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Introduction to Reactive Attachment Disorder

Updated on October 17, 2019

Reactive Attachment Disorder is a mental/psychological syndrome with physical components. It is a very serious condition in which the person cannot attach to another in a healthy way. There may be no attachment (dissociative) or unhealthy and immediate attachments to anyone (indiscriminate). The result is a person who behaves in extreme ways, cannot manage friendships or relationships well, and usually has a severely damaged conscience. It all begins in infancy.

When a baby is born, there are certain nervous connections in the brain that have not yet been made. These connections depend on healthy bonding in the first two years of life to be completed in the right way. There is a normal cycle of the bonding process.

The baby has a need, and having no other way of communicating, cries. The caregiver, usually the mother, responds by feeding, changing or soothing the baby. The baby feels satisfaction and stops crying, possibly cooing and laughing to show his contentment. As this cycle is repeated, the baby learns that he will be cared for, and that this person doing the caring is trustworthy. He will begin to expect that whenever he has a need, this person will respond. This is the root of attachment. With time the baby feels valued and loved, and that the world is a safe place. The nerve connections in the brain are completed with the baby feeling relaxed and secure.

Sometimes this cycle is interrupted from time to time, but the general environment is still loving and assuring. At other times the general trend is that the environment is unstable and unpredictable.

The baby has a need and cries, but nothing happens. The baby may continue crying to the point of exhaustion, or give up. He learns that nobody takes care of him, he is not important to anyone, the world is not a safe place. He learns that if he wants his needs met he must find a way to do it himself. Self-comforting behaviors develop, compulsive finger sucking, rocking, noise-making, banging of body parts and so forth. The nerve connections in the brain are completed in such a way as to keep the baby in a constant state of "flight or fight" response, flooding the body with adrenalin all the time. This is a state of hyper-vigilance that the child will live with his whole life. The brain cannot be re-wired, as far as we know at this moment.

As this child grows, he continues to feel that he must take care of himself, and meet his own needs, or he will die. He may or may not cry when hungry or hurt, or needing a change. He will not accept the guidance or discipline of a caregiver, because he does not trust anyone to have his best interest at heart. And so the conscience does not develop normally. In protecting himself he cuts himself off from social interaction, and does not learn about normal give and take in relationships and communication. Social interaction becomes for him a game of manipulating the world and the people around him to make himself feel good. Potty training can be a nightmare, and may take years. Eating can be erratic, and food hoarding and stealing is common. A child who believes that nothing is given to him freely, and that he will never get anything good unless he gets it for himself, will be constantly getting into shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents, whatever he can. Since he does not trust his caregiver, usually the mother, he will not believe when she tries to teach him what is dangerous, hot, not healthy, or bad manners. He will typically indulge in many dangerous activities.

Having missed out on social interaction, he will not develop the ability to empathize. So kindness, compassion, seeing things from another person's point of view, don't develop.

The lack of conscience, empathy and trust later cause such disturbing behaviors as cruelty to animals and others, self mutilation and suicide attempts, stealing, lying, and crime. In most cases the child spends time in live-in treatment facilities. The toll on the family is great. By age 30, many are in prison or dead.

There is no cure for Reactive Attachment Disorder, no medication can control it. It is often misdiagnosed a Bi-polar disorder, or other disorders. However, with God's help, it is possible for a person with RAD to learn to cope. They can learn proper social and communication skills, learn honesty, and be able to function and succeed in society. It takes a great deal of effort on their part and others working with the person to accomplish this. They will never feel the same as "normal" people do, but they can learn to accommodate their deficiencies.

See also: What's So Hard About Raising a Child With Reactive Attachment Disorder?


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    • profile image

      Heather Rindlisbacher 

      2 years ago

      While the overview is excellent, there are several incorrect facts. The concept that the brain is innately damaged has been debunked, we now have the very basic beginnings of an understanding of neuroplasticity that demonstrated the brain *can* re-wire itself. Approaches such as neurofeedback and EMDR can result in rebuilding lost synapses, and even where permanent damage has occurred with proper “training” the brain can compensate for the existing damage. Full and complete healing is possible, *not* just symptom relief. I know because that *was* my brain. I had every symptom of RAD as a child and 8/9 symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder as an adult. After 4 years of intense therapy my therapist declared me fully recovered. After another four years I actually believed her. Four years later when I began working with another therapist for comorbid OCD she stated straight out that if she didn’t personally know my previous therapist she would have been fully convinced it had been a misdiagnosis. I am not “normal”, I am more empathetic, more understanding and more prone to reaching out to those in dark places than “normal” people. Which is why I ultimately decided to go back to school and get a masters degree in mental health counseling and work with those dealing with similar challenges. I made it past every “gate keeper” in my masters program, fully disclosed in my interviews and now have a fieldwork placement that will allow me to formally treat others.

      There is hope. Healing is possible. Full recovery is the ultimate goal. And you are absolutely correct, all of that comes by the grace of God.

    • Lila Pierce profile image

      Lila Pierce 

      7 years ago

      Thank you for the very informative information as I am a parent

      suffering through some of the examples that you listed. My daughter

      constantly uses and empties my shampoo and cosmetics. She reaches

      in my purse and uses my personal and private cosmetics. I cannot

      have any kind of personal and private area without being violated.

      My daughter is adopted from China and has been diagnosed with

      RAD. My marriage has suffered and there has been so much

      disagreement in our household. My daughter is definitely a

      manipulator and a power seeker. We are scheduled shortly

      to begin therapy but by your description the therapy may not

      prove too helpful to correct this invisible behavior.


    • Victoria Jasmine profile image

      Victoria Jasmine 

      7 years ago

      hey, thanks so much for the information. any and all info on RAD is helpful. i have it, but i dont understand why i cant seem to keep friends or relationship that long.


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