Updated: Jan 31
Being the mother of a child with reactive attachment disorder was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I know all my fellow moms (and dads) out there would agree. While there’s no magic trick that makes it easy, there are things that can help. Here are some things I wish I’d known from the start.
1. I wish I had understood the hard realities of reactive attachment disorder.
Attachment is a two-way street. I wish I knew that I couldn’t “make” my kids bond with me early on. I kept trying, however. Doing so ultimately pushed my child further away.
Biological mothers often fall in love with their baby before they’re born, and that love rises to levels they never could have dreamed once they hold their little one in their arms. They look in each other’s eyes, and in a perfect world the bonding grows into healthy attachments. However, children who develop reactive attachment disorder experienced childhood trauma and/or inconsistent caregiving during their first three years of life. As a result, they do not trust their primary caregivers—often targeting the mother—and display a host of challenging behaviors.
When my children moved in at ages 9 and 13, they were complete strangers. I knew love and attachment wouldn’t appear overnight, but I was confident they were just around the corner. After all, I’d read all the books and was going to do everything right (cue maniacal laughter from the veterans).
For those of us who adopt, we do so because we have so much love to give. We can’t wait to share that love. But for children with reactive attachment disorder, love and attachment are scary. The more you try and force the two, the more they react with negative behaviors. They don’t feel safe unless they’re in control—and triangulation, manipulation, anger and violence make them feel in control and keep you at bay.
We were told all they needed was love, but we were lied to. And we feel terrible guilt if we don’t experience those motherly emotions. But love and attachment are a two-way street, and it’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy toward someone who at the least is trying to drive you away and at the worst is literally trying to kill you. A common refrain on the reactive attachment disorder forums is “I love my child, but I don’t like my child.”
Whatever you’re feeling is OK. You are doing the best you can. Mothers of neurotypical kids may not get it, but we do. We have to mourn the family we thought we’d have—the emotions we thought we’d feel—and accept that our family and relationships are going to look far different than we imagined.
2. I wish I realized that I’d need a therapist too.
I worked with kids from junior high through graduate school—babysitting, giving riding lessons and working as a teaching assistant. Parents always praised me for my patience. I never considered myself an angry person. But after a few months trying to raise a child I didn’t know had reactive attachment disorder, I felt like an angry lunatic. Stupid stuff set me off. I wasn’t at all the mother I wanted to be.
What I didn’t know was that kids with reactive attachment disorder are experts at reading adults. They are hyper-vigilant to their surroundings, and as a result, they know exactly what makes us tick. Unfortunately, their survival skills gives them a keen ability to manipulate. Having control over us and our emotions makes them feel safer.
We were told all they needed was love, but we were lied to. And we feel terrible guilt if we don’t experience those motherly emotions. But love and attachment are a two-way street, and it’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy toward someone who at the least is trying to drive you away and at the worst is literally trying to kill you.
A couple years into our adoption journey, I sought out personal therapy, and it was the best decision I ever made. No matter how “together” you are, finding a good personal therapist is an excellent idea. They can help you figure out why certain things send you into orbit and what to do instead. You’ll still lose your temper and raise your voice sometimes—no one can stay Zen all the time in this madness—but for me it made a huge difference to work on my triggers and have a supportive therapist in my corner.
3. I wish I’d known to find my community earlier.
We’re used to judging others. Observe any group watching sports from their couch, and you’ll see the armchair quarterbacks critiquing the plays. It’s hard for parents of neurotypical kids to understand what raising a child with reactive attachment disorder is like. It’s an invisible disability, and add to that the fact that these kids are often superficially charming and excellent manipulators, and you have a recipe where parents feel misunderstood and judged.
It’s so important to find your community, whether it’s educated friends and families or fellow parents of children with reactive attachment disorder. It’s important for those closest to you to understand reactive attachment disorder. There are many articles and podcasts available at RADAdvocates.org, as well as books written on the subject.
It’s hard for parents of neurotypical kids to understand what raising a child with reactive attachment disorder is like. It’s an invisible disability, and add to that the fact that these kids are often superficially charming and excellent manipulators, and you have a recipe where parents feel misunderstood and judged.
You’re also going to need an advocate at some point, whether it’s to help teachers or family members understand the disorder, to navigate the legal system, or to get other services your child needs such as in-patient psychiatric stays or therapeutic boarding school. That’s why RAD Advocates provides various membership levels, where their trained advocates—fellow moms—can come alongside you and your family. Even though I’ve lived with reactive attachment disorder, interviewed many families and read every book I could get my hands on, when our RAD Advocate spoke to our attorney, I was blown away by how she could articulate the disorder and the help our family needed.
This Mom Wants You to Know You’re Not Alone
Reactive attachment disorder is difficult for even “experts” to address, and there’s no way we can go it alone. And you don’t have to do so.
Together we can support one another. Together we can help educate the masses. Together, we can help our children find more effective treatments and maybe even healing. Even if you haven’t met them yet, there are parents just like you all over the world. But you have to break the silence to find them. Find your people, whether online or in your community. Together, we're stronger.
About the Author:
Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. She was a member and is a supporter of RAD Advocates. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Wyoming.