Reactive Attachment Disorder
By: Nicole Gaffney
Chapter 6: Attachment and Personality
Attachment is a deep and enduring affectionate bond that connects one person to another across time and space (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). There are many different types of attachment. Secure Attachment is when children feel secure, have open communication and feelings of delight (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). It also promotes a life-long attitude that comes from the consistent trust that parents will be available for comfort and security. There are also insecure attachments, which result from unresponsive and insensitive parents. These types of attachments affect the development in a child’s social and emotional well-being, which later influences adulthood.
What happens when a child goes without a primary caregiver and does not develop an attachment early in life? What if a child is severely abused in their early years? The lack of warmth and positive emotional relationships can lead to Reactive Attachment Disorder. “Attachment Disorder is a condition in which individuals have difficulty forming lasting relationships” (Thomas, 2013). Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is one possible psychological consequence of a child’s emotional or physical abuse or neglect for very young children. RAD is usually apparent in children by the time they reach the age of five.
Fortunately, RAD is uncommon. It is hard to know how many children are affected by the disorder because many families do not get treated. A child can be at risk for the disorder if they experience negligence in the first 36 years of life (Thomas, 2013).
- Disregard of the child’s emotional needs for comfort, stimulation, and affection
- Neglect of the child’s basic physical needs
- Inconsistent caregivers that prevent formation of stable attachments (foster cares, failed adoptions)
Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder have very distinct characteristics. These children are often very focused on keeping themselves safe (Smilth, 2000). They have been abandoned, hurt and/or neglected. They feel threatened, anxious or scared and act on these emotions. These students can act like bullies when they feel threatened. When another child is simply looking in their direction, they might say, “Stop looking at me ugly” as a way to protect themselves. They can also exhibit some cognitive disabilities. According to Shirley Crenshaw (2011), some issues at school might include:
- Need to control others
- Transitional trauma (changes in class, schedule, substitutes)
- Easily distracted, impulsive
- Immature behaviors caused by feelings of threat
- Extreme need for attention
- Triangulation (victim-student, perpetrator-parent, and rescuer-teacher)
- Anxiety, defiance, aggression, stealing, lying
- Concentration, information processing and ability to organize
Each child is different. If there is a child in your classroom with RAD, there are many resources to help support him/her. Many times, triangulation can be the most damaging hazard and should be broken first (Smith 2000). This can be broken with frequent parent contact so that the child understands communication is open with home and school. Children with RAD also are more successful when they can avoid large groups where they might feel threatened or intimidated.
Although there is no known “cure” for RAD, there are many treatment plans to help the child grow. A parent has to be willing to support the child’s disorder at home along with his/her teachers (Smith, 2013).
Bergin, C.C. & Bergin, D.A. (2012). Child and Adolescent Development in Your Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
Crenshaw, Shirley. (2011) Children with Trauma and Attachment Disturbances: In the Classroom [PDF document]. Retrieved from Slide Show: http://www.attachmenttrauma.com
Smith, Lawerence B. (February 1, 2008). Oil and Water: The Attachment Disordered Child in School. Retrieved from http://www.attachmentnewengland.com/oil_water.pdf
Thomas, Nancy (2013). Reactive Attachment Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.attachment.org/parents/reactive-attachment-disorder
- Have you had a child who has been diagnosed with RAD in your classroom? If so, how did this particular child show signs of the disorder and how did you support him/her?
- If a child in your classroom was getting ready to leave you and move onto a different grade/teacher, they might feel threatened or abandoned. What steps could you take to make sure that child feels secure with this move?
- How does Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (pg. 42 in the textbook) relate to a child with RAD and development?
- If a child with RAD feels threatened in large groups, explain how you can modify your classroom so they would feel safe and undistracted.