This is an adaptation of a 1999 article co-authored by Evergreen Psychotherapy Center’s co-founders, psychologists Terry Levy and Michael Orlans, and published in Forensic Examiner.

There is a serious and rapidly escalating problem throughout our society. More and more children are failing to develop secure attachments to loving and protective caregivers. These children are left without the most basic and important foundation for healthy development. They are flooding our child welfare and juvenile justice systems with an overwhelming array of problems — emotional, behavioral, social, cognitive, physical and moral — and growing up to perpetuate the cycle with their own children.

Children with a history of severe attachment disorder often develop aggressive, controlling and conduct-disordered behaviors, which contributes to the development of an antisocial personality. As early as the latency years and preadolescence, these children exhibit a lack of conscience, self-gratification at the expense of others, lack of responsibility, dishonesty and a blatant disregard for the rules of family and society.

Teenage boys who have experienced attachment difficulties early in life are three times more likely to commit violent crimes (Raine 1993). Disruption of attachment during the crucial first three years of life can lead to “affectionless psychopathy;” the inability to form meaningful, emotional relationships, coupled with chronic anger, poor impulse control, and lack of remorse (Bowlby 1969). These disturbing psychosocial qualities have contributed to a more violent and “heartless” character to the crimes being committed by today’s youth.

The pace of violence among certain children is rising

For more than two decades, the pace of violence among certain children has increased steadily. A small percentage of disturbed youth are committing a larger percentage of violent crimes — and at younger ages. Between 1983 and 1992, the arrest rate for girls under the age of 18 increased 85 percent, while for boys, the rate increased 50 percent in the same time period. Between 1989 and 1999 the number of youth held in juvenile facilities increased 41 percent. Also note that in 1994, more than 110,000 children under age 13 were arrested for felonies; 12,000 of those crimes were against people and included murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault (Berman et al. 1996). The vast majority of those children suffer from undiagnosed attachment disorders, have histories of abuse and neglect, have lived in single-parent homes with young and highly stressed mothers and have had at least one parent with a criminal record (Levy and Orlans, 1998). These young offenders are at significant risk of going on to commit other serious offenses.

Disordered attachment is at the root of youth violence

As defined by Bowlby (1969) and Ainsworth (1973), pioneers in the study of parent-infant relationships, attachment is an enduring affective bond characterized by a tendency to seek and maintain proximity to a specific person, particularly under stress. Thus, attachment is the deep and long-lasting emotional connection established between a child and caregiver in the first several years of life.

Attachment is rooted in biology and evolution. Human infants are instinctively inclined to form attachments: Infants instinctively reach out for the safety and security of a “secure base” with a reliable caregiver; parents instinctively protect, nurture and love their offspring. Instinctual attachment feelings and behaviors in infants and toddlers are activated by cues or signals — social releasers — from caregivers (examples include smiles, eye contact, holding, rocking, touching and feeding). The attachment process is defined as a “mutual regulatory system” with the baby and caregiver influencing one another over time.

Secure attachment relationships serve many important functions for children developmentally:

1. They provide safety and protection for the vulnerable young via closeness to a reliable and constant caregiver;

2. They teach basic trust and reciprocity, which serves as a template for all future relationships;

3. They facilitate healthy cognitive and social development via safe and secure exploration of the environment;

4. They promote self-control, the ability to regulate and manage impulses and emotions;

5. They lead to the formation of healthy identity, self-worth and autonomy;

6. They establish prosocial morality, which includes empathy, compassion and conscience;

7. They generate positive core beliefs (“internal working models”) about self, others and life in general; and

8. They protect children against future stress and trauma by increasing resilience (Levy and Orlans, 1998).

You can learn more about attachment here.

Children who are securely attached fare better in nearly every aspect of life

Children who begin their lives with secure attachment fare better in all respects of functioning as development unfolds. Several longitudinal studies have demonstrated that securely attached infants and toddlers do better later in life regarding self-esteem, independence, relationships with parents and other authority figures, friendships, impulse control, empathy and compassion, resilience in the face of adversity, school success, and future marital and family relations (Main et al. 1985; Waters et al 1979; Troy and Sroufe 1987; Jacobson and Wille 1986; Sroufe et al. 1993).

Conversely, children who begin their lives with compromised and disrupted attachment are at risk for developing an array of serious problems as they grow older. These children typically become impulsive and rage-filled. They are unable to give and receive love and affection. They lack conscience, remorse and empathy and are often extremely oppositional, aggressive and violent.

Common causes and rates of attachment disorder

The most common causes of attachment disorder are abuse, neglect, multiple out-of-home placements (such as moves within the foster-care system), and other prolonged separations from their primary attachment figure (commonly because of hospitalization, imprisonment and postpartum depression).

Some social service and mental health professionals believe attachment disorder is rare. However, evidence indicates otherwise. Research has shown that severe attachment disorders are created in up to 80 percent of children in high-risk families. The risk factors include abuse, neglect, domestic violence, poverty, substance abuse, history of maltreatment in parents’ childhoods, depression and other serious psychological disorders of parents.

Because there are 1 million substantiated cases of serious abuse and neglect in the United States each year, the statistics indicate there are approximately 800,000 children with severe attachment disorder coming to the attention of child welfare services annual (Lyons-Ruth 1996). Surveys indicate that the actual number of cases are 10-16 times higher (Gallup et al. 1995). Also, this does not include the thousands of children with attachment disorder adopted from other countries.

One of the most damaging results of abuse and neglect in children is their chronic inability to modulate emotions, behaviors and impulses. Maltreatment affects the biological and psychological ability to self-regulate and often leads to a variety of psychosocial problems, including aggression against self and others ( van der Kolk and Fisher 1994). Secure attachment with a primary caregiver is essential if children are going to learn self-control. Regulation of emotion and behavior is a crucial ingredient in healthy, early childhood development, and it’s a process that children and their caregivers accomplish together.

Attachment problems are associated with violence in kids

Children are not born violent. Violence is learned and reinforced as they develop.

Several research studies have concluded that an interaction of several factors increase risk of violent behavior in children and adolescents (Levine 1996); National Research Council 1993). The primary factors are:

Learned from environment: Human violence is largely learned. Children learn that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems by experiencing and witnessing violence (for example, physical abuse and domestic violence). Boys who learn to be violent are more likely to be violent towards their wives and children and to be involved in crime when they become adults (Huesmann et al. 1984).

Habits of thought. From preschool years through adulthood, violent individuals have thought patterns and beliefs that endorse the use of violence: “aggression is a legitimate way to express feelings and solve problems.” These thought patterns are usually learned in early childhood in the family (Shure and Spivack 1988; Slaby and Guerra 1988).

Family influence. Aggressive and violent children often have parents who have antisocial personalities, use harsh physical punishment, do not provide adequate supervision and lack involvement in their children’s lives. Severe family conflict and violence threatens children’s fundamental security and leads to expectations and behaviors regarding violence (Emery and Laumann-Billings 1998). Children who witness violence in their homes are at high risk fo developing distress symptoms (depression, anxiety, impulsivity, sleep problems) and violent behavior (Rosenberg and Rossman 1990; Martinez and Richters 1993). Three out of four mothers of school-age children work outside the home. Juvenile crime is most common in the hours immediately after school due to lack of supervision. Eighth graders looking after themselves are more likely to smoke tobacco, drink, get poor grades and use marijuana than children who have some supervision after school (Children’s Defense Fund 1997).

Media. The average American child spends 900 hours a year in school and 1,500 hours a year watching TV. By the time a child leaves elementary school, he or she has seen 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 acts of violence. Forty years of research has documented that violence is learned from TV and film. Even children’s television shows contain 20-25 violent acts per hour. Preschoolers who watch violent cartoons are more likely to hit playmates, disobey class rules and argue than children who watch nonviolent shows. Children who watch extensive violence on TV and in the movies, can become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, more fearful in general and more harmful to others. (We have explored the topic in more detail here.)

Guns. The widespread availability and use of guns has broadened the scope and lethality of youth violence. Guns have become a staple of childhood and teen life in many American cities. In one study, every child living in a Chicago public housing complex reported witnessing a shooting before the age of 5.

Alcohol and drugs. Drugs and alcohol have the power to disinhibit, often resulting in violent behavior. In more than 60 percent of all homicides, the perpetrator, the victim or both had used alcohol. Violence among young people frequently happens in places where drugs and alcohol are used (NCIPC 1989).

Genetic influence. There is no single “violence gene,” but violence is related to traits that may be partially heritable — a difficult, fearless and uninhibited temperament; hyperactivity; and attention problems. Temperament differences may partially explain why siblings are different and why, even in violent communities, only some youth turn to violence (National Research Council, 1993).

Some solutions for the problems of attachment disorder

Solutions to the vast problems of attachment disorder can be found in four major areas:

1. Attachment-focused assessment and diagnosis
2. Specialized training and education for caregivers (learn more about Corrective Attachment Parenting)
3. Treatment for children and caregivers to facilitate secure attachment (learn more about Corrective Attachment Therapy)
4. Early intervention and prevention for high-risk families