Reactive Attachment Disorder: The Neglected Child

· December 18, 2018

When a child grows up neglected or not cared enough for, problems may arise. Specifically, the child may develop inadequate social behaviors. Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) or disinhibited attachment disorder (DAD) may develop due to this.

Attachment is the main component of social and emotional development during early childhood. It’s the bond that a baby establishes with their parents or primary caregivers. This bond is a powerful reference for the rest of the relationships that the child will establish during childhood. In many cases, it could also be the reference for the relationships that they’ll establish beyond this vital stage.

The attachment theory offers us a new perspective on human development. What is the attachment bond and how does it serve human beings? If the attachment bond is dysfunctional, what are the pathological effects it may cause? The answers to these questions can help us better understand many important aspects.

What is reactive attachment disorder (RAD)?

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) develops during childhood. When young children grow up with limited opportunities to selectively bond, they can end up withdrawn and inhibited. As a consequence, they don’t connect with anyone. Neglect, frequent changes in caregivers, or deprivation (for example, in institutional settings) are some the risk factors that can lead to reactive attachment disorder.

Bad parenting can lead to a reactive attachment disorder.

These children are often cold and rarely seek out the affection of specific adults, even in case of emotional need. They may also be short-tempered without a specific explanation, or fearful of contact or affection with their caretakers/family.

“What is believed to be essential for mental health is that an infant and young
child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his
mother (or permanent mother substitute – one person who steadily ‘mothers’
him) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”

-John Bowlby-

Attachment and its impact on child development

The attachment theory allows us to better understand the complexity of the process by which we survive and integrate into society. From ethology and psychoanalysis, we know that when a human baby is born, they need adults that are willing to meet their vital needs. For example, affection, food, hygiene, care, and mobility, among others.

Parental incompetence

Parental incompetence is when the attachment figures don’t tune in on the infant’s needs. Severe parental incompetence can manifest itself in one or several of the following ways:

  • Difficulty being available (psychologically and/or physically). It’s important to establish affective relationships, as well as to tune in or understand the child’s needs.
  • The care they offer is chaotic, unstable, and ever-changing. 
  • They don’t know how to calm their child, show affection, nor respond to their communication needs.
  • They can’t recognize, identify, regulate, or promote the development of the child’s social skills.
  • Negligence (lack of basic care, psychological or physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological manipulation, among other things).
  • They offer incoherent and contradictory answers. For example, their words don’t coincide with their actions.
  • Parental incompetence can be caused by serious mental illness (depression, drug addiction, social difficulties, or serious and disabling events).

The effects of parental incompetence

If a child is brought up in severe parental incompetence, they can form inadequate attachment bonds. However, the consequences of parental incompetence will depend on several variables:

  • The child’s age at the time of the dysfunctional bond.
  • The presence of a substitute bond in case of a separation or estrangement. How the child adapts to the substitute will depend on the quality of the attachment bonds they created before the separation as well as how the bond has been maintained.
  • The moment it happens, since the most critical ages are the first year, ages 3 to 4, and adolescence.
  • How resilient the person is.
  • The reasons the bond broke (life stories and events).
  • The duration of the broken bond or its dysfunctionality.

It’s understandable that people who grow up under these conditions tend to show abrupt, unpredictable, or impulsive behaviors. They go into relationships with great insecurity, anxiety, and distrust. In some cases, they develop pathologies such as reactive attachment disorder (RAD).