Working with Reactive-Attachment Students in a Residential Setting

Reactive-Attachment disorder generally is rooted in relational trauma that results in the young lady either overly associating herself with others in a disinhibited and indiscriminate manner, or altogether removing herself from meaningful relational involvement, attachment and investment. Either way, the young lady fails to engage in healthy attachment and growth-promoting relationships with others. At New Haven, we have found the following principles to result in success as we work with these students:

1. Team Approach Founded in Strengths Based and Experiential Modalities

We have the ability to address a student’s presenting issues from many different angles and through many different relationships because of the number of professionals (clinicians, residential supervisors, recreational therapists, nursing personnel, educational faculty, etc.) at New Haven who come into contact with the student daily. These professionals recognize the student’s presenting issues and develop strategies for support. Each team member plays a vital role in providing the student with a unique experience that is meaningful and builds supportive relational connections. The manner in which we engage our students is founded upon the principles of

  • unconditional love,
  • intentionality,
  • authenticity,
  • and trustworthiness.

Additionally, our team members utilize a strength-based approach, empowering the young ladies we serve in identifying their own goodness and allowing them to experience healthy connections with others. With hundreds of these experiences on a constant basis, the young women we serve begin to move toward healthy relational engagement.

2. Clinical Sophistication and Holistic Delivery

Our approach to treatment at New Haven includes a large number of employees coming together regularly to review the goals, objectives and interventions for each of our students on a weekly basis. This allows us to capitalize on the little successes of each team member to gain insight into the driving force behind the attachment difficulties, our individual roles in creating relational healing, and individualized action-plans to address barriers to relational healing.  We can use the strengths, perspectives, and talents of a variety of team members to implement an array of unique and creative interventions delivered from an assortment of professional venues in addressing all aspects of the young woman’s life.

3. Trauma Focused Healing

A student that presents with Reactive-Attachment has experienced some level of relational trauma that has resulted in an inhibited or disinhibited (sometimes a combination of both) approach to relationships. Using this context, we work hard to gain the trust of the student and the support of her family to gain insight into the core traumas (and associated paradigms) that may drive the dysfunctional relational symptoms. Not only does this awareness facilitate our therapeutic efforts to provide the student with the processing and experiences needed to begin healing these core traumas, but this awareness also assists those in support roles (family, friends, professionals, etc.) to understand the context and direction for their interactions with the young woman to facilitate her needs. As the young lady heals at the core, finds new and healthier ways of meeting her needs, and discovers trustworthy, informed and responsive relationships, a positive feedback loop forms that perpetuates healthy growth and adaptation.

4. Environment

At New Haven, we work tirelessly to create a positive, loving, emotionally supportive, forgiving and safe environment. As a residential program, we have the ability to utilize environmental and relational influence at a greater level than a non-residential treatment venue. Additionally, we have the ability to contain self-destructive behaviors while simultaneously focusing energy on therapeutic healing. Families find respite and hope in our environment because, historically, crisis management has consumed the energy of familial and professional support persons, leaving few resources to promote therapeutic healing in an outpatient venue.

5. Intensive, Family Focused Treatment

Not only do we provide an intensive therapeutic approach, but we do so with an  approach focused intentionally on family system work, realizing that the most meaningful and poignant relationships often are found within a young lady’s own family. Additionally, we know that foundationally the family will comprise the main support network at present and for the future. We involve the family in working on the same therapeutic assignments that a young lady completes, participating in psychoeducational and multi-family systemic processing groups, and regularly engaging in traditional and experiential therapeutic interventions with their daughter to promote relational bonding, attachment and healing.

All significant therapeutic issues require time, patience and perseverance. While negating obstacles and difficulties associated with a moderate to severe reactive-attachment presentation is a life-long pursuit, we are often successful at supporting a young lady and her family in arriving at a more manageable and functional approach to life, and their relationship with one another, with insight and understanding around ongoing difficulties and action-plans to allow successful movement forward in life.


photo by gfpeck