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Attachment disorders describe conditions that cause children to have difficulty with emotional attachments with others. This can include a lack of emotional responses or overly emotional attachments. These conditions may cause you to have a hard time connecting and forming meaningful relationships with others as you grow older.
While the causes of attachment disorders may vary, experts believe these may be the result of inadequate caregiving. Examples may include experiencing physical or emotional abuse or neglect or experiencing a traumatic loss.
The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5)” recognizes two main attachment disorders, which are primarily diagnosed in young children.
Read on to learn more about attachment disorders and the theory behind attachment.
There are two types of attachment disorders: reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED). The DSM-5 also considers these separate disorders, and the distinguishing symptoms are described below.
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD)
Children with RAD usually don’t look for or respond to comfort, even when they’re upset. Due to negative experiences with adults early in life, they may also experience difficulty expressing emotions and forming relationships with others.
Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED)
Children with DSED may wander off with others without their parents knowing.
There is no formal diagnosis for attachment disorder in adults. You can experience attachment difficulties in adulthood. Some people may have symptoms of RAD or DSED that went unrecognized in their childhood.
Left untreated, RAD and DSED may persist in adulthood. For example, adults who experience attachment avoidancemay experience difficulties with self-disclosure within interpersonal relationships as well as intimacy with romantic partners.
While considered separate disorders, researchers believe that there may be a link between attachment disorder as a child and dissociative identity disorder (DID).
Previously known as “multiple personality disorder,” DID is one type of dissociative disorder, which describes a group of mental health conditions that cause problems with emotions, perception, and memory. Dissociative disorders may also affect your sense of self, as well as your overall behavior and identity.
It’s thought that children who experience attachment trauma may be at an increased risk of DID development. Symptoms of DID may include sudden and dramatic shifts in personal tastes, personality, and beliefs that are unwanted and can cause distress.
Attachment theory describes the way you form intimate and emotional bonds with others. Psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed the theory while studying why babies became so upset when separated from a parent.
Babies need a parent or other person to look after them. Bowlby found that they used attachment behaviors such as crying, searching and holding on to their parent to prevent separation.
Bowlby’s study of attachment in children laid the foundation for later research on attachment in adults.
As you age, you develop your own attachment style, based largely on the attachment behaviors you learned as a child. This attachment style can have a big impact on how you form relationships as an adult.
Your attachment style involves how you interact with others and how you form bonds with them. Attachment theory says that these styles are determined during early childhood.
Secure vs. insecure
Attachment styles are broadly categorized as being either secure or insecure, with the secure styles being the most common.
If your needs as a child were usually met right away by your caregiver, you probably developed a secure attachment style. As an adult, you most likely feel secure in your close relationships and trust that the other person will be there when you need them.
If your caregivers did not meet your needs as a child, you may have an attachment style. It can be hard to form intimate bonds with others as an adult. You may have a hard time trusting people close to you.
There are several different types of attachment styles in adults.
If you have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, you might:
- Have a need to feel appreciated.
- Spend a lot of time thinking about your relationships.
- People have a tendency to be jealous of romantic partners.
- It is necessary that you receive frequent reassurance from those close to you.
“If you don’t feel reassured, you might start to doubt how your loved ones feel about you. If you are in a romantic relationship, you might believe that your partner wants to leave.”
These fears can make you more sensitive to the behavior of people close to you. Some of their actions might be seen as proof that what you are worried about is actually happening.
If your attachment style is dismissive-avoidant, you might:
- “It’s hard to know who to trust or who to ignore.”
- You prefer to be on your own.
- Close relationships are not worth the trouble.
- It is feared that forming close bonds with others will make you less independent.
These behaviors can make it hard for others to support you. If someone tries to draw you out of your shell, you may close yourself off.
“Don’t forget that these behaviors don’t stem from not caring about others. It is more about protecting yourself and maintaining self-sufficiency.”
- There are conflicting feelings about relationships.
- I want to develop a romantic relationship but I worry that my partner will hurt me.
- Try to ignore your feelings and emotions.
- “You don’t have to be good for a relationship to be good.”
You might be able to suppress your emotions for a while, but they may come out in spurts. This can make your relationships feel overwhelming and can lead to lows and highs.
“A mental health professional can evaluate children who are suspected of having RAD or DSED. The child’s caregivers will likely be involved in treatment to strengthen these relationships.”
Left untreated, attachment disorders can adversely affect a child’s emotional and social development. This can also lead to relationship difficulties as they get older.
“While you don’t have much of a say over the attachment behaviors you develop as a child, there are steps you can take to develop a more secure attachment style as an adult.”
Learning more about why you feel is important to overcoming attachment styles. You should start looking for a therapist by talking to one.
They can help you.
- You should unpack your childhood experiences.
- identify patterns in your relationships
- New ways of connecting with others and creating intimate relationships are being developed.
How to find a therapist
“Finding a therapist can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Start by asking some basic questions.”
- What symptoms do you want to address? These can be specific or vague.
- Do you have any specific qualities you would like to see in a therapist? Are you more comfortable with someone who shares your gender?
- How much can you spend on each session? Do you want to work with someone who offers sliding-scale prices?
- Where will therapy fit in your schedule? Do you need a therapist who can see you on a specific day? Someone who has nighttime sessions?
Next, start making a list of therapists in your area. If you live in the United States, head over to the American Psychological Association’s therapist locator.
If cost is a factor, check out our guide to affordable therapy.
“Many people want to develop a strong romantic relationship, even if they don’t want to be intimate.”
Adding some of these titles to your reading list will help you form healthy, fulfilling relationships if you feel like attachment is getting in the way.
- “The Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships and Lives.” Journalist Peter Lovenheim interviews psychology experts as well as individuals and couples to illustrate the key concepts of attachment theory. If you’re looking for an easy-to-read primer on attachment theory, this is a good place to start.
- “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” While not explicitly about attachment styles, many people consider this book a must-read for anyone dealing with the long-term effects of childhood trauma.
- “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind — and Keep — Love.” This 2012 book, co-written by a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist, takes a closer look at how attachment theory applies to adults and offers guidance on overcoming insecure attachment styles.