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Attachment Issues or Attachment Disorder: What Kind of Treatment Does My Child Need?

When a child is engaging in delinquent behavior, struggling to relate to their peers, withdrawing from others, or experimenting with drugs or alcohol, the list of potential causes can seem endless. One of the diagnoses experts may consider is an attachment disorder.

As with many conditions, attachment issues fall on a broad continuum from mild to severe, depending on the child’s particular situation, personality and other factors. Children with attachment issues may struggle to connect with others, manage their own emotions or develop a strong sense of self-worth. In severe cases, children can develop reactive attachment disorder, which is characterized by an aversion to physical affection, defiance, intense displays of anger, an underdeveloped conscience and developmental delays.

“Because we’ve all been rejected and hurt at some point in our lives, we all have attachment deficits of some sort,” said Craig A Christainsen, M.A., Founder & Executive Director at New Leaf Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for girls with attachment issues and other emotional and behavioral struggles. “The key is to understand when to get help and what type of help is needed.”

How is a parent to know whether their child is struggling with a mild attachment issue or a severe attachment disorder?

Symptoms of Attachment Disorder

Attachment disorder can resemble other emotional or behavioral issues such as conduct disorder, anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), so a thorough psychiatric evaluation is required for accurate diagnosis. Children and teens with reactive attachment disorder meet the following criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:

  • Disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relationships beginning before age 5, not due to developmental delay (mental retardation)
  • Failure to respond to or initiate social interactions, or being inappropriately friendly and familiar with strangers
  • Failure of early caregivers to meet the baby’s or child’s emotional needs for comfort and affection, failure of early caregivers to attend to the child’s physical needs, or repeated changes in the child’s primary caregiver

In babies, reactive attachment disorder is characterized by failure to reach out, play games, engage with toys or smile as would be typical of infant development. In toddlers and older kids, symptoms may include failing to engage socially or ask for help, acting aggressively toward peers, and withdrawing from others. More subtle or understated versions of these symptoms can fall elsewhere on the spectrum of attachment issues.

Treating Attachment Issues

Although attachment issues are less severe than attachment disorder, both conditions typically require treatment. Therapeutic boarding schools like New Leaf Academy in Oregon are well-equipped to treat a broad range of attachment issues, while children with more severe attachment disorders may require a more intensive treatment environment.

Children who have Reactive Attachment Disorder often exhibit extreme behaviors such as harming themselves (e.g., banging head against a wall), hoarding food, stealing and raging tantrums which can last for hours. If your child is exhibiting these types of behaviors, you should consult with a mental health professional to determine what type of help your child may need such as a program that specializes in treating reactive attachment disorder. 

Children who have attachment issues that may not be as severe as Reactive Attachment Disorder typically exhibit less severe behaviors and may have more options in terms of effective treatment. New Leaf Academy works with a range of attachment issues and can effectively meet most children’s needs.

In a structured setting with a predictable routine, the staff at New Leaf Academy sets clear, consistent rules and consequences that help children feel safe and secure. Because children with attachment disorders often act less socially and emotionally mature than other kids their age, New Leaf Academy focuses on the specific developmental needs of each child, using nonverbal interventions such as equine therapy and art therapy to communicate when necessary.

At New Leaf, girls with attachment issues learn how to identify their emotions, ask for what they need and express themselves in positive ways. With plenty of affection, patience and guidance, girls with attachment issues can begin to establish close bonds with their families.

Parents who are longing to connect with a child with attachment issues may begin to feel hopeless and defeated, but with treatment geared toward the child’s individual needs, children with attachment issues can develop healthy, fulfilling relationships. The earlier an attachment disorder is recognized, the easier it is to resolve, so talk with a mental health professional to find out what type of treatment would most effectively address the issues your child is facing.

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