THE only reason Colorado homemaker Barbara Nolin says she
didn't give her adopted children back was that no one would take
them. After two years, she had lost all sympathy for the sisters,
former street children who had been named Angel and Crystal for
their birth mother's favorite drugs.
One made repeated false allegations of child abuse. The other
had 10-hour tantrums and set a fire that destroyed her house. In
years of traditional therapy, they seemed only to become more
Then last year, Nolin found a new therapist who diagnosed the
girls' condition as "attachment disorder," an inability to connect,
trust or empathize with other people caused in the first years of
Through intense treatments, the therapist and sometimes Nolin
would cradle each girl like an infant and talk about the past.
The younger girl, now 6, has settled down; the older girl, 9,
is still being treated.
In the process, Nolin regained her compassion. She recalled one
session with the older girl, who never expressed anger or fear.
"She was telling this horrible story about how she was molested and
there were no tears in her eyes, no emotion at all. . . . We sat
there and we cried for Crystal," said Nolin, who lives in the
Denver suburbs. "You cry for the people who can't cry."
Such sensational cases of attachment disorder, usually
involving adopted or foster children, may be familiar to viewers of
daytime talk shows. Some experts believe milder forms - usually the
inability to maintain relationships - also are spreading throughout
a generation of young people raised by distracted or uncommitted
parents with little cultural or social support.
The diagnosis, which can cover behavior from erratic eye
contact to substance abuse and violence, is becoming so popular
some worry it will become "the ADHD of the '90s," appealing to
desperate caretakers and attracting faddish therapies. Indeed, the
disorder has some similarities to attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder, a developmental disability that affects children's
behavior, attention and learning, and has become one of the most
common diagnoses in childhood.
The field is in ferment over controversial treatments. Still,
some call attachment theory the most significant idea in child
psychology in the last 30 years and say research offers great
potential for helping solve an apparently overwhelming problem.
"We are turning out kids that, as a society, we don't know how
to handle," said Michael Pines, a child psychologist and president
of the Dallas-based Association for the Treatment and Training in
the Attachment of Children, or ATTACH. Over the last six years, the
umbrella organization of therapists and child placement workers has
grown from 30 to 350 members, he said.
Diagnoses have increased dramatically, Pines said, partly
because awareness is growing and partly because "there are more
families that are disintegrating, more kids being born to
drug-affected moms and more children having children."
Also contributing is the rising number of children staying in
foster care for longer periods of time, shuttling from home to
home, awaiting adoption. Others blame the familiar scenario of
exhausted, working mothers and fathers forced to place millions of
children in mediocre day care or leaving them to raise themselves
Pines said only 5 percent of children with attachment disorder
are extremely violent. "We usually see kids who have difficulty
making or keeping long-term friends, forming trusting relationships
with parents and other authority figures, and accepting external