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Developing Reactive Attachment Disorder: Is it Avoidable?

Reactive attachment disorder is a childhood mental health disorder where the child does not develop healthy, stable attachments to their parent/caregiver due to physical and/or emotional neglect early on. When caregivers are unstable of unresponsive during the first few years of the child’s life, then the child is at risk for developing an attachment disorder.

What causes RAD?

A young child may be at risk of developing reactive attachment disorder when they have received insufficient care and little to no emotional response from their caregivers. Researchers have found that there is a link between the duration of deprivation and the severity of symptoms. The primary cause is neglect; however, there are many ways where a caregiver can neglect a child.

  • Not receiving comfort, affection, and appropriate stimulation from caregivers: A child needs constant physical love as well as emotional affection and mental stimulation. A child requires physical touch, food, baths, and social interactions, and when any one of these factors is reduced or eliminated, it can create an attachment issue in the child. Always leaving a child in the crib or playpen, skipping late night feedings, or not speaking to the child are also forms of neglect.
  • Lack of stable attachments due to repeated changing of primary caregiver: Parenting can be, especially if you are managing a full-time job or have the role of a single parent. Babysitters and daycare are necessary; however, constantly changing childcare providers can be harmful. A frequent change in babysitters, daycares, or nannies can cause emotional distress in the child due to the constant change. Children need stable environments where they can interact with the same person over a long period to feel safe and trust their caregivers.
  • Receiving care in settings that offer a limited possibility for attachment: If a parent is incarcerated or in and out of the hospital, the child may need to live in another setting such as a foster home. , when a child enters a foster home, they may move between families, which prevents the child from being able to form an attachment to their caregiver.

Risk Factors for RAD

  • Being socially neglected
  • Growing up in an institutional setting such as an orphanage
  • Moving between multiple foster homes
  • Being forcefully removed from an abusive or neglectful home
  • Having a mother who suffers from severe postpartum depression
  • Going through other kinds of traumatic losses or significant changes with a primary caregiver

Preventing RAD

RAD may not be avoidable in cases where parents adopted or fostered their children, but there are preventative methods available. Biological parents and/or caretakers play the most significant role in preventing RAD by giving their child enough emotional engagement, physical affection, and mental stimulation. Some parents are unable to do this because they are struggling with their mental health or any number of struggles. In the case of a more serious issue, these parents must seek professional help immediately since they are at risk of gravely affecting their child. Caregivers who emotionally engage with their infants can prevent the development of reactive attachment disorder. Emotional engagement can look like:

  • Making eye contact
  • Reflecting the baby’s emotions in facial expressions and words
  • Limiting distractions such as technology
  • Interacting with the child when changing a diaper or bathing him
  • Singing to the baby
  • Smiling at the baby
  • Playing with the baby

Get help for yourself

As a parent, raising a child with RAD can seem nearly impossible at times, and therefore, it is vital that you are taking care of yourself. Joining community groups, self-help groups, and support groups can help you bond with other parents who have children with RAD. Make sure you are exercising, getting enough sleep, and enjoying yourself, so you can properly take care of your child in a healthy manner.

Discovery Mood and Anxiety Program