The negative consequences of over-diagnosing attachment disorders in adopted children: the importance of comprehensive formulations

Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2014 Jul;19(3):355-66. doi: 10.1177/1359104513478545. Epub 2013 Apr 10.


In many child services across health, education and social care, 'attachment disorder' is a popular description and explanation for complex presentations of children who have been neglected or maltreated and is frequently used to describe fostered and adopted children. Very often the use of this term bears little resemblance to the established diagnostic systems, nor indeed to attachment theory as conceptualised by Bowlby. Its misuse can lead professionals to overlook commoner and more treatable conditions, to the detriment of the children. In fact both reactive and disinhibited attachment disorders are rare, but are becoming better characterised by high quality research. Poor understanding about the attachment disorder construct can pose particular problems for clinicians working with adopted children. The current paper briefly reviews the practical difficulties with the attachment disorder diagnosis as applied to adopted children and uses four case studies taken from a specialist Adoption and Fostering Service to highlight some of the problems for services working with adopted children. Finally, we propose some provisional recommendations for the assessment and treatment of adopted children and their families, which aim to be consistent with attachment theory as well as with the existing evidence base on wider child mental health problems.

Keywords: Attachment disorder; adoption; fostering; mental health; reactive attachment disorder.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adoption / psychology*
  • Child
  • Diagnostic Errors*
  • Humans
  • Reactive Attachment Disorder / diagnosis*