Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is a grave issue where a child is unable to form strong attachments with their primary caregiver, which can persist into adulthood if not treated. People with RAD may display signs of detachment, withdrawal, difficulty keeping relationships, lack of affectionate expression, control issues, anger outbursts, impulsivity and distrustfulness. These indicators can drastically impact one’s ability to have meaningful connections and can result in mental health problems and drug abuse. Treatment for RAD, in combination with substance use disorders, is accessible and highly successful when combined with the right therapy and support. Obtaining assistance may lead to an improved quality of life that is more contented.

Attachment issues fall on a spectrum, from mild problems that are easily addressed to the most serious form, known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Reactive attachment disorder is a condition where the child is unable to establish healthy attachment with their parent or primary caretaker. Children with RAD have been so disrupted in early life that their future relationships are also impaired. They may experience difficulty relating to others and are often developmentally delayed. Reactive attachment disorder is common in children who have been abused, bounced around in foster care, lived in orphanages, or taken away from their primary caregiver after establishing a bond. Although reactive attachment disorder is known as a childhood disorder, RAD can have drastic effects in adulthood. If the signs and symptoms of RAD are untreated in childhood, there is potential for negative behaviors associated with RAD to be carried into adulthood. Additionally, adults who have children with RAD often experience a whole spectrum of lifestyle stressors because of their child’s disorder. A RAD diagnosis in adults can occur if this disorder is not treated in childhood.

Symptoms of Reactive Attachment Disorder in Adults

RAD can carry on into adulthood if the child is not treated or if treatment was not 100% effective. The effects of RAD in adults can be significant and can interfere with the individual’s ability to fully experience relationships, have a positive sense of self and the individual’s mental health. Here are some signs that an adult has RAD:

  • Detachment
  • Withdrawal from connections
  • Inability to maintain significant relationships, romantic or platonic
  • Inability to show affection
  • Resistance to receiving love
  • Control issues
  • Anger problems
  • Impulsivity
  • Distrustful
  • Inability to fully grasp emotions
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Lack of sense of belonging

RAD and Adult Relationships

Reactive attachment disorder in adults can be significant and can carry into every aspect of one’s life that involves a relationship with others. Whether it is professional relationships with coworkers, platonic relationships with best friends or romantic relationships with an intimate partner, RAD causes adult individuals to have the inability to fully experience relationships because they do not have a positive sense of self. In addition, their overall mental health could be compromised. As a result, they often have dysfunctional thoughts, feelings and behaviors, which can carry out into their relationship with others. Individuals with RAD will often struggle in relationships with others because of the following: 

  • They have little emotional investment in others
  • They are reluctant to share their feelings with others
  • They avoid physical intimacy
  • They lack empathy 

Of course, not every adult with RAD carries these behavioral patterns into relationships, but for many, these personality traits can be detrimental to one’s professional and personal growth. Additionally, adults with reactive attachment disorder may feel the need to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol which can become a downward spiral into addiction, creating more turmoil in their lives.

Treating Reactive Attachment Disorder in Adulthood

Reactive attachment disorder in adults is extremely real and it looks much like RAD in children. Fortunately, RAD in adults is highly treatable with the right kind of therapy and treatment. Treatment for RAD and substance use disorder is common and if these co-occurring disorders exist, it is important to seek help for both simultaneously as one disorder can feed the other. If you think you or someone you know has RAD, let them know there is hope and there is a cure so they can have a happier, more satisfying life. Contact Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program for more information on getting help for RAD.

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a clinical content writer and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of mental health and addiction medicine. She is a family medicine physician and author, who also teaches and contributes to medicine board education. Her passion lies within educating the public on preventable diseases including mental health disorders and the stigma associated with them. She is also an outdoor activist and spends most of her free time empowering other women to get outside into the backcountry.

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