25 Signs Your Child May Have An Attachment Disorder

Trying to interpret behavioral signs in our children (or anyone for that manner) as a way of predicting potentially dangerous waters ahead can be an infuriating challenge for all but the most seasoned mental health professionals. That was certainly true for us.

Let’s face it. We as parents want our children to be “normal,” so we look for “normal” behavior, we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, don’t want to read anything unpleasant. We don’t want to believe that our children have a disorder that stigmatizes them. When Casey’s last therapist mentioned “attachment disorder” I locked onto the word “disorder” and rolled my eyes. Why did everyone have some convenient disorder?

To complicate matters further, many warning signs (whether for attachment issues, bipolar, suicidal tendencies, etc.) can look much like someone acting out in the moment – a toddler’s temper tantrum, a teenager’s defiance. I keep thinking about my friend – a prominent child psychiatrist – who lost his 17-year-old son to the Golden Gate Bridge. Like Casey, his son was set to graduate from high school and head off to an elite private college. If he couldn’t read the signs, how could I?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be vigilant, no matter how imperfect the tools that we have to work with.

deborah_gray_00041_xwxvDeborah Grey is a prominent attachment therapist and author based in Seattle. In her 2002 book, Attaching in Adoption, she described a long list of common symptoms that cover the entire spectrum of attachment disorders:

1. Lack of impulse control, self-destructive behaviors, including cutting, eating disorder and other forms of self-harm. Intense displays of anger and rage.
2. Lack of trust in others.
3. Age-inappropriate emotional responses, like temper tantrums in teen years.
4. Marked mood swings.
5. Frequent defiance and opposition. No tolerance for limits or controls. Exploitative, manipulative, controlling, bossy.
6. Frequently sad, depressed, lonely, helpless.
7. Selectively superficial engagement and charm, such as being cool and unaffectionate to parents but charming or affectionate to others.
8. Destructive hyperactivity and destruction of property. Casey battered her bedroom door, stabbed her new IKEA desk with scissors and threw all of her keepsakes in the trash in a fit of rage.
9. Aggression toward others, particularly the parents. How many times had I heard Casey say “I hate you” or “I hate myself.”
10. Consistently irresponsible and forgetful.
11. Inappropriately demanding and clingy. This is a fairly common trait of many adoptees but we never saw it in Casey. She wanted (or claimed to want) independence.
12. Stealing, deceitfulness, lying, conning and manipulating.
13. Hoarding.
14. Inappropriate sexual conduct and attitudes.
15. Cruelty to animals.
16. Sleep disturbance.
17. Poor hygiene and cleanliness.
18. Preoccupation with fire, gore, evilness.
19. Persistent nonsense questions and incessant chatter.
20. Difficulty with novelty and change.
21. Lack of cause-and-effect thinking. Blames others for own mistakes.
22. Learning or language disorders.
23. Perception of self as victim.
24. Grandiose sense of self-importance.
25. Lack of purpose, spiritual faith or remorse (conscience).

11 thoughts on “25 Signs Your Child May Have An Attachment Disorder

  1. I’m struck between the similarities of attachment disorder to suicide risk factors. As a soon to be board certified psychological autopsy investigator (hopefully), these are many of the things screened for in that process. As an adoptive father of a now 16-year-old young lady from Romania, I can vouch for many of the “orphanage behavior” observations you make in this and other postings. As a man who has lost both a wife and brother to suicide, I am simply terrified. Keep up the good work. This needs to be brought to light.

    • Thanks! I couldn’t agree more. Too many in the adoption “business” are focused on bringing families together (a good thing) without giving parents the tools they need to parent appropriately. Fortunately more and more parents are figuring it out, but there are many who like us were in the dark. I’m so sorry for your losses and hope your daughter has the support she needs.

  2. We are struggling tremendously with our 16 year old adopted daughter. We adopted her when she was 14 and she lived with us a year before that. She had been adopted previously for a few years but that failed and she was put back in the system. We have had an extremely challenging 3 years with her and now . . . ..she is pregnant 😦 Our hearts and souls have been thrown in to this girl and we have tried absolutely everything to save her. Now we are faced with the fact that now, because of her issues with attachment and anger management, we will have to have social services take this child away. She refuses to cooperate with us and we are thinking we have only one choice to save this child. The agencies we adopted through did not prepare us in any way for her level of dysfunction. They felt she just “needed a chance”. We are heartbroken how this has turned out.

    • That’s a heartbreaking story with no magic solution I fear. We heard “just be tougher with her” a billion times it seems. But Casey’s therapists were idiots, and she was the first one to call them out. We figured it out too late. If she is at least 18 your choices as parents become even more limited. I hate to say this but you may have to pick from a number of bad options, but I think you already know that.

      Bon courage, as they say in France.

  3. This is my 15 year old son!
    He was adopted at birth.
    He just dicoveted his dad dead in the bathroom!
    All along we thought he had ODD/ADD and now Aspergers.
    I have been trying to find out what is wrong with him for 12 years!
    So now what do I do to help heal him?

  4. My husband and I began the journey of foster to adopt two years ago. We are in the process of adopting the sibling group we have had for two years (overall they have been in care for 3 years, I met them at my work a year prior to fostering them). We didn’t have issues with RAD with the eldest (10 years old). We didn’t start having a lot of these symptoms until February when the judge terminated parental rights. Honestly, she fits #1-25 perfectly. I don’t know my husband and I can handle this. Her siblings this just watch how she acts. I honestly believe the Lord can take hold of her heart and heal whatever is going on. I don’t know if we can continue with her. It IS a CONSTANT battle, the fits can last all day. Especially if a WANT isn’t being met. What do we do? What would you do??? We know bio mom is bipolar and has ADHD. They also did a pysch evaluation on our 10 year old before they came to us. They mentioned that if things didn’t change for the eldest, we could potentially be dealing with BPD or some personality issues.

  5. Hi, my name is Matt Ford . I am 52 yrs. old , I very sorry for your loss . I am from Williamsport , pa. , but grew up in a small town called Towanda , Pa. . I found out , I was adopted when I was 24 yrs. old . I grew up with major depression , P.T.SD , & I was abused . I tried 5 times to take my life & ended up in a State mental hospital for a year . I Never even heard of attachment disorder until reading books & doing my own research . I go to counseling for one on one . I think what your doing is great . I am working on helping kids myself , I self harmed for years . If there is anything , I can do to help & give back please let me know ? God Bless you

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