Reactive attachment disorder results from a lack of healthy relationships with caregivers in early childhood and can lead to addiction later in life.

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD), is typically associated with children who, because of abuse or neglect, do not create healthy bonds with their parents or caretakers. However, reactive attachment disorder in adults also occurs because the issues that cause reactive attachment disorder have effects that persist into adulthood.

What is Reactive Attachment Disorder?

Reactive attachment disorder is a condition diagnosed in early childhood, between the ages of nine months and five years. The disorder occurs when a child does not develop a typical bond with his or her parents or caretakers. A child with this condition will often be sad or irritable when around caretakers and will fail to show positive emotions or to respond to nurturing.

When reactive attachment disorder continues into adulthood, it creates difficulties with developing and maintaining relationships. These relationship difficulties stem from a lack of a healthy bond with primary caretakers in early childhood.

Reactive Attachment Disorder Symptoms

Reactive attachment disorder symptoms in adults typically involve difficulties with relationships and communication. For example, a person with reactive attachment disorder may seem detached or withdrawn from others and struggle to show affection. Other symptoms include difficulty trusting others, irritability, anger, impulsivity, feeling lonely and having difficulty understanding emotions. In addition, adults with reactive attachment disorder often feel like they don’t belong with others and they may resist showing love or receiving it from other people.

What Causes Reactive Attachment Disorder?

There are several potential reactive attachment disorder causes and they stem primarily from unhealthy relationships and a lack of appropriate care during early childhood. They include:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Neglect
  • Lack of care due to living in a foster home
  • The traumatic loss of a caregivers
  • Changes to primary caregivers

There are also some risk factors that can make a person more susceptible to reactive attachment disorder. For example, children are more likely to develop reactive attachment disorder when one or both parents is diagnosed with a psychiatric condition. The risk is also increased among people who are raised in single-parent homes, whose mothers smoked during pregnancy and whose fathers were 45 or older.

How Untreated Reactive Attachment Disorder in Adults May Lead to Substance Abuse

Children with certain risk factors may develop reactive attachment disorder. The problems can persist into adulthood. Unfortunately, untreated reactive attachment disorder in adults can lead to drug and alcohol abuse. Individuals with attachment issues are more likely to abuse substances in the future.

An adult with untreated reactive attachment disorder may begin using drugs to deal with difficult emotions or to self-medicate irritability and anger. They may also use substances to cope with anxiety. In addition, it is possible that adults who have difficulty developing close relationships may use drugs as a way to connect with drug-using peers.

Treating Reactive Attachment Disorder in Adults

Reactive attachment disorder can lead to problems such as substance abuse, but treatment can help adults recover and reduce their risk of such consequences. Treating reactive attachment disorder in adults often involves some psychological therapy. For therapy to be effective, it is essential that it occurs with an experienced professional who can work through the emotional blocks an adult with reactive attachment disorder may have.

It may be helpful for initial therapy sessions to occur with a supportive, trusted friend or family member attending until the adult builds trust with the therapist. Therapy sessions can help adults with reactive attachment disorder begin to rebuild healthy emotions.

If you or a loved one struggles with reactive attachment disorder and developed a substance use disorder from attempting to self-medicate using drugs or alcohol, professional treatment can help. Contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how addiction treatment can address substance use disorders and any co-occurring mental health disorders. You deserve a healthier future, call today.

a man with a beard wearing glasses and a hoodie.
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
a close up of a person with blue eyes.
Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Child Mind Institute. “Reactive attachment disorder basics.” Accessed September 23, 2019.

Peterson, Tanya. “Reactive attachment disorder in adults.”  Healthy Place, June 6, 2019. Accessed September 23, 2019.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “Attachment disorders.” January 2014. Accessed September 24, 2019.

Upadhyaya, Subina; et al. “Parental risk factors among children wit[…]pulation study.” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, August 2019. Accessed September 24, 2019.

Fairbairn, Catharine. “A meta-analysis of longitudinal associat[…]attachment security.” Psychological Bulletin, May 2018. Accessed September 24, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.