What is attachment disorder and how can we effectively support children with it?

What is attachment disorder and how can we effectively support children with it?

What different types of attachment disorder exist, how can you spot it and what can you do as a teacher or member of school support staff to help children who have it in an educational setting? Find out here.

What is attachment disorder?

Attachment disorder can be defined in the following way:

"Attachment disorder is a broad term intended to describe disorders of mood, behaviour, and social relationships arising from a failure to form normal attachments to primary care giving figures in early childhood. Such a failure would result from unusual early experiences of neglect, abuse, abrupt separation from caregivers between 6 months and three years of age, frequent change or excessive numbers of caregivers, or lack of caregiver responsiveness to child communicative efforts resulting in a lack of basic trust. A person’s attachment style is permanently established before the age of three. A problematic history of social relationships occurring after about age three may be distressing to a child, but does not result in attachment disorder."

What are the symptoms of attachment disorder?

Symptoms may be varied and can be different between young children and adults. However, in general, the symptoms which may indicate an attachment disorder are as follows, according to The Counselling Directory:

Problems expressing anger – Children with attachment disorder may struggle to control and express their anger. They may express it through tantrums and acting out, or use passive aggressive behaviour. They can also hide anger under socially acceptable behaviours, like hugging too tightly.

Poor eye contact – Difficulty holding eye contact can signify a number of things with children. If seen along with other associated symptoms it could be a sign that the child is struggling with attachment.

A need for control – Often those with attachment difficulties feel a strong desire to be in control. They may go to great lengths to feel in control of situations and can become disobedient and argumentative.

Problems with self-monitoring – Self-monitoring is when we observe our own behaviour (either consciously or subconsciously) and recognise if behaviours need to change. For those with attachment disorder, this can become difficult.

Difficulty showing affection – When the attachment bond to parents is insecure (or not there at all) children often show little to no affection towards their parents.

Seeks affection from strangers – As a child with attachment disorder is/was unable to get ‘enough’ affection from their parents, they may seek it elsewhere. They may, therefore, act inappropriately affectionate towards strangers.

An underdeveloped conscience – Those with attachment disorder can act as if they don’t have a conscience, failing to show remorse or regret after behaving badly.

If you suspect an attachment disorder then the next step is to seek diagnosis from a professional. The child’s GP may be a good place to start, a child psychologist or the SENCO at your school.

What different types of attachment disorder are there?

Attachment Disorder can begin at a young age, often if a child is separated from their primary care giver.
Another great source of information is the website Kids Behaviour UK – they tell us that there are two distinct forms of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), the most well known name for an attachment disorder. The inhibited form of RAD is characterised by a lack of expectation of care and comfort. The disinhibited form is characterised by a general and excessive familiarity, even with strangers. Sometimes the disinhibited form is also known as Disinhibited Attachment Disorder (DAD).

How can we support attachment disorder in the classroom?

There is an excellent article in SEN Magazine, written by Jennifer Jones who is a trainer and consultant at Inspired Foundations, a company providing a range of services to those living or working with looked-after, adopted or vulnerable children. In this piece, she gives various strategies for supporting children with attachment disorder in the classroom. A few of her suggestions are listed below, but the article goes into much more detail, so if you are working with such children, it would be a good idea to read it in full here.

  • A first step to helping these children is to recognise the behaviours and understand their causes. It is important also to remember that the children may be functioning at a lower emotional age than their chronological age due to their early experience.
  • Following this, we must also teach the child to recognise the feelings they are experiencing. One way to do this is by commenting, or wondering out loud, about the child’s behaviour. (See full article for more detail on this).
  • Giving a child strategies to use in times of stress will equip them for both their school experience and later life.
  • Teachers should consider how they organise the day so that routines help build a strong sense of security and familiarity.
  • Considering the content of topics is also useful and identifying any that might contain information or activities which may cause distress, such as drawing a family tree.

Are you looking for SEND staff or work?

If you're looking for a SEND teaching or support job in England or Wales, why not register with Axcis, the SEND recruitment specialists? Or perhaps you need to recruit staff for your school or provision? If so, why not take a look at the Axcis Website, or get in touch today to find out how we can help?


Emily Marbaix