Differentiating Reactive Attachment, ADHD and Conduct Disorder

Children exhibit antisocial behaviors for a variety of reasons. How the antisocial behaviors manifest and the frequency and intensity will be different for each child based on the child’s age, life experiences, maturity, knowledge and family situation.

Antisocial behaviors due to age or maturity level are of a much less concern than those caused by childhood disorders such as Reactive Attachment Disorder, ADD and ADHD or Conduct Disorder. Additionally, it is important to rule out developmental concerns and neurological issues as the cause for antisocial behaviors prior to a mental health diagnosis.

Antisocial Behaviors Associated with Reactive Attachment, Attention Deficit and Conduct Disorder

Reactive Attachment Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorders and Conduct Disorder are similar in their symptoms and are often difficult to differentiate, resulting in possible misdiagnosis. Understanding the differences and seeking out a correct diagnosis is essential to proper treatment and management of the child’s behaviors.

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Depending on the individual child, symptoms and antisocial behaviors may include (but not limited to):

  • Inappropriate social interactions with adults or peers; or avoiding social interaction altogether;
  • Resists comforting and affection by adults and caregivers;
  • Makes attachments to objects rather than people;
  • Destroying other people’s property or belongings;
  • Lying, cheating or stealing;
  • Anger outbursts, tantrums and aggression;
  • Defiance, breaking the rules, disregards other’s wishes;
  • Impatience, interrupting or invading other’s space; or
  • Antisocial behaviors occur in multiple locations and settings – home, school, work, community, with multiple caregivers and other social situations.

Although the symptoms and behaviors are the similar in nature, the reason for the behaviors is much different for each diagnosis, thus the treatment strategies will also differ.

Reactive Attachment Disorder in Infancy and Early Childhood

By definition, Reactive Attachment Disorder is a direct result of pathogenic care in infancy and early childhood before five years of age. Specifically, parental care that is abuse or negligent; disregards the child’s basic physical or emotional needs for comfort; or reoccurring changes in the child’s primary caregiver, as with constant changes in foster care placement, which prevent the child from establishing stable relationships and attachments.

Although antisocial behaviors alone do not signify Reactive Attachment Disorder, children who are abused, neglected or otherwise prevented from forming healthy and stable attachments are more likely to exhibit antisocial behaviors.

Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder exhibit the antisocial behaviors because they are unable to form proper attachments to other people. They lack the ability to selectively choose attachments. They may attach to objects, particularly familiar objects or those they can keep close to them. They often seek comfort from the same objects, or from overly unfamiliar people.

Other antisocial behaviors are often a result of the child’s fear that an object they are attached to will be taken away, or due to an overall lack of attachment. This can result in aggressiveness towards other people or towards personal belongings. They often show a disregard for social rules and inability to engage in social activities due to a lack of attachment.

It is important to note that this diagnosis is relatively uncommon; however, children with Reactive Attachment Disorder are at a greater risk of developing Child-Onset Conduct Disorder, particularly when the antisocial behaviors are not treated and corrected early on.

Impulsive Behaviors and Attention Deficit Disorders

Whereas children with Reactive Attachment Disorder may seek out comfort and attention from strangers, act out aggressively, break the rules or show disinterest in activities due to a lack of attachment, children with Attention Deficit Disorders act purely out of impulse.

They take things belonging to others, interrupt when others are speaking, move quickly from activity to activity, show aggressiveness towards others and seek attention from everyone – familiar or not. They may avoid activities requiring concentration or a great deal of mental activity, ignore others and not follow directions and be careless with personal belongings.

Children with an Attention Deficit Disorder act on impulse and not out of defiance. However, it is estimated that half of all clinically-referred children with ADD or ADHD also have a co-occurring disorder – either Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder.

Antisocial Behaviors Associated With Conduct Disorder

The antisocial behaviors associated with Conduct Disorder go well beyond attachment issues and impulsivity. Their actions are often well thought out, planned and intentional. They understand the rules, know the expectations and are deliberately defiant, often manipulating the situation to their own way.

Most commonly is the Childhood-Onset Type that begins before the age of 10. However, due to their ability to manipulate and not be caught, it often goes unnoticed or at least reduced to a lesser intensity and occurrence. Children with Conduct Disorder are often sneaky and work at mastering their ability to manipulate without being caught to avoid the consequences.

Although many children with Childhood-Onset Conduct Disorder have co-occurring Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, the antisocial behaviors associated with Conduct Disorder are not due to the impulsive behaviors associated with ADHD. These children are at a greater risk of developing Antisocial Personality Disorder as an adult.

*While the designation ‘he’ may be used to represent all children, the use of ‘he’ does not imply this is relevant only to males. The behaviors and strategies are equally relevant to females. The designation of ‘he’ or ‘she’ should be considered interchangeable.