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Reactive Attachment Disorder

What is reactive attachment disorder?

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is a rare condition in which infants and children are unable to trust or develop a healthy bond with parents or caregivers. Children with this disorder may behave in frightening and sometimes violent ways.

What is the cause?

RAD is the result of abuse, neglect, or other parenting problems early in a child's life. Any child who lives through the loss of their primary caretaker, abuse, neglect, or multiple caregivers in the first 2 years of their life can suffer from RAD. When a child’s basic needs for comfort, affection, and nurturing aren’t met, he learns that he cannot depend on adults.

What are the symptoms?

Babies may:

  • Never smile or respond
  • Not look at people or reach out when picked up
  • Not want to play with toys or play peekaboo
  • Rock themselves when left alone

Toddlers and older children with reactive attachment disorder may:

  • Be angry and unable to control impulses or be unable to express feelings of anger or discomfort
  • Resist affection and withdraw from others
  • Act aggressively
  • Be on guard and on the go constantly
  • Try to control everything and never ask for help or support
  • Be very demanding or clingy
  • Refuse to eat, gorge, eat strange things, or hide food

How is it diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider or a mental health therapist will ask about your child's symptoms, medical and family history, and any medicines your child is taking. He will make sure that your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms. Your child may have tests or scans to help make a diagnosis.

How is it treated?

Children with RAD need to feel safe, be in a secure and stable home, and learn to trust a caregiver. They also need to learn to control their anger and accept rules. Treatments that may help include:

  • Play therapy, which uses toys, games, and drama to help your learn to deal with his feelings. Play therapy helps your child express feelings without words.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a way to help your child identify and change views he has of himself, the world, and the future. CBT can make your child aware of unhealthy ways of thinking. It can also help your child learn new ways to think and act.
  • Family therapy is often very helpful. Family therapy treats all members of the family rather than working with one person alone. It helps the whole family to make changes.

Medicines may be prescribed if your child is depressed, overactive, anxious, or violent. These medicines must be prescribed by a healthcare provider experienced with their use in children with this disorder.

Your child may need to spend some time in a hospital if he is thinking about hurting himself or someone else.

There is no evidence that “holding therapy” or “rebirthing” are safe or effective. Talk with your child’s mental health therapist before you try an unproven therapy for your child.

What can I do to help my child?

  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach your child to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach your child to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all of the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that your child takes. Make sure that your child takes all medicines as directed. It is very important that your child take the medicine even when he is feeling and thinking well. Without the medicine, your child’s symptoms may not improve or may get worse. Talk to your provider if your child has problems taking medicine or if the medicines don't seem to be working.
  • Contact your child’s healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or if your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse. Help your child keep appointments with the therapist.
  • Learn all you can about RAD. This will help you know what behaviors to expect and what to do and say. When you are parenting a RAD child, it is easy to doubt yourself. Parenting a child who fights you every step of the way can be very hard.
  • Consider attending a support group. If you're a parent or caregiver of a child with RAD, you may feel frustrated and stressed. Talking with other people who face the same challenges can help you cope. It can help to see a professional therapist. You need to take care of yourself in order to take care of your child.

Get emergency care if your child has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-30
Last reviewed: 2014-06-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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