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Attachment Issues: 30 Signs, Causes, and How To Overcome

What Is Attachment

Attachment is the emotional bond between individuals, particularly between an infant and their primary caregiver, typically the parent or guardian. 

According to the attachment theory proposed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, infants have an innate drive to stay close to their caregivers for survival, emotional well-being, and healthy social development.

Attachment styles are attachment strategies infants develop to stay close to their parents.

Therefore, early attachment patterns with caregivers play a vital role in the healthy development of interpersonal relationships with others, such as peers, partners, and their own children in later life.​1​

woman sitting on ground sad about attatchment issues

Attachment Styles

The four main types of attachment styles in children are: ​2​

Attachment in infancy might persist into adulthood.

The four main styles of attachment in adults are:

Secure attachment

A secure attachment style forms when a child receives consistently responsive care. 

They develop trust and confidence in the caregiver’s ability to provide support and protection.

They know they can seek comfort from their caregiver and feel comfortable exploring their environment.

Securely attached children develop positive internal working models representing their views of themselves, others, and relationships.

These children tend to view themselves and others positively and interact accordingly.​3​

Insecure attachment

An insecure attachment style forms when a child receives inconsistent, unresponsive, inadequate care or abuse during childhood, leading to the development of negative expectations about the availability and responsiveness of attachment figures.

They tend to have am ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized attachment styles.

These children generally lose the expectation of being protected. They develop a lack of trust and attachment security in relationships. 

Their internal working models represent negative views of themselves or others, leading to difficulties in forming and maintaining close and emotionally stable relationships.

Children with attachment problems often struggle to regulate emotions and cope with stress, negatively affecting their relationships, mental health outcomes, and general well-being.

What Are Attachment Issues

Attachment issues occur when the formation of a healthy and secure bond between a child and their primary caregiver is disrupted or fails to form properly, usually due to exposure to traumatic events or inconsistent caregiving. 

As a result, children often develop an insecure attachment style, which can impact their emotional well-being and relationships throughout their lives.

The term “attachment issues” is not medically defined; instead, it broadly refers to children’s difficulties in forming secure attachments with their caregivers.

These issues can manifest in various ways, such as emotional dysregulation, trust issues, or problems connecting with others. 

In cases where attachment issues become severe, children experience attachment trauma and may develop an attachment disorder.

There are two types of attachment disorders.​4​

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD): Children with RAD exhibit a pattern of inhibited, emotionally withdrawn behavior toward their caregivers.

They actively or fearfully disengage from caregivers, seeking little comfort from them in times of distress.

These children lack social and emotional reciprocity, have difficulties with emotion regulation, and are more likely to develop depressive symptoms.

RAD diagnosis is linked to more exposure to violence or physical abuse in the family.

Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED): Children with DSED show indiscriminate sociability, readily engaging with and seeking comfort from adult strangers or unfamiliar adults. 

They tend to lack developmentally appropriate discretion and restraint around these adults. And they may approach and interact with them without hesitation, often disregarding their own safety.

There is a link between attachment disorder and externalizing behavior problems.

These children are more likely to show attention-seeking behavior or act unpredictably.

They also have problems making and maintaining friendships.

What Causes Attachment Issues in Children

Attachment issues can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s emotional well-being, relationships, and overall mental health.

They can result from various situations, including the following.​5​

  • Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Frequent caregiver changes
  • Institutional or orphanage care
  • Child separation from parents
  • Poor parenting skills, such as controlling parenting
  • Dysfunctional family issues
  • Parental mental health conditions
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Parental alcoholism
  • Parental emotional immaturity

Signs of Attachment Issues in Children​6​

  1. Poor academic performance
  2. Attention problem
  3. Anxiety
  4. Lack of emotion regulation
  5. Unable to trust others
  6. Inability to make and sustain friendships
  7. Behavioral problem
  8. Oppositional behavior, especially toward parents or other authorities
  9. Lack of empathy, compassion, and remorse
  10. Bully or victim of bullying​7​
  11. Attachment disorders such as RAD or DSED

Signs of Attachment Issues in Teenagers

In addition to the signs that started in childhood, teenagers with attachment issues may also show the following signs​8​.

  1. Depression
  2. Anxiety
  3. Suicidal thoughts and behavior
  4. Low self-esteem
  5. Focus on negative cues
  6. Eating disorder​9​
  7. Drug use
  8. Attention-seeking behavior
  9. Superficial relationships
  10. Narcissistic and antisocial disorders
  11. Borderline personality disorder
  12. Post-traumatic stress disorder

Signs of Attachment Issues in Adults

Besides the signs that manifest during adolescence, adults with attachment issues may also show the following signs.

  1. Alcoholism
  2. Inability to build and sustain healthy romantic relationships
  3. Difficulty in getting close in a relationship
  4. Perpetrator or victim of domestic violence
  5. Imitating the same maltreatment toward their own children when they become parents
  6. Relationship difficulties
  7. Dissociative identity disorder​10​

How To Overcome Attachment Issues

The disrupted or inadequate bond between a child and their primary caregiver is at the heart of attachment issues.

These issues can be alleviated by fostering a secure attachment bond and helping the individual build trust, feel safe, and develop a sense of emotional stability within their relationships.

It is essential to create and strengthen healthy, secure attachment bonds to address the disturbances of attachment. 

Here are some steps to take when addressing these issues.

Acknowledge the problem

The first step in addressing emotional attachment issues, whether it involves your child, spouse, or yourself, is to recognize that a problem exists. 

Without acknowledging the issue, initiating change or working toward a solution is impossible.

Consider therapy

While not all attachment difficulties necessitate professional assistance, more severe cases, such as those diagnosed with RAD or DSED, may require the support of a therapist or psychologist. 

These professionals can provide valuable guidance and tailored treatment options.

Learn more about attachment styles

Learn about attachment theory and secure attachment styles to better understand the issue at hand. 

This knowledge can help guide your approach to rebuilding trust, forming a secure attachment, and addressing the challenges associated with attachment issues.

If you are the primary caretaker

Attachment issues can be caused by various factors, including inconsistent or inadequate parenting or disruptions caused by another primary caregiver. 

To help your child, be mindful of your parenting style.

The authoritative parenting style is the most effective parenting style for fostering a secure attachment.

An authoritative parent is warm, responsive, and sets high standards for the child.

Although some children with attachment disorders may appear disinterested in interacting with adults, they tend to respond positively to enhanced caregiving.

If you were previously not the child’s primary caregiver

Some children with attachment issues might have experienced abrupt separation from their parents. Others might be foster children placed in foster care due to abusive environments. 

If you were not the primary caregiver previously and are now responsible for a child with attachment issues, you are uniquely positioned to make a difference in the child’s life.

Provide a healthy attachment experience and positive interactions with caregivers, and help them heal from their past.

Offer patience and support while being a source of strength for your child.

If your spouse has attachment issues

You can be a beacon of hope for your partner by helping them establish a trustworthy and secure attachment. 

Be patient, supportive, and understanding as your spouse works through their childhood issues and mental health challenges.

Learn about your partner’s style of attachment to better comprehend their attachment behavior.

Understand that many actions taken by people with attachment issues are not personal but result from unresolved attachment issues.

If you are the one with attachment issues

Build a support network – Connect with supportive friends, family, or support groups who can be here for you through this healing process.

If you are the inhibited type, taking this step may be intimidating.

Still, by allowing yourself the opportunity to try, you may discover that there are individuals you can trust despite childhood experiences with untrustworthy people in your past.

Working with a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, is the best way to address these challenges.

They can provide support and guidance as you develop skills to form healthy relationships.

References

  1. 1.
    Negrini LS. HANDBOOK OF ATTACHMENT, THIRD EDITION: THEORY, RESEARCH, AND CLINICAL APPLICATIONS JudeCassidy and Phillip R.Shaver (Eds.), New York: Guilford Press, 2016, 1,068 pp., ISBN 978-1-4625-2529-4. Infant Ment Health J. Published online August 22, 2018:618-620. doi:10.1002/imhj.21730
  2. 2.
    Levy KN, Ellison WD, Scott LN, Bernecker SL. Attachment style. J Clin Psychol. Published online November 24, 2010:193-203. doi:10.1002/jclp.20756
  3. 3.
    Lehmann S, Breivik K, Heiervang ER, Havik T, Havik OE. Reactive Attachment Disorder and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder in School-Aged Foster Children – A Confirmatory Approach to Dimensional Measures. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online July 2, 2015:445-457. doi:10.1007/s10802-015-0045-4
  4. 4.
    Boris NW, Hinshaw-Fuselier SS, Smyke AT, Scheeringa MS, Heller SS, Zeanah CH. Comparing Criteria for Attachment Disorders: Establishing Reliability and Validity in High-Risk Samples. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online May 2004:568-577. doi:10.1097/00004583-200405000-00010
  5. 5.
    Fearon RMP, Roisman GI. Attachment theory: progress and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology. Published online June 2017:131-136. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.03.002
  6. 6.
    Erozkan A. The Link between Types of Attachment and Childhood Trauma. ujer. Published online May 2016:1071-1079. doi:10.13189/ujer.2016.040517
  7. 7.
    Marini ZA, Dane AV, Bosacki SL, CURA Y. Direct and indirect bully-victims: differential psychosocial risk factors associated with adolescents involved in bullying and victimization. Aggr Behav. Published online 2006:551-569. doi:10.1002/ab.20155
  8. 8.
    Shumaker DM, Deutsch RM, Brenninkmeyer L. How Do I Connect? Attachment Issues in Adolescence. Journal of Child Custody. Published online May 27, 2009:91-112. doi:10.1080/15379410902894866
  9. 9.
    Gander M, Sevecke K, Buchheim A. Eating disorders in adolescence: attachment issues from a developmental perspective. Front Psychol. Published online August 10, 2015. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01136
  10. 10.
    Mosquera D, Gonzalez A, Leeds AM. Early experience, structural dissociation, and emotional dysregulation in borderline personality disorder: the role of insecure and disorganized attachment. Bord Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. Published online 2014:15. doi:10.1186/2051-6673-1-15

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