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The Psychiatric Times defines attachment as “a composite of behaviors in an infant, toddler, or young child that is designed to achieve physical and emotional closeness to a mother or preferred caregiver when the child seeks comfort, support, nurturance, or protection.”

Secure attachments are integral to one’s social and emotional development. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), attachment disorders are defined as “psychiatric illnesses that can develop in young children who have problems in forming emotional attachments to others.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) recognizes two distinct attachment disorders: disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) and reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Disinhibited social engagement disorder is characterized by “grossly abnormal social behavior, occurring in the context of a history of grossly inadequate childcare (e.g., severe neglect, institutional deprivation).” Reactive attachment disorder is a serious condition that is characterized when a young child, or infant, does not form a healthy, secure emotional bond with his or her primary caretakers. Attachment disorders are typically diagnosed in children between the ages of 9 months and 5 years old. While there is currently no formal diagnosis for attachment disorder in teenagers, teens can experience attachment issues. When this occurs, it is typically due to lingering symptoms of undiagnosed DSED or RAD. 

Signs and Symptoms of Attachment Disorder

There are several common signs and symptoms that may be indicative of a teenager 

with an untreated attachment disorder. Although DSED and RAD are both housed under the larger umbrella of attachment disorder, each has distinct signs and symptoms, some of which include the following examples, provided by Medical News Today:

  • Teenage symptoms of DSED
    • A lack of awareness of social boundaries
    • Hyperactivity
    • An extreme trust of people that they do not know well
    • A tendency to ask intrusive questions to people that they have just met
    • Other behaviors that show a lack of inhibition
  • Teenage symptoms of RAD 
    • Resistance to affection
    • Difficulty showing affection
    • Difficulty reading emotions
    • A negative self-image
    • Low levels of trust
    • Difficulty maintaining relationships
    • Impulsivity
    • Anger issues
    • Detachment 

The Mayo Clinic provides a list of signs that an adolescent with an attachment disorder may exhibit, some of which include the following examples: 

  • Appears constantly anxious
  • Lacks eye contact 
  • Dislikes being touched
  • Difficulty expressing anger
  • Self-imposed social isolation
  • Displays little effect
  • Avoids interacting with peers
  • The constant need for control
  • Bullying 
  • Unable to show affection
  • Exaggerates distress
  • Lacks remorse
  • Seeks affection from strangers

The combination and severity of signs and symptoms will vary. Depending on the teenager, some young people with attachment disorder may experience minimal effects, while others may suffer traumatizing consequences. There are, however, many effective treatment options available to help a teenager overcome the residual effects of an undiagnosed attachment disorder. 

Treatment

The treatment for a teenager experiencing a manifestation of childhood attachment disorders often involves psychotherapy. Each person benefits most from a customized treatment plan, which ensures all nuanced mental health needs are met. Different types of psychotherapeutic modalities that could be incorporated into one’s treatment plan could include but are not limited to, individual psychotherapy, family therapy, attachment-based therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), expressive arts therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Depending on the needs of the individual focusing on improving one’s daily habits (e.g., practicing mindfulness techniques, exercising regularly, developing healthy sleeping habits, eating nutritiously, etc.) could also be integrated into one’s treatment plan to further improve one’s overall health and wellbeing. It is important to note that every person is unique and will respond distinctly to various treatment options available.

Further Information and Support

Navigating the challenges that arise from living with mental illness, struggling with substance abuse, and/ or addiction can not only be all-consuming but are often impossible to effectively handle without proper support. If you are concerned for yourself or a loved one regarding mental illness, substance abuse, and/ or addiction we recommend reaching out for help as soon as possible. Bear in mind that you do not have to be on this journey alone. At {Upwell Advisors}, we offer unique, customized concierge therapeutic services to provide our clients with unparalleled support throughout every step of the recovery process. 

Feel free to reach to contact us anytime via email at sean@upwelladvisors.com. We look forward to supporting you on your journey.

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