What is Attachment Disorder?

What is Attachment Disorder?

What is Attachment Disorder?

By Sara Vetter, LCPP, Therapist
Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch

Attachment disorder is a group of psychiatric conditions where individuals have difficulty forming healthy emotional connections with others. Symptoms of attachment disorders can appear in children as young as infants, and may include failure to gain weight, poor eye contact, severe colic, being detached or unresponsive, defiant behaviors (ex. lying, stealing, cruelty, aggression), difficulty accepting comfort, or getting "too close too quickly" with strangers. Children with attachment disorders may also have difficulty self-monitoring and self-soothing when they are distressed.

When children are raised in a consistent environment with a pattern of being cared for appropriately, they start to learn that the world, and the people who care for them, can be trusted. If children are not cared for appropriately or experience serious or chronic abuse or neglect, they learn early on that adults cannot be trusted.

Over 40% of our kids have either a primary or secondary diagnosis of attachment disorder, usually because of severe problems in early relationships, including a history of abuse or neglect. Other possible causes of attachment issues are receiving inadequate care in out-of-home placements (ex. orphanage), multiple out-of-home placements, multiple tragic losses, or several changes in primary caregivers. 

When children with attachment issues enter residential treatment at the Ranch, we can help them form attachment and trust by providing consistent care, routine, and clear expectations. Ranch Youth Care Workers, the staff who are with our residents 24 hours a day, play a vital role in their healing by developing relationships, role modeling, and mentoring.

Adhering to pre-defined limits and boundaries, remaining calm when dealing with misbehavior, and maintaining predictable routines are all important tools for building trust with kids affected by attachment issues. In addition to 24 hour/day care, the Ranch provides a variety of therapy resources to meet the needs of each child; including occupational therapy, psychotherapy, addiction counseling, and equine-assisted therapy. We provide family therapy as well to educate parents and suggest interventions they an use to help them build trust and healthy attachments with their children.

John* is one example of a child with attachment disorder who found hope and healing at the Ranch. John came to North Dakota through international adoption when he was six years old--before his adoption he had lived in an orphanage. John's parents did their best to form a secure attachment with him, but their relationships with him became more difficult the older John got, and he became more and more violent. When they started to fear for both John's safety and their own, they placed him at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, Bismarck.

As Ranch staff stayed true to the routines and rules, and reacted to his outbursts with calm acceptance, John started to trust the adults who cared for him. He learned more about attachment disorder, which helped him understand and control his anger. When he went home on pass, John continued to buck the rules and limits, but he was no longer violent.

When he discharged from the Ranch at age 17, John went to Job Corps. He enrolled in the Culinary Arts Program and did so well, he was transferred to Job Corps in another state to learn advanced culinary skills. The last I heard he was cooking on a cruise ship and doing well.

Although he didn't return home to live with his parents upon discharge, their relationship improved, and they started to make amends.

Regardless of their age, children with attachment issues can learn to build trusting relationships and live successful lives.

*Name changed to protect confidentiality

Sara Vetter has been working at the Ranch for 24 years. She has a bachelor's degree in Psychology and Addiction Studies from Minot State University, Minot, ND, and a master's degree in Education and Counseling from University of Minnesota, Moorhead. Vetter said, "The kids in our care come from all walks of life. We work at making meaningful connections with them and their families by focusing on their strengths and resiliencies."

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