Reactive Attachment Disorder in Teens

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) can be a hidden issue for many who suffer from it. It’s a disorder that stems from childhood but can affect older children and adults as they make decisions and develop their own relationships. For years, many people don’t realize that they or a loved one have Reactive Attachment Disorder and issues that affect their relationships. Luckily, there are options to help learn more about RAD and how therapy and treatment can improve relationships. 

What Is Reactive Attachment Disorder? 

Reactive Attachment Disorder, according to DSM-5, is a trauma- and stress-related disorder caused by neglect, maltreatment, or lack of social care. This condition is solidified in early childhood when an infant or young child is supposed to bond with a loving and caring adult—usually the child’s parents—but isn’t able to due to social neglect or maltreatment. This condition can happen if parents leave the child alone for extended periods. It can also mean going weeks or months with a different or unknown caretaker or simply lack of attention in the home. 

Children who suffer from Reactive Attachment Disorder have a hard time with many social aspects of growing and learning. According to StatPearls, affected children may have more difficulty forming attachments to others, have a decreased ability to show or experience positive emotions, and therefore react poorly or violently when held, touched, or cuddled. Children with RAD may be unpredictable or difficult to comfort or console. They may also become difficult to discipline. It could be because they live their life in a constant state of fight-flight-freeze. Children with RAD have a hard time feeling safe, even in the presence of a caretaker, as they’ve either never had a positive or strong attachment to a caretaker. 

How Does Reactive Attachment Disorder Get Diagnosed? 

For diagnosis, a child of any age will have to visit a doctor or psychologist. Several significant symptoms indicate the child has reactive attachment disorder. According to the same StatPearls study, a child must meet the following criteria to be diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder:

  • A chronic pattern of being emotionally withdrawn and inhibited is often demonstrated by rarely seeking comfort when distressed.
  • Evidence of social/emotional perturbation manifested as social withdrawal and minimal responsiveness to others, unfounded or unexplained episodes of irritability, anger, fear, confusion, and adverse reactions.
  • A history of insufficient care. It could refer to abuse, total neglect, lack of social-emotional care from caretakers, the constant flux of caregivers, an unstable home environment, or growing up in a setting that doesn’t allow for stable attachments.
  • The child cannot and does not meet the criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, as these two are mutually exclusive.
  • The child must have a developmental age of at least nine months and have shown symptoms of reactive attachment disorder before the age of five.
  • Cognition skills that are below average for the age of the child.
  • Social skills that are below average for their chronological or developmental age. Some characterizations might include flat facial expressions, lack of interest or inability to communicate positive emotions, and the likelihood of facing rejection from peers resulting in a negative self-image.
  • Ther might be an increased risk or display of anxiety, depression, rage, hyperactivity, and low-stress tolerance. Children with RAD are often highly reactive.

Identifying Reactive Attachment Disorder in Teens

Many symptoms of reactive attachment disorder will follow children into teen- and young adulthood if not appropriately addressed. These symptoms may lessen over time as a child makes positive bonds and learns to cope with stressors. Often the over-disciplining and adverse reactions to a teen’s social expression creates a negative self-image. This self-image is shown in their low-stress tolerance and inability to ask for support or consolation. The teen may not even know how to properly communicate what they’re feeling or how they can stop feeling like they are constantly just trying to survive. Caretakers may feel frustrated with teens who do not respond to stressors well or still display the rage and tantrums exhibited during childhood. Many times teens with reactive attachment disorder display underdeveloped social skills, cognitive ability, and self-regulation abilities. 


Treatment for Reactive Attachment Disorder can be a long process, but it’s not impossible. Many times it starts with providing training for parents and caretakers. The therapist, parents, and child in question will work together to help the child through trauma-focused therapy. Coaching parents with good strategies for creating a nurturing parent-child relationship to overcome the child’s early development damages is essential to the overall process. 

For children to heal from Reactive Attachment Disorder, parents, children, and a therapist must take steps together. During therapy for RAD, parents will require coaching on developing positive and shame-free behavior management strategies, forms of nonverbal communication, positive anticipation, and coping strategies for stressors and triggers. If you or your child need help to overcome past traumas, call Havenwood Academy today. At Havenwood Academy, we offer a place for teen girls to renew their sense of calm and learn new strategies for communication. We take girls with severe behavioral issues and help them develop methods for growth, extreme ownership, trusting relationships, and result-driven success. Our professional and experienced staff are here for you and your child to provide space, as well as healing and therapy for those recovering from reactive attachment disorder and the trauma that accompanies it. To find out more, contact us at Havenwood Academy today by calling (435) 586-2500


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