Attachment disorder

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Attachment disorder is a broad term used to describe a series of emotional and behavioural problems that can develop in young children who struggle to form expected bonds to primary caregivers, usually their parents.

The initial bond that we have with our parents or primary caregivers from birth is our first experience of a safe and trusting environment, encouraging us to learn and develop under the guidance of people that we instinctively know we can trust, even at an early age. However, for some children, this fundamental connection with caregivers doesn’t occur. There are a number of reasons why this may happen, although it's typical that abuse, neglect or separation from parents means that a close attachment doesn’t have the necessary circumstances to develop as normal.

When children don't develop an attachment with their caregivers, this can lead to attachment difficulties.

Priory offers a range of evidence-based therapy and treatment for children who are showing signs of attachment disorder. Established therapeutic techniques, such as play therapy and family therapy, are used to treat children with attachment disorder.

What is attachment disorder?

Attachment disorder is a mental health condition, mostly diagnosed in young children. It's characterised by abnormal attachment behaviours and disrupted interactions between the child and their primary caregivers.

While the deep connection and lasting bond between a child and their parents or caregivers is usually established within the first 6 to 12 months after birth, instances of neglect, abuse or abandonment can lead to young children failing to develop these close connections.

If a child doesn't receive the expected love and care that would be usual in a typical family unit, then continued problems with behaviour, dealing with emotions, and trusting people can lead them to develop attachment disorder, which can negatively impact their childhood and even later life.

Attachment disorder can only be diagnosed in children, and features of the disorder develop within the first 5 years of life. The diagnosis isn't usually made before the age of 1 year, and not usually diagnosed if the child is autistic.

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What are the signs and symptoms of attachment disorder?

People with attachment disorder show abnormal attachment behaviours. This can include inhibited or emotionally withdrawn behaviour.

Some of the signs and symptoms of attachment disorder in a child include:

  • Minimal seeking of comfort when distressed: the child may not seek out their primary caregivers when they're upset, and security-seeking behaviours towards any adult may be absent
  • Difficulty expressing anger: attachment disorder can cause appropriate social cues to be distorted, with children struggling to control or express feelings of anger. This may involve the child throwing tantrums or being aggressive, with an inability to regulate their own emotions
  • Lack of eye contact: this can indicate problems with attachment, although it's not diagnostic alone
  • Seeks affection from strangers: one of the most vital signs of attachment disorder is when the child seeks, sometimes inappropriate, levels of affection from strangers outside the family unit, indicating they might not be getting the appropriate affection to develop attachment with their caregivers
  • Disorganised attachment: a child may ignore a caregiver when they have been briefly separated and then reunited, or return to the caregiver but then become distressed or refuse to interact, or at other times, persistently cling to them
  • Lack of affection towards parents or caregivers: another important sign that a child may be developing attachment disorder is an inability to show affection to their parents or caregivers, highlighting that the bond may either be insecure or not there at all
  • Lack of response to affection when it's offered: even when comfort is offered, the response from the child may be minimal or completely absent

What causes attachment disorder?

In the majority of cases, attachment disorder is typically caused by some form of neglect or abuse from a primary caregiver. Any situation where a child has been unable to form a bond, or has been separated from their parents, can lead to attachment issues.

Examples of children that are most at risk of attachment disorder include:

  • Children who have been neglected or abused, physically or emotionally
  • Children who have been placed and raised in care institutions
  • Children who have moved between a series of different carers or adoptive parents
  • Children who have been separated from their parents
  • Children whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol

A child inherently desires love and affection, as well as trust and reliance on their caregivers to provide them with their basic needs. The negative impact of the environments and situations described above  can leave them feeling abandoned and unable to trust adults. This may lead them to fear that the world is an insecure place, without developing the understanding of the attachment they need to forge strong relationships in the future.

Treatment for children with attachment disorder

The purpose of attachment disorder treatment and therapy at Priory is to address and nurture the emotions that are needed for appropriate attachment. This is achieved by essentially ‘re-wiring’ the brain, and replacing negative thought processes, which may be blocking the path to healthy attachment, with more positive and healthier alternatives.

It's important to get professional psychological support for attachment disorder as early as possible, because the longer this condition is left untreated, the greater likelihood that further behavioural problems will appear. That being said, it's never too late to get help, as people can still respond to the right treatment at any stage of their life.

There are two distinct goals of attachment disorder treatment in children. These are:

  • Making sure that the child and the rest of the family unit are operating safely, particularly if the child’s attachment issues have been caused by abuse or neglect
  • Ensuring that treatment has encouraged the child to form a positive and strong connection with their parents, or with the appropriate caregiver

Therapy sessions at Priory are tailored to the specific needs and experiences of children with attachment disorder. Our dedicated attachment disorder services are led by specialist therapists, who have a wealth of experience in dealing with young people’s mental health. We are able to provide day and outpatient care, offering flexible treatment that fits in around school hours and other commitments.

Play therapy and family therapy are often used when treating children with attachment disorder, with both approaches aiming to strengthen the bond between the child and their parents. Therapy is also designed to help children to cope with the symptoms of attachment disorder by providing a familiar and comfortable setting, primed to help them to overcome their attachment difficulties.

Play therapy

This is a useful and engaging form of therapy for children, particularly in young children and in those who are withdrawn. Our dedicated therapists ensure that therapy, and emotional/social skills teaching, is fun and accessible, helping to hold children's attention spans for longer.

Family therapy

While much depends on the specific circumstances and reasons behind a child’s attachment disorder, family therapy will often include parents or caregivers and the child, and works by reinforcing positive interaction through games and activities, to help to form a more significant bond.

Social skills interventions

This can help the child to develop appropriate social skills, and learn how to interact appropriately with others again.

Parents or caregivers may also benefit from seeking their own support, particularly if their own difficulties have contributed towards their child developing attachment disorder. Through therapeutic sessions, they'll be able to learn how to best support their child. Parenting a child with attachment disorder can be stressful, so it's key to ensure parents or caregivers have adequate support themselves.


Private CAMHS overview

Autism support

Service brochure

A parent's guide on teenage depression

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Information on depressive disorders

Infromation on PTSD

Anxiety information

Eating disorder information

Signs a child may have an eating disorder

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All of the services that we offer at Priory can be funded through private medical insurance. This includes:

  • Mental Health
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  • Eating Disorders

All clients will have access to our highly skilled and accredited clinicians, many of whom are published experts in the field of mental health and addiction treatment. Whatever your requirement, we are committed to working with you to get your life back on track.

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Attachment disorder treatment near me

We have attachment disorder treatment centres located throughout the country, meaning that you can access the support you need in a location that’s convenient for you. To find your nearest attachment disorder treatment centre, please use the search form below.

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