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Adopted Teenagers and Attachment Disorder

Every young person is different, and each person that was adopted will have a unique situation with nuanced experiences.

violence in schools The age at which a young person was adopted, his or her experience prior to being adopted, his or her personality, the presence of any mental health disorders and/ or medical conditions, as well as his or her experience integrating into the adoptive family unit will all contribute to his or her overall development and mental health. Depending on the situation, there are several aspects of adoption that are to be expected and can be difficult for everyone involved. The challenges that may present for a teenager that was adopted may be different than those by a young person that is raised by his or her biological parents. This is not to say that they will inevitably be more complicated, but rather that they could illuminate issues directly related to adoption. 

Attachment Disorder: Reactive Attachment Disorder

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.” Although research has little clarity as to whether or not reactive attachment disorder (RAD) can develop in people over the age of five, this particular type of attachment disorder has been noted among the most frequently manifesting types of attachment disorders found in adopted children. Reactive attachment disorder is a serious condition that is characterized when a young child, or infant, does not form a healthy, secure emotional bond to his or her primary caretakers. 

Depending on the circumstances, it is not unusual for an adopted child to develop RAD prior to adoption. This can be a direct result of a young person’s needs being unmet (i.e. comfort, nurturing, affection…etc.) by his or her caretakers, which in turn prohibits the ability to establish stable, loving, caring attachments with others. When a child is not accustomed to experiencing a sense of security and/ or does not feel safe he or she may be unable to form healthy bonds with others and/ or find it extremely difficult to cope with new experiences. 

Signs and Symptoms of Attachment Disorder

There are several common signs and symptoms that may be indicative of a teenager suffering from an attachment disorder. The Mayo Clinic provides a list of symptoms, some of which include the following examples: 

  • Appear constantly anxious
  • Lacks eye contact 
  • Dislike being touched
  • Difficulty expressing anger
  • Self imposed social isolation
  • Displays little affect
  • Avoids interacting with peers
  • Physically withdrawn
  • Constant need for control
  • Bullying 
  • Unable to show affection
  • Exaggerate distress
  • Lacks remorse
  • Seeks affection from strangers
  • Emotionally withdrawn

The combination and severity of 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 an attachment disorder. 

Every individual has lessons to be learned, issues that must be dealt with, and unavoidable challenges that must be navigated. The environment in which a young person grows up can impact how he or she matures into adulthood. A person’s family of origin can play an integral role in the formation of his or her developed sense of self. Although complete autonomy may not be reached as a teenager, a young person will inevitably be faced with the choice to incorporate the lessons learned (painful, joyful, and all those in between) from his or her childhood as experiences that perpetuate a negative cyclical pattern, or as knowledge to inform continued growth and progressive evolution. Not all adopted children develop attachment disorders; in fact, many adopted children form healthy bonds with their adoptive parents and go on to live normal lives. Teens that develop an attachment disorder as a result of their experience do have a variety of treatment options. 

For Information and Support 

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know is in need of mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person for the long term. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Our admissions team is available to answer any general questions regarding mental health issues, treatment, and/or specific questions about the program at Pacific Teen Treatment and how we might be able to help your family. We can be reached by phone 24/7 at 800-531-5769.