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Attachment disorder in adults: Does it exist? How attachment disorders can affect adults

Childhood is a very important part of a person’s development, affecting everything from the way they learn to how they form attachments with others. Because of this, children can form an attachment disorder, a disorder that affects the way in which they interact with other people, making it extremely difficult for them to connect in a healthy way.

The disorder can cause them to close themselves off from forming deep bonds with people around them or attach to people too strongly and quickly, and they often need help from a mental health professional to change those patterns.

However, when these issues go untreated, the child may develop adult attachment issues when they grow up.

What Is an Attachment Disorder?

An attachment disorder is a psychiatric condition that can develop in young children due to neglect, abuse, or other inadequate care by the parent or guardian and cause issues with emotional attachment. 

Some might get attachment disorders confused with attachment styles, but they are not quite the same. Attachment styles apply to everyone, as everyone has a way of connecting with and interacting with others that reflects a certain style of attachment. 

Attachment disorders occur when the way someone relates to and connects with others detrimentally affects their lives. These disorders severely affect one’s mood and behavior, causing significant impairment in their daily function and serious relationship problems.

In addition, when childhood issues stemming from an undiagnosed attachment disorder go unresolved, they can cause an adult to continue having relational issues, perhaps causing them to develop behavioral or emotional issues, an insecure attachment style, or abandonment issues.

What Are the 2 Attachment Disorders?

There are 2 types of attachment disorders recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5): reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder. Both of these are classified as trauma and stressor-related disorders by the DSM-5. However, these diagnoses are primarily applied to young children. As such, there is no formal attachment disorder diagnosis for adults.

Reactive attachment disorder involves someone avoiding or shying away from forming significant interpersonal relationships. People with RAD will often show depressive symptoms and withdrawn behaviors. Common behavioral patterns for RAD include avoiding eye contact, reacting negatively to being touched, comforted, or reassured, and displaying behavior like mood swings. This is a result of extremes of insufficient care on the part of the parent/guardian.

Disinhibited social engagement disorder is very much the opposite of RAD. People who have this disorder may struggle with limited social inhibition, making them very chatty and outgoing with strangers and causing them to act impulsively. They may even exhibit a lack of restraint when encountering adult strangers, approaching and interacting with them and showing little to no hesitation when asked to go somewhere with them. 

However, sometimes that behavior can become socially disinhibited to the point where they can act inappropriately in social situations, crossing boundaries and ignoring common social norms that are expected of people. They can also tend to form intense, even codependent, relationships with people. This makes it difficult for them to maintain deep, healthy attachments with others. Disinhibited social engagement disorder is very rare, and only occurs when a child has been severely neglected, such as in instances with foster care or being raised in an institution.

Attachment disorder stems from neglect, abuse, or abandonment on the part of the parent or guardian, and both types develop in early childhood. Unstable home environments with frequent violence and other instabilities that cause a child to feel unsafe are also risk factors for developing an attachment disorder. If nothing is done to diagnose or treat the resulting disorder, children can grow up to face continual attachment issues in the future.

What Are the 4 Attachment Styles of Adults?

While there is no current criteria for diagnosing adults with attachment disorders, you may struggle with an insecure attachment style. There are four confirmed types of attachment styles: 

  • Secure attachment: People with secure attachment are comfortable in relationships and can be vulnerable but also while also setting and respecting healthy boundaries. These qualities allow them to seek help when they need it and take responsibility for their actions and emotions.
  • Disorganized attachment: Also known as disoriented or fearful-avoidant attachment, this type of attachment style is characterized by explosive outbursts and emotional instability. It makes it hard for someone with this style to regulate their emotions and trust others easily, therefore making them feel uneasy in close relationships, despite longing for meaningful connection. 
  • Avoidant attachment: Adults with this attachment style avoid vulnerability and intimacy, which leads them away from forming close attachments. They crave independence and do not want to feel controlled, which can cause them to try to create emotional distance between them and those around them. 
  • Ambivalent attachment: Also known as anxious attachment, this attachment style causes someone to crave attention and love from those close to them. They may feel insecure about whether those in relationship with them actually care about them, making it difficult for them to trust and feel secure in their relationships. Anything that strikes them as a threat to the relationship could cause them to react by using emotional manipulation on their partner so that they stay.

Secure attachment is a healthy and balanced attachment style, while the latter three are examples of insecure attachment. According to attachment theory, each of these attachment styles are connected to how someone was treated by their primary caregiver as a child.

Though these are different from attachment disorders, insecure attachment styles can result from untreated attachment disorders from childhood, as well as different kinds of neglect or abuse throughout childhood. Though they can affect one’s life, attachment styles largely do not impair daily functioning. Attachment disorders occur when one’s moods or behaviors are heavily influenced by one’s attachments and significantly affect one’s daily life.

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What Are Signs of Attachment Disorder in Adults?

Though there is no official diagnosis criteria for attachment disorder in adults, there are many symptoms or signs that someone might have attachment issues. Signs you have attachment issues include: 

  • Withdrawal and significant avoidance of social interactions
  • Limited positive or elevated affect (i.e. lack of positivity, low mood)
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty maintaining interpersonal boundaries
  • Inappropriate physical contact with peers
  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Dissociation
  • Low self-esteem

If you have a number of these symptoms and think you might have attachment issues, it’s best to reach out to a mental health professional for a diagnosis, as many of these symptoms are shared by other mental health conditions. A mental health expert will be equipped to accurately diagnose you and give you tools to help minimize your symptoms.

Healing Attachment Disorder in Adults: What Are Helpful Treatments for Attachment Disorders?

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is one of the best ways to help people with attachment issues. 

For children with attachment disorders, treatment with a mental health professional is also the most effective route. This type therapy may also seek to involve their primary caregiver in an effort to help balance and strengthen the relationship between them and their child.

Adults with attachment issues will benefit from meeting with a mental health professional, specifically attachment therapy or couples therapy. A psychotherapist will be able to lead you through the process of facing your inner child and repairing lingering damage from your childhood that may be affecting your ability to have healthy relationships. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help you identify, challenge, and replace automatic behaviors and thought patterns that are maladaptive or harmful. CBT deals primarily with developing coping skills, through which you can learn to change your thinking, problematic emotions, and behavior.

If you believe that you may have had an attachment disorder as a child and currently struggle with attachment issues, consider reaching out to a mental health professional to help you heal from your past hurts and find a way to have healthier, more secure relationships in the future.

Table of contents

What Is an Attachment Disorder?

What Are the 2 Attachment Disorders?

What Are the 4 Attachment Styles of Adults?

What Are Signs of Attachment Disorder in Adults?

Healing Attachment Disorder in Adults: What Are Helpful Treatments for Attachment Disorders?

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    1. Raypole, C. (2022, May 4). How Attachment Disorders Impact Your Relationships. Healthline. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/health/attachment-disorder-in-adults

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