Ahh…Reactive Attachment Disorder. It didn’t mean much to me when the therapist made that diagnosis of my then 8-year-old daughter. After all, I already knew her problems stemmed from the neglect she had suffered as a baby. From being left in soiled diapers, to eating out of garbage cans, even the act of me showing up with the sheriff’s deputies to take custody left a huge impression. She missed her mother — who wouldn’t? Every little girl wants (and deserves) a mother who will hold them, coo to them, brush their hair. But I figured with a little extra love we’d be alright.
Boy was I wrong. RAD is far deeper than that. You can’t “fix” RAD with a little extra love and attention (no matter what the adoption agency tells you). You can’t “fix” RAD with charts or rewards or any of the other typical parenting methods that work for most people. In fact, if you are parenting a child with RAD, take everything you’ve ever learned about parenting, turn it upside down and inside out if you hope to keep your sanity.
RAD develops in children who suffer intense emotional or physical trauma at a very young age. Not all children who suffer trauma will develop RAD, but a traumatic childhood is the common factor among children with this diagnosis. In a nutshell, the child learns that others are not to be trusted. They are there to cause pain, and if the child is to survive, it will have to be on his terms. Because this happens at such a young age, it is “hardwired” into the brain, and these children will always view others with this distrust. And that doesn’t bode well for those attempting to parent these children.
Not unexpectedly, this need for control at all costs means one has to learn how to become a master manipulator. They become experts at triangulating the adults in their lives, and the phrase “divide and conquer” seems to be their mantra. My wife and I went through two marital separations and 8 CPS investigations because of it, and I know others whose marriages just didn’t survive the stress.
“Oh she never acts that way with me.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard RAD parents express their frustration with that phrase. Our children are completely different in public (usually) than they are at home. In public, they still have something to gain by conning you into believing they are nothing but sweet and goodness. They will be extra nice to you (sit on your lap, give you extra hugs, be super charming) because that is how they can control the situation. At home, they know that doesn’t work. At home is where the feelings are scary. At home is where the rages begin.
This is where “special needs” comes in. Normal parenting doesn’t work with these children, despite all the best intentions of friends, teachers, and neighbors (who just love to put their two cents in). Charts don’t work — the child doesn’t care. Rewards don’t work — she doesn’t care about that, either. Typical consequences? You’re only proving to them how right they are that you can’t be trusted. So what is a parent to do? Remain calm at all costs. Any emotion will simply fuel the fire. Sounds easy, sure — but not when you have a raging child in your face, or feces smeared all over your couch, or your favorite earrings are bent and twisted beyond repair and dumped into the litter box for you to find. There is a reason I have heard more than one mother say she is looking forward to two days of labor because it means “a vacation.”
But if you remain strong and steadfast, and accept nothing less than Responsible, Respectful, and “Fun To Be Around” behavior, in time you just might get it. Then again, you may not. Many RADs reach the age of maturity without ever healing. But some do heal. Some just barely survive out in the real world, and some even become successful. But none of them get there without ripping apart their parents hearts.
Photo by mdanys