The 17 Things to Say and Not Say to Support Those Raising Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder
Most people have never heard of reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a complex brain disorder that develops from early trauma. In fact, most of us raising kids with the disorder were unfamiliar with it until we were emotionally, financially, and legally responsible for them. This knowledge void makes way for confusion, misguided advice, and blame placed on us—caregivers of children with the disorder.
If you want to support those raising kids with reactive attachment disorder, you’ll likely need to educate yourself. It won't likely come easily, abundantly, or innately. We're here to help.
Why people don't understand reactive attachment disorder and how that impacts parents
According to current research available, reactive attachment disorder is estimated to affect only 1-2% of the general population (Pritchett, et.al., 2013). Because the disorder is considered to be rare (along with other various misconceptions), quality education about the disorder is also rare. It’s no surprise then that few people are familiar with reactive attachment disorder. That is, until the disorder lives in their home.
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When I learned about reactive attachment disorder and how it manifests several years into our parenting journey, my life suddenly made sense.
Although considered rare in the general population, reactive attachment disorder is significantly more prevalent in populations of children with known developmental trauma. Many professionals in social services and foster parents, for example, have seen the disorder. They just don’t typically know what “it” is called. Or even if they do, they’re not sure what to do about it.
Unfortunately, as parents of children with reactive attachment disorder, we were more often met with judgment than we were with support. Due to the challenges of parenting our son with the disorder and the inability to handle more stress, my husband and I were forced into removing anyone who made our job more difficult. Because of that, our circle of trusted friends and family became very small.
We were left alone and without support to handle a serious disorder that even professionals don't typically fully understand.
What to do to support those raising kids with reactive attachment disorder
When you have little knowledge about an affliction, it can leave you at a loss for what to say or do for those who struggle with it. We at RAD Advocates, a nonprofit organization founded by parents of children with the disorder, understand. It’d be impossible to put yourself in our shoes (nor would we wish it upon you without plenty of support and prior education).
Because the disorder is considered to be rare quality education about the disorder is also rare. It’s no surprise then that few people are familiar with reactive attachment disorder. That is, until the disorder lives in their home.
When a parent tells you that their child has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, it is important to listen, be empathetic, and remain curious. Judgment, blame, and comparisons to parenting children without the disorder further isolates and traumatizes parents who are on an incredibly hard journey as it is.
Here are 18 things to say (or not say) to support those raising kids with reactive attachment disorder:
1. DON’T say: All they need is love or you need to love them more.
Love is powerful. Love can conquer a lot. But love cannot conquer reactive attachment disorder by itself.
I have yet to meet a parent of a child with RAD who didn’t love their child. But these same parents often struggle to provide safety and healing for their child and the rest of their family too. To tell these parents that they’re not loving their child enough is like shoving them further underwater while they’re drowning.
Whenever someone told me to love my son more, I always responded, “Please define love.” Usually, they stared back blankly. I then continued, “Is love supposed to blind me to the unsafe conditions created by his disorder? Is love going to keep my other children safe? How is love going to prevent him from [insert behavior of choice]?”
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Not only does telling a parent that they need to love their child more invalidate an already struggling parent, but it also enables the child’s disorder. This is especially true when said in front of the child.
Children with reactive attachment disorder are experts at manipulation and triangulation–it is a primary symptom of the disorder. They often play the “my mom/dad doesn’t love me card” with unsuspecting and uneducated, or new, therapists, teachers, friends, etc. Know that the child you see is likely a very different child than the parent experiences.
This person then shames the parent for not loving their child enough, the parent’s frustration increases because they are not getting any tangible help, and the child has successfully triangulated the relationship.
Many professionals in social services and foster parents, for example, have seen reactive attachment disorder. They just don’t typically know what “it” is called. Or even if they do, they’re not sure what to do about it.
Love is good and helpful. But love is not enough for kids with this very serious and complex disorder. In fact, overwhelming a traumatized child with love before they're ready makes things worse for everyone. Knowledgeable, empathetic, and respectful friends, family, and professionals with good boundaries and safety protocols are necessary too.
2. DO say: How can I best support you?
Parents of children with RAD don’t need more guilt and shame from those whom they confide in. They are likely already guilting and shaming themselves.
What parents do need is practical, workable solutions for their entire family’s success. They need true and unwavering support, not more chaos in their lives. Maybe they need a babysitter so they can spend time with their partner. Maybe they need help fixing meals because the family is in constant crisis and cooking has become nearly impossible. Maybe they need help locating resources. Maybe they need you to respect their parenting choices. Maybe they need you to maintain boundaries around their child. Maybe they need a hug. Maybe they need a compassionate friend.
Maybe they just want someone to ask them what they need instead of judging them.
3. DON’T say: Permanency will fix it.
This is simply a lie. Reactive attachment disorder is created from trauma early in life. Vulnerability and intimacy provoke fight-or-flight responses in children with the disorder. In fact, permanency often exacerbates the disorder because the child can no longer disrupt placement and escape people who are getting too close.
Permanency is a solution to homelessness. It is not a solution for trauma. Pressuring parents to commit to a child they are not fully confident in parenting only sets the family up for a crisis in the future.
If you’re in a position to counsel parents before they bring a child with RAD into their home, take great care. The most impactful thing you can do for a child with RAD is to provide full disclosure and support for those who might raise them. Help them to assess the reality of living with the disorder.
To sugarcoat the child’s serious disorder and needs only sets their potential family, and therefore the child, up for failure.
4. DO say: Can you send me some resources so I can learn about reactive attachment disorder?
Permanency for a child with reactive attachment disorder is not the catalyst for healing. It is the beginning of healing. In order to successfully navigate the disorder, parents need knowledgeable friends, family, and professionals supporting them and their child before and throughout the entire journey, not until permanency.
Once permanency is achieved, adequate professional and therapeutic resources often become harder to access. Supportive and knowledgeable friends and family are essential for anyone parenting a child with RAD. Asking for resources allows you to become an educated support system, ultimately easing what is a long and challenging journey for the entire family.
5. DON’T say: All kids do that or that’s normal developmental behavior.
They don’t. It’s not.
Our children’s behavior may be normal. But the frequency, intensity, and severity of the behaviors is not.
Once my husband and I were at a party with friends who knew a bit about our struggles with our son with reactive attachment disorder. The father told a story about his daughter being upset and “running away”. The story was told in a jovial tone. The other parents laughed, occasionally adding their own humorous anecdote about their child “running away” too. All the stories were about the one time their child “ran away.” The entire situation made me uncomfortable. I longed to be able to contribute a funny and normal anecdote of my own.
But I stayed quiet.
Permanency is a solution to homelessness. It is not a solution for trauma. Pressuring parents to commit to a child they are not fully confident in parenting only sets the family up for crisis in the future.
My son had been repeatedly running away since he was 2-years-old. Any anecdote I shared would have made it seem as though his behavior was just as normal as those other children’s humorous misadventures. But it wasn’t.
He routinely ran off when in public. When we lived in a one-story home, he would pop out the screens in his bedroom window to run away. Because of that, we purposefully bought a two-story home with bedrooms on the second floor. He still found ways to run away. He ran away once while the babysitter was there. He was gone for hours, only to return acting as if nothing had happened. Once I woke in the middle of the night to find him not in his bed and the front door open. He was eight.
My son’s running away was chronic. It was a safety issue. We had extra locks on doors and cameras in our home because of this behavior. His running away extended to school, as well. For his own safety, we ended up having to involve the police when he would run away.
Other children may run away. But few of them continue to do so for years without regard to their own safety. I didn’t share a story because it wasn’t a topic I could normalize or laugh about.
6. DON’T say: This is your fault or do XYZ differently to stop the behaviors.
During our first session with a new therapist, the therapist opened by asking me, “What did you do to provoke your son?”
My answer was that I asked him to make his bed.
She continued down that line of questioning until the session ended. I left feeling as though I’d been bludgeoned, having no faith in her ability to help my family.
If helping our family was the aim of those sessions, I do not understand what purpose leading with parental blame served. Even if I had provoked my son, blaming and shaming are poor motivators for rapport-building and positive change. From that initial question, I did not trust in her ability to help my family. Therefore, any therapeutic benefit that may have come from the sessions was moot. We did not continue with that therapist as a result of that opening question.
7. DO say: I believe you.
To tell a parent raising a child with RAD that you believe them is probably the most powerful thing you can do.
Because our lives center around a largely unknown disorder, we find ourselves battling not only with our child but with family, friends, and professionals who do not understand what we are living. The default position in our society is often to blame the parents any time a child is struggling or behaving poorly. But RAD is a brain disorder developed during a traumatic early life. It is not a parenting problem.
Shortly after the aforementioned therapist was fired, we sat with another therapist. This therapist opened with, “Tell me about your son.” I started from the beginning and told her everything. At the end, she simply said, “I believe you.” It was the first ray of hope I’d had in years.
8. DON’T say: You seem really strict. Is that necessary?
Here again, judgment and parental blame come into play. In healthy families, parents lead by protecting and providing safety through setting boundaries, guidelines, and rules. Children who trust their parents generally respect those boundaries, guidelines, and rules.
Children with reactive attachment disorder learned early in life not to trust adults. Instead, they learn to fend for themselves. This leads to defiance and resistance to respecting parental boundaries, guidelines, and rules.
As parents of a child with RAD, we learn quickly that our children will test everything, expecting us to let them down or fail them in some way. Therefore, we must become predictable and consistent in an attempt to earn their trust and maintain safety within our homes.
The default position in our society is often to blame the parents any time a child is struggling or behaving poorly. But RAD is a brain disorder developed during a traumatic early life. It is not a parenting problem.
When my son was about four-years-old, we sought professional help for the first time. The initial therapist we visited recommended the book, 123 Magic! as a solution to our son’s behavior. The book suggests giving three chances to comply before imposing a consequence.
That first therapist didn’t understand several things. First, we had already followed the tenets of the book without success. Secondly, our son’s behaviors were becoming increasingly unsafe. Giving chances was no longer an option. We had already learned that if chances were given, someone would get hurt or something would be broken. Lastly, consequences meant nothing to our son. By age four, our son already viewed impending consequences as a challenge.
9. DO say: I know every decision you make is to try and help your child, even if I don’t understand it, and support you.
Tell parents that you can see their effort, know their good character, and respect their parenting choices. To demonstrate that you trust the parents of a child with reactive attachment disorder is invaluable. We already question ourselves.
Parenting a child with RAD often requires parenting styles that are more consistent, predictable, and seemingly strict. The rules are in place both to help the child with RAD begin to trust their parents and to provide safety for the entire family.
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As a friend or family member of parents with a child with RAD, trusting that those parents are doing the best they can with what they have allows for genuine support. Trust that the parents have rules and boundaries in place born from experience with their child.
Our son was notorious for subverting new babysitters. We always informed caretakers to keep him in their line of sight at all times. They inevitably wouldn’t. He ripped curtains off the walls several times. He broke a door off the hinges once. He also drank an entire bottle of wine that had been hidden and saved for a special occasion within the mere minutes she was not watching him. He then vomited all over the living room.
Reactive attachment disorder is created from trauma early in life. Vulnerability and intimacy provoke the fight or flight responses in children with the disorder.
While you may think our rules and boundaries are excessive, we as parents of these children know what our children are capable of. We’ve lived it. Our rules and boundaries are in place for everyone’s safety.
10. DON’T say: A good spanking will straighten them out.
I honestly can’t believe that I have to explain this one. Yet, people do say it.
Early neglect and abuse is often what led to our child’s disorder in the first place. To abuse them more isn’t going to fix anything. It will only strengthen their distrust of adults and make the disorder worse.
11. DO say: I can see you trying to do each next right thing.
To validate parents and offer ongoing encouragement is sometimes all you can do. It often means more than you could ever possibly know.
12. DON’T say: Give them to me. I’ll fix them.
Unless you are running a therapeutic program that successfully treats children with reactive attachment disorder, you can’t do anything to help the child heal. Professionals experienced with RAD understand that no one can “fix” the child unless the child has decided that they want to heal.
To assume that can do something different than the child’s parents to “fix” the child insinuates that the parents aren’t doing everything in their power to help their child and keep their family safe. This only makes the parents feel more isolated and misunderstood.
13. DO say: Can I watch the kids for you?
It is healthy for parents and children to have regular time apart. When raising a child with reactive attachment disorder regularly scheduled breaks are essential for everyone’s long-term well-being.
Parents may resist this offer because their child will likely be well-behaved for the respite provider or babysitter but then escalate once reunited with their parents. It’s still exhausting. Even so, everyone still needs a break from the constant chaos and the need to be on guard.
To support them even further, learn how to be the best respite provider you can be for the child.
14. DON’T say: It could be worse. Be thankful they don’t [insert behavior of choice].
This isn’t a competition.
If a parent tells you they’re having a hard time, they’re having a hard time. Everyone has different capacities for behaviors. One parent may struggle with a child who is lying. Another may struggle with a child who is stealing. Yet another may struggle with a child who rages. All are challenging. Just because one parent’s child isn’t homicidal or self-harming doesn’t make their parenting challenges any less valid.