Reactive Attachment Disorder

What is Reactive Attachment Disorder?

Reactive Attachment Disorder is a condition in which individuals have difficulty forming loving, lasting, intimate relationships. Attachment Disorders vary in severity and the term Reactive Attachment Disorder is reserved for those who show a nearly complete lack of ability to be genuinely affectionate with others.

Attachment, which occurs in the first few years of life to a primary caregiver, is essential for the foundation of a healthy personality and is necessary for the development of a conscience, ability to cope with stress and frustration, and the development of relationships.

The ability to form healthy attachments can be disrupted by a traumatic prenatal experience, exposure to drugs or alcohol, sudden separation from a child’s mother due to illness, inconsistent supervision, neglect or abandonment, and frequent moves or placements.

What does Reactive Attachment Disorder look like?

Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder have learned that the world is unsafe, and that the adults around them can’t be trusted to meet their needs. They have developed a protective shell around their emotions, isolating themselves from dependency on adult caregivers. Rather than depending on their parents or other adults to protect them, the protective shell becomes the child’s only means of coping with the world.

Dependent only upon themselves for protection, they come to see anyone who is trying to remove this protective barrier as a threat, not to their emotional well being, but to their very lives. They turn on those who seek to help them the most.

Children diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder tend to be superficially engaging, indiscriminately affectionate with strangers, lack cause and effect thinking, have poor peer relationships, poor impulse control and will fight for control over everything.

What can I do as a mentor to help build a healthy relationship with my friend?

  • Engage in eye contact. Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder have difficulty establishing and maintaining appropriate eye contact with adult caregivers. Encouraging it is a huge step!
  • Using unplanned, appropriate touch such as a gentle pat on the back will provide nurturing in a safe, healthy manner. If you are matched with a girl, maybe offer to give her a soothing manicure, this caring gesture will go along way to building attachment.
  • Show those pearly whites! Smiling is a genuine, and non-threatening, way to show your friend that you care about them!
  • Activities that are done together, such as singing a song, build reciprocity in your relationship. Imitation games and mimicking require your friend to respond to you and allow you to be in control of their actions.
  • Always demonstrate caring toward your friend regardless of their response to you. Never stop saying things like, “I really enjoyed spending time with you today” even when they seem uninterested or don’t appear to care.
  • Avoid control battles! Try a win-win approach such as “When you do this, I will do that…”. Children might struggle with these simple requests because that means they have to give up control in their lives to an adult. Releasing control is a very difficult process for a child with an attachment disorder, remember it is their way of surviving!
  • Be an active listener! Encourage verbal expression of feelings, explore alternative ways of handling our feelings, and understanding consequences of those choices.
  • Catch your friend being good! Always provide praise when your friend is making good choices! Also, try to help them see that their actions have effects on others, “It makes me so happy when you…”.

As mentors and friends, remember that it is important to measure progress is small steps! Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder often do not know why they feel or act the way they do, they are operating in the only way they know how to survive. Simply the fact that a child with an attachment disorder is willing to engage in a relationship with an adult is big step in the right direction!