Attachment Disorder is a generic term for any number of disorders of mood, behavior, and/or social relationships whose symptoms arise out of a disruption of healthy social development in one’s youth.
If, for any reason, a child fails to form healthy relationships with one or more primary caregivers or other significant individuals, they can tend to avoid healthy social interaction and bonding. Also, in later years, they may avoid healthy relationships and interactions, sabotage them, or fail to have a positive emotional response when others initiate with them.
When children experience circumstances that lead to poor social development, they may begin to show signs of attachment disorder. Not every case of attachment disorder will exhibit these signs, nor will these signs always point to attachment disorder. However, it is still prudent to keep these things in mind:
As one might surmise from this list, people who struggle with these symptoms might have a difficult time even knowing they have a problem. Many are unaware of their emotional states and needs. And because they are often uncomfortable expressing their emotions, they might instinctively avoid doing so, or even avoid people or situations in which they might be challenged to do so.
The best research tells us that the ability to form healthy, nurturing relationships begins at childhood. If a young child (say from ages 3 to 5) comes from an environment in which he or she has healthy, nurturing relationships with a primary caregiver or other close relationships, then they tend to follow a normal path of development moving forward. However, if those relationships are strained, intermittent, or characterized by abuse, neglect, or trauma, then the child tends to be set on a path of distant relationships throughout life, unless he or she can get some help along the way.
Attachment disorder can also happen to children despite a close family and a nurturing upbringing. If a child experiences trauma, or is separated from a primary caregiver for a significant amount of time, he or she may shut down emotionally. This can also happen if the child has a mental health condition, such as depression or bipolar disorder.
Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby pioneered much of what is thought to be Attachment Theory in psychology. In studying children and adults, they came up with four main personality types as categorized with respect to attachment. Which category a person tends to fall into as an adult will depend – in their view – on the social forces they experienced as children. Each type is described here in brief:
Secure people tend to have a positive view of themselves and others, with respect to forming and maintaining healthy relationships. They tend to see themselves as worth trusting, and view others the same way. A secure person believes that the people in his or her life will make healthy decisions about how they handle their relationship, and that he or she will likewise be able to bring love and acceptance into the relationship. A secure person has relationships that are positive, stable, and mutually edifying.
People in this category will tend to view their relationships with other people through the lens of a flawed relationship to their primary caregiver, in which they overvalue the contributions of that caregiver to their relationship, while undervaluing their own contributions to it. As such, they see themselves as flawed, while giving the people they desire to form relationships with an abundance of grace.
The good news here is that such people are often supportive, trusting, encouraging, and accepting of other people despite their faults. The bad news is that they doubt whether they will be able to overcome their own faults and thus be worthy of the other party’s acceptance and love. As a result, they may find themselves working hard to prove themselves to those with whom they desire to form a meaningful relationship.
Dismissive-Avoidants tend to have a high view of themselves, while having a negative view of those with whom they might have a relationship or desire to have one. Almost opposite of the anxious-preoccupied type, these individuals have no trouble accepting themselves for who they are and for the role they play in the relationship. However, they tend to doubt that the people in their lives are reliable with respect to keeping up their end of the it. When the other person makes a mistake, they are simply confirming the suspicions of the dismissive-avoidant. He or she will break ties with the other party, or marginalize them to a degree.
Fearful-avoidant people tend to view relationships as hazardous in general. Often, they have been through very difficult (or even abusive) situations, and can’t trust people. They view others as exploitative, and themselves as vulnerable. Because they lack the self-respect that secure people have, they tend to doubt that they will receive love in a relationship. Yet even if given a chance, they may doubt that they will be able to deliver what the other party is looking for.
Of these four types, the first type (i.e. secure) is considered healthy. The other three fall under the category of insecure, because the beliefs of the individual tend to place limitations on that relationship that it will sometimes be unable to overcome. Most people have some number of positive relationships in their lives. But insecure types often experience a degree of dysfunction that prevents the relationship from becoming all that it can be.
In many cases, psychotherapy is the most essential ingredient in a plan for treating attachment disorders. However, this method is not without challenges. Often, patients who suffer from attachment disorder are unwilling to share their emotional experiences with anyone, let alone a psychotherapist. But when they can, patients will learn to identify their emotional responses to relationship-based triggers, and eventually develop a pattern of healthier choices which will lead them to positive relationships of all kinds. Forming a healthy relational connection with a therapist can allow for corrective emotional experiences that can help a person develop a more secure attachment style. This can be tremendously rewarding as the person becomes more comfortable with vulnerability, intimacy and relationship.
In some cases, the challenges of attachment disorder are exacerbated by common mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. Because these conditions are often treated with medication, those suffering from attachment disorder cab benefit from the use of such medication. With the symptoms of these related conditions under control, the patient can gain a more solid grasp of their emotions, and thus focus on their behavior and on making better choices.
In many cases, patients with attachment disorder are asked to participate in group therapy. In this structured setting, the moderator facilitates the discussion as individuals feel increasingly comfortable expressing their emotions and experiences to the group. Over time, this leads to each patient developing a healthier view of relationships and will have more hope for what to get from them. Not everyone is a candidate for this kind of therapy. But for man
Jim Brillon is a licensed therapist who is familiar with attachment disorder and its many complications. For over eight years, he has treated countless people in Orange County for this condition, and has seen a wide array of cases, varying in type and severity. If you or someone you know is struggling in their interpersonal relationships and needs help, give our office a call.
We are confident we can create a plan of care that is right for you. Your well-being is important to your friends and loved ones, and we take it very seriously. Let us help you with this most challenging condition.