Understanding Reactive Attachment Disorder

When a child is born in a hospital, one of the first things the nurses do is let the mother hold the baby. Oftentimes, the baby will be placed upon her bare skin. This is all done in an effort to help the baby form healthy attachments with parents and caregivers. The close contact helps them recognize who their caregivers are and form healthy bonds that are good for their mental well being.

In some very rare cases, a child will form what’s known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD). It’s a very serious condition that can develop in infants or young children who are unable to form that healthy attachment to their caregivers.

This condition is extremely rare. It’s difficult to know exactly how many cases of RAD there are because parents often don’t recognize RAD for what it is. It’s also very difficult to diagnose in a clinical setting. In many cases, it’s written off as autism, ADHD, or other personality or emotional disorders.

Understanding the condition is an important part of treating it. This article is meant to shed some light on the condition and help parents understand what can be done.

 

Lifelong Effects of RAD

The lack of emotional and physical connection can have a drastic influence on a child’s life, and that influence is not unique to when they are young. There are many effects of RAD that will last the duration of a person’s life.

A study published in BJ Psych shared a collection of surveys administered to classrooms all over the United Kingdom that show the exact ways RAD can influence a child’s life. Students and teachers filled out questionnaires that revealed how RAD can have an effect on the overall ability of a child to learn and function in social settings. The study authors listed off several major hindrances from RAD, including:

  • Inability to form strong relationships with family and friends
  • Poor pragmatic language skills
  • Lower performance in school
  • Higher risk for anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and other emotional handicaps
  • Behavioral problems, particularly at school

This study was performed on elementary students aged six to eight years old, but the same behaviors typically grow with the child. Oftentimes, these issues become worse as the person enters adulthood.

 

Causes of RAD

There are many possible causes of RAD. It has also been associated with autism. In this case, however, RAD is a symptom of autism rather than it being the sole condition.

The majority of RAD cases occur from maltreatment, neglect, or trauma. Statistics from the US government show that about 80 percent of RAD children were exposed to some form of trauma in their early years, be that a traumatic environment, a death of a parent, an injury, premature birth, or another serious event that caused them to form poor attachments.

RAD is considered very rare simply because most children receive the care and attention they’re due upon birth and during childhood. According to a study featured in The Scientific World Journal, when a child’s needs are ignored or not adequately met, they don’t learn how to make those connections and attachments that are essential for their emotional well being.

Typically, children who have lived in orphanages or go through the foster care system are highly resilient and can still develop healthy relationships. However, some in this situation can experience RAD because of poor emotional attachments.

“It is thought that RAD is a result of severe maltreatment in early childhood, and there is research indicating that adopted children will be more likely diagnosed as having RAD than children raised by a biological parent,” the study stated.

All in all, children who have been severely neglected are at a higher risk for developing RAD, but it’s not guaranteed. In fact, research shows that less than 10 percent of neglected children have developed RAD.

It is still unclear as to why some babies and children develop RAD while others in the same circumstance do not. The best theory we have is that some personalities handle the lack of attachment better than others.

 

Signs and Symptoms Parents Should Watch For

As a parent, you can understand RAD better if you know how to diagnose it early on. The most important thing to recognize is that RAD typically presents itself before the child reaches five years of age.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms can help you and your child to overcome this difficult condition and live a more normal lifestyle. Some things to look for include:

  • Refusal to eat
  • Failure to smile
  • Unresponsive when comfort is offered
  • Doesn’t seek comfort when physically or emotionally injured
  • Unresponsive or detached behavior
  • Failure to seek support or help
  • Shows withdrawal, fear, irritability, sadness, or other extreme emotions that aren’t immediately explainable
  • Watches others closely but doesn’t engage in social interaction
  • Doesn’t reach out when picked up
  • No interest in interactive games like peek-a-boo

Individually, these symptoms may be the product of an entirely different condition. When you see multiple symptoms in combination with each other, it’s likely a sign of RAD.

 

Actionable Tips For Parents of a Child with RAD

Whether you’re dealing with a child or teenager who has RAD, there are ways you can work with the condition rather than letting it control your relationship. Here are some things you can do to help:

  • Learn more. With the help of assessment courses like those offered by the Parent Learning Center, you can learn more about your child’s condition. Through education, you’ll learn techniques that will help you appropriately parent your challenged children.
  • Be realistic in your expectations. Recognize that it’s a learning and growing process for both of you, and there may not be a cure. You can improve the situation, but it’s unlikely that your relationship will be normal.
  • Develop characteristics like patience, humor, positivity, and joy. These personality traits will get you through the difficult times and help your child learn more positive traits.
  • Take care of you first. When you’re stressed and lacking in other physical and emotional needs, you’ll have a very difficult time maintaining patience and love in your care. Make sure you’re emotionally and physically healthy in order to better help your child.
  • Form a support group. This should consist of family and friends who understand your situation and are willing to help when you need a break. Part of RAD treatment is working in social situations to develop proper behaviors and social patterns that are missing, and your support group can help with this.
  • Get professional help. Only a trained psychologist or physician can accurately diagnose RAD. If you have concerns, you should immediately seek help and consult a professional for advice. You may need to undergo therapy sessions for both your child and you to help break the ice and begin treatment.

There are still many holes to fill in the research of RAD, but we know enough to recognize that there is hope for you and your child. It will be a difficult process, and you may not ever form a fully normal relationship, but there are ways you can better deal with the situation and overcome the biggest challenges.

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