Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is described in clinical literature as a severe and relatively uncommon disorder that can affect children, although these issues do occasionally persist into adulthood. RAD is characterized by markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate ways of relating socially in most contexts. It can take the form of a persistent failure to initiate or respond to most social interactions in a developmentally appropriate way—known as the "inhibited form". In the DSM-5, the "disinhibited form" is considered a separate diagnosis named "disinhibited attachment disorder".
RAD arises from a failure to form normal attachments to primary caregivers in early childhood. Such a failure could result from severe early experiences of neglect, abuse, abrupt separation from caregivers between the ages of six months and three years, frequent changes of caregivers, or a lack of caregiver responsiveness to a child's communicative efforts. Not all, or even a majority of such experiences, result in the disorder. It is differentiated from pervasive developmental disorder or developmental delay and from possibly comorbid conditions such as intellectual disability, all of which can affect attachment behavior. The criteria for a diagnosis of a reactive attachment disorder are very different from the criteria used in assessment or categorization of attachment styles such as insecure or disorganized attachment.
Children with RAD are presumed to have grossly disturbed internal working models of relationships that may lead to interpersonal and behavioral difficulties in later life. There are few studies of long-term effects, and there is a lack of clarity about the presentation of the disorder beyond the age of five years. However, the opening of orphanages in Eastern Europe following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s provided opportunities for research on infants and toddlers brought up in very deprived conditions. Such research broadened the understanding of the prevalence, causes, mechanism and assessment of disorders of attachment and led to efforts from the late 1990s onwards to develop treatment and prevention programs and better methods of assessment. Mainstream theorists in the field have proposed that a broader range of conditions arising from problems with attachment should be defined beyond current classifications.
Mainstream treatment and prevention programs that target RAD and other problematic early attachment behaviors are based on attachment theory and concentrate on increasing the responsiveness and sensitivity of the caregiver, or if that is not possible, placing the child with a different caregiver. Most such strategies are in the process of being evaluated. Mainstream practitioners and theorists have presented significant criticism of the diagnosis and treatment of alleged reactive attachment disorder or the theoretically baseless "attachment disorder" within the controversial form of psychotherapy commonly known as attachment therapy. Attachment therapy has a scientifically unsupported theoretical base and uses diagnostic criteria or symptom lists markedly different from criteria under ICD-10 or DSM-IV-TR, or to attachment behaviors. A range of treatment approaches are used in attachment therapy, some of which are physically and psychologically coercive, and considered to be antithetical to attachment theory.