Attachment is all about relationships. Humans need attachments with others for their psychological and emotional development and well-being as well as for their survival. Infants need to be physically close to the mother and be able to receive and give affection to form an enduring emotional bond. Children need to feel that they are safe, that they will not be abandoned, and that they are loved and valued.
The unique and exclusive relationship between a mother and child colors the person’s relationships for rest of his or her life. If the relationship is close and secure, then the child learns to trust and love. If the relationship is emotionally distant, inconsistent, or abusive, then the child learns not to trust or care and believes that one is all alone in the world. The importance of an attachment relationship between mother and child cannot be over-emphasized.
In every situation that children experienced their parent’s love being cut off (e.g., divorce, abandonment, abuse, neglect, death, imprisonment, or their love becoming conditional), the emotional bond was broken. Children then feel that they are unlovable, as if a part of them suffocated and died. Just as connectedness is our most basic need, isolation is our most injurious state.
The basic cause of a person’s inability to relate to others and oneself with love is this childhood state of feeling unlovable which persists into adulthood. Read How the Attachment Bond Shapes Adult Relationships.
Dr. John Townsend says in his book, Hiding from Love: How To Change the Withdrawal Patterns That Isolate and Imprison You:
Attachment deficits occur in different forms. There’s a common denominator, however: a lack of connectedness in the person’s significant relationships.The detached person was not “met where he was” in some way.
At times this lack is blatant, such as the emotionally cold or hostile family. It’s clear that here the need for constancy [in being and feeling connected] was not met.
Other times, it is more subtle, as in the superficially warm family that appears to be intimate. In this case, there’s generally a withdrawal of the warmth when painful subjects are brought up. The developing child learns that she can be attached when she doesn’t have needs or problems. But her hurts and fears go deep inside into an isolated place in the heart, where they may stay for a lifetime.
Since God created us for bonding, it’s part of our very essence. . . We are created to bond in either a growth-producing or a death-producing manner. If we cannot bond to loving relationships, we will bond to something else that is not so loving. This is the root of the addictive process.
Dr. Townsend goes on to say that healing from attachment deficits involves two factors:
First, it requires finding safe, warm relationships in which emotional needs will be accepted and loved, not criticized and judged.
Second, repair requires taking risks with our needs.
These are genuine risks. . . . When those unattached parts of the self become connected to others, our ability to tolerate loss of love increases. The more we internalize, the less we need the world to approve of us constantly. This is a hallmark of maturity.
When a child’s development is incomplete or perverted — and child abuse is a dominant cause in that equation — s/he tends not to develop empathy. Andrew Vachss
Attachment disorders — such as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) — comprise the mental and emotional condition occurring during the first three years of life where a child does not attach, bond, or trust his or her mother or primary caregiver. Again, it stems from the lack of connectedness in the person’s most significant relationship and manifests itself as fear of connection taken to the extreme. Read Attachment Disorders and Understanding RAD, Trauma, and Attachment.
Specifically if a child experiences any of the following in the first three years of life, that child is at risk for attachment disorder:
- Drug or alcohol use by mother during pregnancy
- Unwanted pregnancy
- Caring for the infant on a timed schedule, or other self-centered parenting
- Sudden abandonment or separation from mother (death of mother, illness of mother or child, or adoption)
- Physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse
- Neglect of physical or emotional needs
- Several family moves and/or daycare or foster placements
- Inconsistent/inadequate care or daycare
- Unprepared mothers, poor parenting skills, inconsistent responses to child
- Mothers with depression
- Undiagnosed or painful illnesses (ear infections, colic, surgery)
Deborah Hage, a therapist specializing in attachment disorder, expands its definition:
Traditionally it has been believed that children who have been orphaned or abused and neglected are the primary victims of poor bonding and attachment in the early years. In our two-income society, however, a new phenomenon has emerged. Children are being overindulged by parents who have more money then time to spend with them. The result is that children are being raised in financially secure, but emotionally empty environments, with little discipline and structure. Currently this most common form of neglect is also the most socially acceptable. The societal ramifications of children who are overindulged and often emotionally left can be as severe as children who are considered attachment disordered due to abuse, neglect, abandonment, and multiple moves.
Symptoms of Attachment Disorder may include:
- Superficially engaging, affectionate, charming, or phony behavior
- Lack of eye contact
- Oppositional and defiant behaviors
- Extreme control problems
- Sneaky or bossy personality
- Affectionate with family and others at the child’s discretion — not on others’ terms
- Destructive to self, others, or property
- Cruelty to animals
- Lack of conscience, empathy, remorse, compassion
- Impulsive behavior, lack of self-discipline or self-control
- Obvious lying
- Poor peer relationships
- Inappropriately demanding or clingy
- Manipulative behavior
- Learning difficulties or disorders
- False allegations of abuse
- Preoccupation with fire (or firesetting), blood, gore, and violence
Attachment-disordered children are guided only by what they want at the moment. Their focus is self-centered and there is no concern for how their behavior impacts others. Behavior and attitude is similar to those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (termed conduct disorder for individuals under 18 years of age).
Additionally, there are almost always co-existing diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), bipolar disorder, depression, and/or ADD / ADHD.
Because children’s early attachment relationships govern other relationships throughout life and future behavior, the earlier the intervention the better.
Therapists and counseling centers that specialize in attachment disorders and strong support from parents are necessary for successful intervention.