Attachment Disorders Part One: The enemy within

Saturday, 22 December 2007
The smell of singed hair filled the classroom. A young girl grasped her smoldering pigtail and ran screaming to the teacher. Scott walked quietly to the front of the room. He dropped a book of matches and a scorched piece of paper into the wastebasket. He seemed unaware of the hysterical girl who was clinging to her third grade teacher.

The other students, paralyzed with horror, watched silently as Scott brushed ashes from his sleeve. On the way back to his seat, Scott spit on one of his classmates and "accidentally" bumped into another. As if nothing unusual had happened, Scott settled himself at his desk. Scott is an unattached child.

Healthy attachments begin in early infancy. The infant experiences pain, hunger, or discomfort and expresses rage by crying. The infant’s primary caregiver (usually the mother) responds to the infant’s rage reaction with eye contact, touch, motion, or food. The infant learns to trust his caregiver for comfort and the bonding process begins. This bonding cycle is repeated countless times during the infant’s first year of life. Uninterrupted repetition of the cycle results in a strong trust bond between infant and caregiver.

Attachment disorders result when the infant’s needs are not gratified. Kathy Miller, founder and president of The Attachment Network in Oklahoma, explains, "When an infant expresses rage and feels no relief for his need, he learns that to survive this world, he must control it. These children actually believe that if they release control to anyone else that they will die."

Unattached children are difficult to recognize. They deceive their elders with superficial charm while they scrutinize the environment. In school, as a teacher begins to establish a closer relationship to an unattached child, the negative behavior begins. The closer the teacher tries to get, the more the child rebels.

Scott’s behavioral problems and lack of socialization skills were apparent when he entered kindergarten. Other children complained about his aggressive behavior and he became known as the playground bully. Each year, a new teacher tried to give him the opportunity for a fresh start.

"At first Scott smiled and seemed anxious to please. I began to wonder if his previous teachers had unintentionally provoked his negative behavior," admitted his third grade teacher. "Six weeks later, Scott was disruptive, impulsive, destructive. His mother refused to come to conferences and his father accused me of picking on his son."

Parents of unattached children, whether biological or adoptive, are usually angry, frustrated, and hostile. Because the child believes he was born into an unsafe world, he often directs his anger toward his mother or mother-figure. Outsiders (and often fathers) are not with the child as much and do not experience the mother’s stressful situation. They view only the child’s charming behavior. The child deliberately creates tension between his parents to satisfy his desire to manipulate and control. "The frustrated mother is pulling her hair out and looks crazy, while the father blames the mother for provoking the child," Miller explains. This conflict increases tension and the parents appear unreasonably angry.

Paul and Debbie were social workers who worked with abused children when they adopted severely abused twins. Almost immediately they knew that something was seriously wrong with one of their children. Their training and experience had not prepared them to parent a six-year-old who went into rages, knocked holes in the wall, overturned furniture, set fires, and planned the details of their murder.

They sought help from therapists and doctors, who suggested that the child’s behavioral problems were so serious that the parents should consider giving up the child. Paul and Debbie ignored this advice and finally found a doctor who remembered hearing something about attachment disorders. He referred them to the Attachment Center at Evergreen, Colorado. The child was placed in therapy and the parents trained to help. "Parenting skills which we thought were wise were totally wrong for this child," Paul explained.

Paul and Debbie have no idea why only one of their twins is unattached. They do know that the infancy of both twins was similar to that of many other unattached children. Debbie said, "By the time they were four years old, they had been shuffled back and forth between an abusive biological family and eight different foster homes."

Any child who experiences great trauma, especially during the first eighteen months of life, is at high risk of developing an attachment disorder. Attachment problems can surface if an infant is separated from his primary caregiver due to foster care, divorce, death, illness or hospitalization. Abuse, neglect, teenage mothers with poor parenting skills, or emotionally absent mothers with chronic maternal depression, contribute to development of the disorder. Symptoms of unattached children include the following:

Superficially charming
Abnormal eye contact
Extreme self-control problems
Manipulative, controlling
Destructive to self and others
Cruel to animals
Hoarding and hiding food or toys
Inability to connect cause with effect
Lack of conscience
Preoccupied with fire, blood and gore
Poor peer relationships
Stiffens when touched
Persistent nonsense questions, incessant chatter
Crazy, chronic, obvious lying
Refusal to show affection to parents
Learning lags and disorders

Some symptoms may be seen in many children, but unattached children display all or most of them. Traditional therapy methods will not work for these children. Severely unattached children, like Scott, must be referred to professionals who are knowledgeable about correct treatment of attachment disorders. The earlier the child is referred, the better the prognosis. Professionals can help these children battle the enemy within themselves.

Edit Note:
Part two of this series is titled “Teaching teachers” and part three, “Dear Mom.”

This series was originally published in 1997 by Tulsa Today and is the most referenced work in our archive frequently republished with permission worldwide.  While the local Attachment Network is no longer active, parents seeking help are encouraged to contact the Tulsa Developmental Pediatrics and Center for Family Psychology.

About the Author:
Linda Ann Smith earned her Bachelor of Arts in Education degree in 1972, and Master of Education degree in 1980, from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Smith served as consultant for the Oklahoma Writing Project (affiliated with the National Writing Project), as education consultant for The Attachment Network, and on the Broken Arrow Public Schools Writing Cadre. Her other educational memberships include Delta Kappa Gamma, and Phi Delta Kappa, Broken Arrow Education Association, Oklahoma Education Association, and National Education Association. In 1996, Smith received training in the Talents Unlimited program and Six Analytical Writing Traits model.

In her spare time Smith is a dreamer, a freelance artist, and an Internet chat room enthusiast. She has a soft heart for Vietnam Veterans, Native Americans, and people who have a pulse. Her hobbies include interior decorating, raising herbs, and collecting dust.

Last Updated ( Friday, 28 December 2007 )