic treatment may be helpful for comorbid disorders such as depression, but not for the attachment disorders themselves
  • There is no specific indication for inpatient treatment; however, the occasional child may need to be hospitalized for a time so that issues such as mistrust or lack of emotional involvement with others can be addressed

Therapeutic ingredients that appear to promote attachment when provided by caregivers include the following:

  • Security (sense of psychological safety)
  • Stability (permanence of the attachment figure)
  • Sensitivity (emotional availability)

Over the course of treatment, occasional regressive behaviors should be expected and tolerated.

See Treatment for more detail.

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Background

Attachment disorders have been described in the psychological and psychiatric literature for approximately 50 years.[1, 2, 3, 4, 5] These disorders are the psychological result of negative experiences with caregivers, usually since infancy, that disrupt the exclusive and unique relationship between children and their primary caregiver(s). Oppositional and defiant behaviors may be the result of disruptions in attachment.

Many children experience the loss of primary caregivers, either because they are physically separated from them or because the caregiver is incapable of providing adequate care. Removal from primary caregivers can cause serious problems by breaking primary attachments, even if alternate caregivers are competent.

Attachment refers to a set of behaviors and inferred emotions that can be observed in infants. Humans need attachments with others for their psychological and emotional development, as well as for their survival. Early manifestations of attachment include the unique and exclusive relationship between infants and their parents. Parents and infants establish a continuous relationship that has specific features, and the quality of this relationship colors the child’s relationships for the rest of his or her life.

Both caregivers and infants have biologic preprogrammed instinctive equipment that serves to foster their relationship. Most people have a strong attraction to and desire to care for babies. In addition, a baby’s crying and clinging reinforce his or her efforts to obtain care and attention. Parents also have instinctive behaviors, such as soothing a crying infant, caressing the infant, making sounds that appeal to the infant, and mirroring the infant (ie, playfully imitating the baby’s facial expressions), all of which trigger tenderness and a caregiving instinct.

Attachment develops in infants through repeatedly being looked after and appropriately responded to by caregivers and thereby being convinced that someone is available to soothe, console, and comfort them. Infants may become attached to others who have a consistent presence in their lives; however, it is their relationship with the primary caregiver(s) that plays the most critical role in determining the basis for future attachments. Primary attachment figure(s) cannot suddenly be replaced, because that relationship is unique and stable.

The nature and quality of early attachments provide the basis on which children develop an internal working model of relationships that serves as a template for future relationships. These working models of relationships can be positive (eg, people can be trusted, confided in, or helpful in distress) or negative (ie, no one can be trusted, no one cares, and no one is available to offer help or support).

Babies internalize their parents (and other attachment figures) as a secure base. This allows them to feel safe internally and to explore the world around them with confidence. It also allows them to experience positive interpersonal exchanges with other children. Infants can then return to the caregiver to refuel emotionally before proceeding with further exploration.

Diagnostic criteria (DSM-5)

In the American Psychiatric Association’sDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), reactive attachment disorder (RAD) was a single diagnosis with 2 subtypes, emotionally withdrawn/inhibited and indiscriminately social/disinhibited. In the fifth edition of the manual (DSM-5), however, these subtypes are defined as distinct disorders—namely, RAD and disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED), respectively.[6]

DSM-5 requires social neglect (defined as an absence of adequate caregiving during childhood) for a diagnosis of either RAD or DSED. Their common etiology notwithstanding, the 2 disorders are expressed in distinct ways. RAD is expressed as an internalizing disorder with depressive symptoms and withdrawn behavior, whereas DSED is expressed through disinhibition and externalizing behavior.

In RAD, the child does not initiate and respond to social interactions in a developmentally appropriate manner. RAD is a disorder of nonattachment and is related to loss of the primary attachment figure and lack of opportunity to establish a new attachment with a primary caregiver. A nonattachment disorder may also develop if the baby never had the opportunity to develop at least 1 attachment with a reliable caregiver who was continuously present in the baby’s life.[7, 8, 9]

The specific DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for RAD are as follows:

  • A consistent pattern of inhibited, emotionally withdrawn behavior toward adult caregivers, manifested by both of the following: (1) the child rarely or minimally seeks comfort when distressed and (2) the child rarely or minimally responds to comfort when distressed
  • A persistent social and emotional disturbance characterized by at least 2 of the following: (1) minimal social and emotional responsiveness to others, (2) limited positive affect, and (3) episodes of unexplained irritability, sadness, or fearfulness that are evident even during nonthreatening interactions with adult caregivers
  • The child has experienced a pattern of extremes of insufficient care as evidenced by at least 1 of the following: (1) social neglect or deprivation in the form of persistent lack of having basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation, and affection met by caregiving adults; (2) repeated changes of primary caregivers that limit opportunities to form stable attachments (eg, frequent changes in foster care); and (3) rearing in unusual settings that severely limit opportunities to form selective attachments (eg, institutions with high child-to-caregiver ratios)
  • The care described in the third criterion is presumed to be responsible for the disturbed behavior described in the first criterion (eg, the disturbed behavior began after the inadequate care)
  • The criteria for autism spectrum disorder are not met
  • The disturbance is evident before age 5 years
  • The child has a developmental age of at least 9 months

In DSED, the child participates in diffuse attachments and exhibits indiscriminate sociability and excessive familiarity with strangers. The child has repeatedly lost attachment figures or has had multiple caregivers and has never had the chance to develop a continuous and consistent attachment to at least 1 caregiver. Disruption of successive attachment relationships causes the infant to renounce attachments altogether.

Infants and children with DSED do not manifest the usual anxiety and concern with strangers, and they superficially accept anyone as a caregiver (as though people were interchangeable) and act as if the relationship had been intimate and lifelong. The social impulsivity of this disorder is different from the global impulsivity of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The specific DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for DSED are as follows:

  • A pattern of behavior in which a child actively approaches and interacts with unfamiliar adults and exhibits at least 2 of the following: (1) reduced or absent reticence in approaching and interacting with unfamiliar adults; (2) overly familiar verbal or physical behavior (inconsistent with culturally sanctioned and age-appropriate social boundaries); (3) diminished or absent checking-back with adult caregivers after venturing away, even in unfamiliar settings; and (4) willingness to go off with an unfamiliar adult with minimal or no hesitation
  • The behaviors described in the first criterion are not limited to impulsivity (as in in ADHD) but also include socially disinhibited behavior
  • The child has experienced a pattern of extremes of insufficient care, as evidenced by at least 1 of the following: (1) social neglect or deprivation in the form of persistent lack of having basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation, and affection met by caregiving adults; (2) repeated changes of primary caregivers that limit opportunities to form stable attachments (eg, frequent changes in foster care); and (3) rearing in unusual settings that severely limit opportunities to form selective attachments (eg, institutions with high child-to-caregiver ratios)
  • The care described in the third criterion is presumed to be responsible for the disturbed behavior described in the first criterion (eg, the disturbed behavior began after the inadequate care)
  • The child has a developmental age of at least 9 months.

With both RAD and DSED, if the disorder has been present for longer than 12 months, it is specified as persistent; if the child exhibits all the symptoms of RAD or DSED, with each symptom manifesting at relatively high levels, the disorder is further specified as severe.

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Pathophysiology

Reactive attachment disorder

If caregivers are not reliably or consistently present or if they respond in an unpredictable and uncertain way, infants cannot establish a pattern of confident expectation. One result is insecure attachment, or a less-than-optimal internal sense of confidence and trust in others, beginning with caregivers. The child then uses psychological defenses (eg, avoidance or ambivalence) to avoid disappointments with the caregiver. This process is thought to contribute to a negative working model of relationships that leads to lifelong insecurity.

Disinhibited social engagement disorder

Young children exposed to multiple caregivers simultaneously or sequentially do not easily experience the sense of security associated with unique and exclusive longstanding relationships. They have no opportunity to learn to trust 1 person, because all of their past relationships have been interrupted, disrupted, or consistently unreliable.

Children with DSED resort to psychological defense mechanisms (eg, relying only on themselves and not expecting to be soothed, cared for, or consoled by adults) to survive. Instead of relying on one person, they inhibit any sense of fear or loneliness and develop a pseudocomfort with whoever is available. These children are thought to suppress the conscious experience of fear only as a result of a psychological defense. They are afraid of trusting anyone and being further disappointed. This pattern can continue into adult life and adversely affect adult relationships.

Attachment disorders independent of DSM-5

In reversed attachment, the child becomes the source of comfort to the parent, who is insecure and vulnerable. The usual relationship is inverted, and it is the infant who, though unable to reassure the parent completely, provides the security in the relationship.

In angry attachment, a strong relationship exists between parent and infant that is unique and exclusive; however, the relationship is marked by angry features and exchanges. The dyad members are angry with each other but not with other people around them.

Mary Ainsworth developed an attachment classification based on the behavior of infants (typically aged 10-13 months) in the presence of a stranger during and after a short separation from their primary caregivers.[10] This classification distinguishes between secure and insecure attachments as follows:

  • Behavioral patterns associated with secure attachments include some distress at separation, preference for a parent over a stranger, and a search for comfort from the parent upon reunion
  • Behavioral patterns associated with insecure attachments, such as avoidant and ambivalent styles, include lack of distress upon separation and avoidance of, or anger toward, the mother upon reunion

Approximately 65% of American middle-class children are thought to have secure attachments with primary caregivers, whereas 35% exhibit an insecure attachment style. Not all children who show an insecure attachment to primary caregivers are diagnosed with a disorder; in some cases, they did not receive pathologic care, and in others, their insecure attachment was not severe.

The lack of a secure attachment style affects the child throughout life. It must be kept in mind, however, that an insecure attachment should not be equated with a disorder. The Ainsworth attachment classification yields only a suggestion of a child’s internal state; it is not a diagnostic tool for attachment disorders.

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Etiology

Multiple situations can lead to attachment disorders.

Young children with RAD, who typically have been exposed to multiple caregivers simultaneously or sequentially, do not easily experience the sense of security associated with unique and exclusive long-standing relationships. They have had no opportunity to learn to trust a primary caregiver, because their past relationships were interrupted, disrupted, or consistently unreliable. The following factors are relevant:

  • Gross neglect
  • Gross insensitivity in the caregiver
  • Abandonment by caregiver at the peak of attachment needs (end of first year of life)
  • Repeated abandonment by caregiver

DSED is the most common type of attachment disturbance in clinical settings. Many children with DSED have been placed in multiple foster homes or have lived with different relatives. Their parents are unable to create a sense of permanency in their lives; many of the parents experience legal problems, engage in illegal drug use, abuse alcohol, or have personality disturbances, which make them unable to provide stability for the child. The following factors are relevant:

  • Multiple caregivers, either sequentially or concurrently
  • Multiple disruptions in attachment relationships
  • Several changes in foster home placement

Risk factors

Risk factors for attachment disorders are the same as those associated with poor parenting, maltreatment, and neglect. A number of psychosocial factors place some children at particular risk—for example, caregivers who abuse drugs, who have multiple unmanageable stressors, or who have been maltreated or have experienced multiple attachment disruptions themselves. Genetic factors are also significant.[11]

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Epidemiology

United States statistics

No epidemiologic studies of frequency or prevalence of attachment disorders in children exist; however, statistical data regarding adoptions and foster care placement are available. On the basis of such data, it may be possible to estimate approximately how many children have attachment disorders. According to DSM-5, the prevalence of RAD in high-risk populations (ie, children severely neglected and placed in foster care or institutions) is less than 10%, and the prevalence of DSED in these populations is about 20%.[6]

International statistics

International data are sparse. Many children (eg, certain children from Romania and China) have lived in orphanages for most or all of their lives and have had little opportunity for attachment, or else have lived in bleak conditions with multiple caregivers and are emotionally and cognitively deprived. In such environments, it can be difficult to determine exactly what causes a child to have difficulties in relating and communication, in development of trust, and in linguistic and cognitive development.

Age-, sex-, and race-related demographics

The onset of attachment disorders comes before the age of 5 years. Typically, the disorder has its roots in infancy. The more serious effects of disruptions in attachment relationships tend to persist and manifest themselves in the preschool and school years. In more muted forms (eg, mistrust and difficulties in establishing supportive, sensitive, and intimate relationships), they last into adolescence and adulthood.

No information in the scientific literature suggests that attachment disorders have a sexual predilection. No evidence suggests a greater prevalence of attachment disorders in a particular racial or ethnic group, except in specific countries with unusual child care practices.

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Prognosis

Without treatment and new attachments, the child’s chances of achieving normal emotional development, building trusting relationships, and experiencing and tolerating intimacy and closeness with other human beings is very poor.

Children with attachment disorders are difficult to parent, to teach, and to befriend. As a result, these children are likely to have additional problematic experiences that will complicate attempts to heal. The basic problems that led to the attachment disorder in the first place (eg, abuse and abandonment by parents because of substance abuse, emotional problems, and stress) tend to give rise to other problems for the child, including poor medical care and injuries.

A frequent concern of potential adoptive parents or caregivers is deciding when the child is unable to develop a new attachment or to warm up to new caregivers after multiple past disruptions. After the first few months of life, concerns arise as to whether forming an attachment to a new person as well as the old one is possible.

During the school years, establishing a close and intimate bond with a new caregiver or family seems possible. Of course, the new attachment is a complex phenomenon determined by multiple factors, such as the child’s temperament, previous experiences with caregivers, the nature of the new parents, and how sensitively the new caregivers deal with the problem.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Roy H Lubit, MD, PhD Private Practice

Roy H Lubit, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Coauthor(s)

J Martin Maldonado-Durán, MD Principal Investigator for Child and Family Center, Department of Psychiatry, Child and Adolescent Division, Family Service and Guidance Center

J Martin Maldonado-Durán, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Kansas Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Linda Helmig Bram, PhD Psychologist in Private Practice, Lexington, MA; Clinical Instructor, Department of Psychiatry, Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard University Medical School

Linda Helmig Bram, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Psychological Association, National Register of Health Service Psychologists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Caroly Pataki, MD Health Sciences Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Caroly Pataki, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, New York Academy of Sciences, Physicians for Social Responsibility

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Acknowledgements

Teresa Lartigue, PhD Director of Program Research of the Mexican Psychiatric Association, Department of Reproductive Epidemiology, National Institute of Perinatology; Emeritus Professor, Department of Psychology, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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  10. Ainsworth MDS, Blehar MC, Waters E, et al. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum; 1976.

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  15. Smyke AT, Zeanah CH, Gleason MM, Drury SS, Fox NA, Nelson CA, et al. A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing Foster Care and Institutional Care for Children With Signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2012 Mar 8. [Medline].

 
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