The Prevalence Of Attachment Disorder In Adults

By: Michael Puskar

Updated October 21, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown

Attachment disorder in adults stems from unresolved attachment issues in childhood. Because of these issues, a person finds it difficult or impossible to form and maintain secure relationships in adulthood. Therefore, therapy for attachment disorder centers around treating trauma and other issues from the past, by helping people create new stories and change present behavior patterns. We'll talk about various treatment options toward the end of the article.

What Is Attachment Disorder?

Typically, attachment disorder is diagnosed in children under the age of five. It's often the result of severe neglect, abuse, or other childhood trauma that impacts a child's ability to form a secure attachment.

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Specifically, children develop an attachment disorder when they're unable to bond with a caregiver. For example, a parent or caregiver may be unable to meet a child's needs for social interaction or affection. Alternatively, a child may frequently move from one foster home to another, making it impossible to bond with one particular caregiver, or the child might live in a home with a high child-to-adult ratio, resulting in a lack of attention and care from adults.

Although attachment disorder (AD) is not diagnosed after the age of five, there's compelling evidence that untreated AD leads to problems later in life. Adults who have suffered from AD tend to have a higher likelihood of clinical depression and substance abuse. Plus, they often carry their injured attachment patterns with them into adulthood. That's why adults with AD usually choose spouses or partners who resemble one of their parents; subconsciously, they want to recreate their childhood and get it right this time. However, without understanding the reasons for their behaviors, they're seldom successful.

As adults with AD unwittingly recreate the problems of their family of origin, they pass their issues along to their children. Statistics show that about three-fourths of children whose parents were diagnosed with AD develop the disorder themselves.

Categories of Insecure Attachment

Generally, there are two categories of insecure attachment. Adults can be either anxious/ambivalent or avoidant.

1. Anxious/Ambivalent

The anxious/ambivalent adult will usually feel over-involved and under-appreciated. This is the result of a caregiver who ran "hot and cold," often switching from warm affection to cold rejection for no apparent reason. This caregiver may even have been emotionally needy, only showing love when it advanced his or her interest. As a result, the anxious/ambivalent adult is distrustful of relationships, but life for them revolves around them, nonetheless. He or she analyzes the behaviors of others obsessively, replaying the same things over and over again. In addition, someone who is anxious/ambivalent needs to be in control of every situation. They're also sensitive to rejection and tend to idealize others. In a relationship, the person will feel a preoccupation and dependence on their significant other, but finds them to be difficult to understand. Extreme emotions, jealousy, and possessiveness are also common features.


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2. Avoidant

The avoidant adult has learned to detach from others. This was a pattern learned in childhood when primary caregivers were distant or critical. The child could not trust adults to meet her needs, so he or she learned to shove those needs out of sight. Because they internalized the hopelessness of depending on anyone, they will not express needs to others or ask them for help, and they may also feel contempt for others who do express their needs. Usually, the avoidant will fear closeness in a relationship and thus has a negative view of others. He or she will view others as untrustworthy or undependable, while viewing the self as "too good" for others. Relationships for this person will be perceived as a threat to the person's sense of control and may not even seem worth it.

"Licensed therapists will work with you to address childhood trauma, provide you with coping skills, and help you change any learned negative thought patterns so that you are able to thrive in truly fulfilling relationships today." 

Adults Affected

It has been postulated that approximately 50 percent of Americans could be diagnosed with Adult Attachment Disorder (AAD). This stems from a lack of a deep emotional connection as a child, which is carried into adulthood. Here are some other common problems experienced by people who suffer from AAD:

  • Closed off to warmth and affection from others
  • Unable to acknowledge or process positive emotions
  • Likely to abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Unable to feel empathy
  • May abuse their children
  • Lack of concern or respect for authority or rules
  • Tend to be rigid (need to control everything)
  • Distrusting of others
  • Can be too impulsive

Ideally, attachment disorders need to be diagnosed and treated during childhood. However, if childhood AD has been left untreated, there is still hope for adults. The right counselor can help someone struggling with ADD make peace with a painful childhood and learn to open up to others.

Seeking Treatment

The most effective way to treat adults who suffer from this disorder is to help them come to terms with the painful and traumatic events of their childhood. Part of this work consists of building a narrative that explains why these events occurred. This is important because children derive their sense of self through their caregivers' perception of them. If a parent has conveyed the story that they are innately flawed and unworthy of love, the child is likely to believe this story and carries it into adulthood, whether the parent meant to convey this or not. Therefore, the task of adulthood is to create a new story, so they can forgive their caregivers and understand their true worth.

Then, they have to learn new patterns and behaviors that reflect this new understanding by, for example, learning how to communicate honestly and openly with romantic partners. Adults who missed a parental role model for functional relationships need to construct a "model" for relating to loved ones in a healthy way. If you're struggling with ADD, know that change can take time and may feel uncomfortable at first, but eventually, you can learn to open up to others and to give and receive affection in a healthy way.

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It's also worth noting that, during treatment, medication may be used in situations where patients are experiencing comorbid depression and anxiety, which is quite common for those who have an attachment disorder.

DSM-5 Involvement

Unfortunately, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not consider AAD to be a disorder in and of itself. However, the DSM-5 does recognize Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which affects a relatively small percentage of Americans compared to AAD. Unfortunately, this means that getting treatment for AAD is that much harder. Without an "official" diagnosis in the DSM-5, many people are still struggling with AAD today, but it's possible to find help.

Consider Online Therapy as an Option

If you're looking for professional mental health help, there are many resources available for you. BetterHelp offers affordable and convenient online counseling to those who are struggling with attachment disorders, among many other conditions. Licensed therapists will work with you to address childhood trauma, provide you with coping skills, and help you change any learned negative thought patterns so that you are able to thrive in truly fulfilling relationships today. In addition, you can meet with your counselor from the comfort of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection. Read the following reviews to learn what others have to say about working with a BetterHelp counselor.

Counselor Reviews

"Mark has been extremely attentive to everything that I disclose. He's not only provided me support but insight and encouragement to let me know I'm on a good path to self improvement and discovery. Furthermore, Mark has provided me valuable insight on my romantic relationship, specifically with learning more about the relationship dynamics and how to build a stronger, healthier relationship."

"I have been dealing with quite a slew of issues, but after working with Mackenzie, I feel significantly more able to go forward in my life with effective strategies that match my abilities and goals. Mackenzie guided me toward establishing healthier boundaries, being more self-reflective, relying on both emotions and logic when confronting issues, and finding concrete ways to alleviate stress and anger at issues outside of my control. She is an incredibly skilled and valuable resource."

Conclusion

Even if you've been struggling with attachment disorder for most of your life, it's never too late to seek help. With the support of friends, family, and a therapist who cares, you can overcome these struggles and learn to form healthier, stronger bonds with the people who are important to you.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the symptoms of attachment disorder?

Signs and symptoms of reactive attachment disorder include looking sad, being afraid for no apparent reason, not smiling, not asking for help, even if you need it, and having no interest in playing games or wanting to be picked up. These symptoms are mostly found in infants and young children, and when left untreated, it can lead to behavior problems later on in life. Keep in mind that some of these symptoms may be present in early childhood if a child is experiencing autism spectrum disorder as well. This is one of the main reasons to get your child checked out if you see any of the symptoms above, so you will be aware of if they have reactive attachment disorder, or something else. You can check out theAcademy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for more information on reactive attachment disorder and how attachment disorder should be treated in children.

What are the signs of attachment disorder in adults?

When an adult is experiencing an attachment disorder or reactive attachment disorder, they may exhibit symptoms such as withdrawing from people, needing to be in control, not feeling like they belong, unable to feel certain emotions, issues with anger, and can be unable to have relationships. If you are an adult that has these symptoms, you can still seek treatment for this type of attachment disorder. You mightbenefit from family therapy, if your parents are the reason that you developed this type of reactive attachment. There are certain risk factors for young children that you should take note of if you think you or someone you love may be experiencing reactive attachment disorder. These factors include if your mother had postpartum depression after she gave birth to you, experiencing neglect, growing up in poverty, having to grow up in foster care, or going through abuse as a young child. Any of these aspects makes it more likely that infants and young children can develop symptoms of reactive attachment, which may not go away easily. The Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has information on causes and treatments for reactive attachment disorder, so you will know where to begin to get treatment for kids. For adults, you can consider talking to a therapist about the issues you are affected by concerning attachment disorder.

What are the types of attachment disorders?

There are two types of attachment disorders, reactive attachment disorder and disinhibited social engagement disorder. Either of these disorders can develop in early childhood. With reactive attachment disorder, children may become withdrawn from their parents or caregivers and will not ask for help or want to be comforted. With disinhibited social engagement disorder, a child may be too friendly with a stranger, including walking up to them or hugging them. They may also wander off. When you notice your child exhibiting symptoms of either of these attachment disorders, you may want to think about their future mental health. You might need to take your child to get help through child adolescent psychiatry, which is a special type of psychiatrist that treats children with attachment disorders, spectrum disorder, and other mental issues. You can also check out the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website for solutions to treating reactive attachment disorder.

How do you treat attachment disorder?

Attachment disorders are treated with psychotherapy, in young children or in adults. Different techniques are used for different age groups. Even if a person experiences reactive attachment disorder as a child and doesn’t seek treatment for it, they can still see positive changes to their mental health when they participate in therapy for attachment disorder. In other words, it is possible to see an improvement in the symptoms of reactive attachment disorder, regardless of when you reach out for treatment.

What are the 4 attachment styles?

The 4 attachment systems present in children are secure, anxiousresistant, anxious avoidant, and disorganized. With secure attachment, a child will be upset when a parent leaves and won’t want to look at other adults. This is not considered to be an attachment disorder. Anxious resistant is a type of insecure attachment that involves a child being upset when a parent leaves and not wanting to have anything to do with them when they get back. Anxious avoidant attachment means a child will not want to be around adults and won’t ask for help or to be held. They will feel like no one cares about their needs. Finally, disorganized children will become upset when a parent leaves and continue to be upset when parents or caregivers return. With disorganized attachment, a child may refuse eye contact with their parents. You can read more about attachment disorders and how they make children feel by looking at articles at the website for American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.Be sure to read their privacy policy while you are there, in case you want to share articles with others. They have resource available when it comes to treatment for attachment disorder and other related topics.

What does insecure attachment look like?

Children with reactive attachment disorder that have an insecure attachment will either be upset when parents leave and stay upset when they see them again. They may also not really care when their parent leaves and avoid them when they come back. These children will not reach out or make eye contact with their mothers when they see them. If your child needs treatment for this type of attachment disorder, you should investigate adolescent psychiatry, to find a doctor to offer support. Keep in mind that reactive attachment disorder is unlikely to get better unless a person gets treatment for it.

What does insecure attachment look like in adults?

There are multiple types of insecure attachment when it comes to reactive attachment disorder. If an adult experiences avoidant attachment, they will have a problem having relationships with others. With ambivalent attachment, an adult may also have trouble in relationships, where they will have anxiety no matter what. This can lead to the development of other types of mental health issues that must be addressed as well. With disorganized attachment, an adult will not really know how to act around people they care about. They might be clingy or shut themselves off from others. When you feel like your child may be experiencing reactive attachment disorder, you can look at resources related to child adolescent psychiatry in your area, to see what is available. The Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry can also provide you with details related to attachment disorder if you are interested in learning more.

What causes attachment disorders?

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the causes of attachment disorder aren’t always clear. However, they are thought to be caused by possible abuse, neglect, or a child being taken away from their parents. Attachment disorder may also stem from not being properly cared for as a baby. Children with rad, or reactive attachment disorder, may have not had their needs met in the right ways. With reactive attachment disorder, young children will not want to interact with adults, and with disinhibited social engagement disorder, they may be too friendly around adults, even strangers. Either of these attachment disorders needs to be looked into by a professional, so that a child can get the treatment they require to form secure attachments to others. The same goes for adults that are experiencing an attachment disorder.

Can you recover from attachment disorder?

You can recover from attachment disorder, regardless of your age. At the same time, attachment disorders are unlikely to go away on their own. They will need to be treated by a therapist or psychiatrist. You can get more information about treatment options by reading the website of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, where they provide details on how to treat a mental health disorder reactive attachment disorder, and other issues that may affect a young child. Be sure to read their privacy policy when you look at their site, since their rights reserved may have specific details you need to know as well. Some sites don’t want you to share information that is on their website or copy it without their permission.

What is attachment anxiety?

Attachment anxiety is another way to express how you feel when you might be experiencing attachment disorder. With attachment anxiety, you may feel anxious about each of your relationships, including those with family members, platonic friends, and romantically. Again, if you have signs and symptoms of attachment disorders, you may have reactive attachment disorder and not simply be anxious about your relationships, especially if you have felt anxious for years. Reactive attachment disorder, or attachment disorder in general, can start as a young child and when left untreated, can continue to affect you as an adult. However, there are treatment options for you to take advantage of if you want them. You may want to look into the symptoms of rad to see if they remind you of yourself. Then you can determine what your next step will be. You can lessen symptoms of attachment disorder with the proper therapy.

What is attachment trauma?

Attachment trauma is a possible reason that someone may develop reactive attachment disorder. It refers to trauma that a child has experienced that may cause them to not trust adults or be unable to build relationships This type of trauma can happen because of neglect, abuse, or because they have a series of different caregivers at a young age. However, attachment disorder can be treated at any age, which can be beneficial when you think that you may have reactive attachment disorder. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has articles you can read about this attachment disorder, so you can be informed on the subject as much as possible. You should not ignore the signs of reactive attachment disorder, since they are unlikely to go away on their own. Attachment disorder is a condition that must be treated, in order to see relief.

Do Avoidants fall in love?

Avoidants, along with those that experience other types of attachment disorder are able to fall in love. Someone who exhibits the avoidant attachment style of reactive attachment disorder may not notice right away that they love someone, but as a person comes around that they are comfortable with, they may begin to notice that they can be vulnerable around this person and trust them, even though they are not perfect. The person they fall in love with will generally love them regardless of their avoidant attachment disorder and be able to accommodate them.

How do you know if you have anxious attachment?

There are a few signs and symptoms to be aware of, when you are wondering if you have anxious attachment disorder in relation to reactive attachment disorder. When it comes to relationships, you may be impulsive, you may give too much without getting back much, you might feel dependent on your partner, you could suffer from low self-esteem and feel like you are unworthy of love. If you are affected by reactive attachment disorder, you can benefit from treatment at any stage of your life. Attachment disorder is treatable, even as an adult.

Is narcissism an attachment disorder?

Narcissism is not considered to be an attachment disorder, but if someone experiences reactive attachment disorder, they may also develop narcissism, in some cases. Some of the symptoms associated with narcissism may have affected a person as a result of an attachment disorder in their early life. Anyone that feels that they have reactive attachment disorder or narcissism and wants to get therapy for these mental illnesses should seek out help. There is help out there for attachment disorder and narcissism.


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