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Keywords:

  • attachment theory;
  • case study;
  • child psychiatry;
  • reactive attachment disorder

Abstract

Background  John Bowlby's work on attachment has had a major influence on practice in child and adolescent psychiatry and developed from observations Bowlby made in his clinical work. In a published case series of work with juvenile offenders, he provided a case description of the differing sets of problems that drove his interest. Clinical features described in a subgroup of these offenders, the ‘affectionless psychopaths’, might be recognized now as reactive attachment disorder (RAD).

Methods  We scrutinized Bowlby's case series ‘44 Juvenile Thieves’ and compared the aetiology and clinical features of a subgroup of these children with the other 74 cases described by Bowlby. We selected one typical case as an exemplar and provide an edited version here. We then present one composite case from a recent study of RAD and provide a comparison with typically developing children.

Results  Of the Bowlby cases, 86% had experienced early prolonged separation from their primary caregivers and had experienced multiple care placements. In total, 10% of clinical comparisons had been similarly separated. In our recent sample, 66% of children experienced separation from primary caregivers compared with none of the comparison group. A similar proportion of our sample of children with RAD had been removed from home as a result of neglect or had experienced other forms of maltreatment.

Conclusions  Bowlby beleived that a main aetiological factor in the development of difficulties was the experience of separation. We suspect that a main aetiological factor in both his and our cases is the experience of maltreatment. We suggest that RAD arises from a complex interplay of genetic and environmental triggers.