father holding his child

Attachment Disorder and Custody of Children

Psychologists have routinely held that babies who are old enough to show love are old enough to grieve the loss of a parent. Common signs of grief in infants include crying more than usual, sleeping less or more and a change in eating patterns.

When determining custody of an infant who has lost one or both parents all professionals must be cognizant of attachment theory and the risk of the child to developing attachment disorder. Attachment theory and the risk of an attachment disorder is becoming a more common problem as illegal immigrants are separated from their young children at the border. President Trump’s new border crossing policy has separated more than 2,000 immigrant children from their parents in just the past few months.

Attachment theory is a psychological model that explains how we as humans respond in relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or when we perceive a threat. Infants, at an early age become attached to their caregivers. If you’ve ever heard of babies being able to recognize their mother’s voices as soon as they are born, then you already know what attachment theory is.

The most important tenet of attachment theory is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one parent for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and for learning how to regulate their feelings. If that attachment is taken away there must be a focus on helping the infant develop a new primary attachment so that the child feels safe and secure and so that the risk of developing emotional problems in the future is minimized. If this doesn’t happen then the part of the brain that deals with attachment and fear develop differently.

Research has shown that children separated from their parents at a young age have much less white matter, gray matter, and the children’s brain activity is much lower. They tend to score lower on IQ tests and they are at significant risk for developing depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health problems as adults.

When making custody decisions for children who have lost one or both parents courts must consider attachment theory and the risks of attachment disorder when consider future placement for children.