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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 as well as the theory behind attachment, including how different attachment styles work.
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)
Additionally, children with DSED may also tend to wander off with others or interact with strangers without checking with their parents first.
There’s no formal diagnosis for attachment disorder in adults. But you can certainly experience attachment difficulties in adulthood. For some, these may be lingering symptoms of RAD or DSED that went undiagnosed 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 caregiver to take care of their basic needs. Bowlby found they used what he called attachment behaviors, such as crying, searching, and holding on to their parent, to prevent separation or to find a lost parent.
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 your behaviors and interactions with others and how you form relationships with them. Attachment theory holds that these styles are largely 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 caregiver failed to meet your needs as a child — or was slow to do so — you may have an insecure attachment style. As an adult, you might find it hard to form intimate bonds with others. You may also have a hard time trusting those close to you.
There are several subtypes of insecure attachment styles in adults.
If you have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, you might:
- have an increased need to feel wanted
- spend a lot of time thinking about your relationships
- have a tendency to experience jealousy or idolize romantic partners
- require frequent reassurance from those close to you that they care about you
If you’re need for reassurance isn’t met, you might start doubting how your loved ones feel about you. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you might frequently believe that your partner is upset with you and wants to leave.
These fears can make you more sensitive to the behaviors of those close to you. You might interpret some of their actions as proof that what you’ve worried about (them leaving) is actually happening.
If your attachment style is dismissive-avoidant, you might:
- have a hard time depending on partners or other people close to you
- prefer to be on your own
- feel like close relationships aren’t worth the trouble
- worry that forming close bonds with others will make you less independent
These behaviors can make it hard for others to support you or feel close to you. Moreover, if someone does put in extra effort to draw you out of your shell, you may react by closing yourself off.
Keep in mind that these behaviors don’t stem from not caring about others. Instead, it’s more about protecting yourself and maintaining a sense of self-sufficiency.
- have conflicting feelings about relationships and intimacy
- want to develop romantic relationships but worry that your partner will hurt you, leave you, or both
- push aside your feelings and emotions to try to avoid experiencing them
- fear you aren’t good enough for the kind of relationship you’d like to have
While you might be able to suppress your emotions for a period of time, they may tend to come out in bursts. This can feel overwhelming and create a pattern of highs and lows in your relationships with others.
Children who are suspected to have RAD or DSED may benefit from an evaluation from a mental health professional. This professional will also likely involve the child’s caregivers in treatment to help 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 might not 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 and think the way you do is key to overcoming insecure attachment styles. Start by looking for a therapist you feel comfortable talking with.
They can help you:
- unpack your childhood experiences
- identify patterns that pop up in your relationships
- develop new ways of connecting with others and creating intimate relationships
How to find a therapist
Finding a therapist can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Start by asking yourself a few basic questions:
- What symptoms do you want to address? These can be specific or vague.
- Are there any specific traits you’d like in a therapist? For example, are you more comfortable with someone who shares your gender?
- How much can you realistically afford to spend per session? Do you want to work with someone who offers sliding-scale prices or payment plans?
- Where will therapy fit into your schedule? Do you need a therapist who can see you on a specific day of the week? Or 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.
While not every person desires intimacy, many people do want to develop a strong romantic relationship.
If you feel like insecure attachment is getting in the way of forming healthy, fulfilling relationships, consider adding some of these titles to your reading list:
- “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.