Updated: Mar 2, 2021
To mother a child who suffers from early trauma is a lonely place. If you have a friend doing so, you can make a difference in her life simply with your support. The tricky part is how to do so well.
Most people don’t understand the dynamics of parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder. And it’s difficult to support people if you don’t truly realize what they’re going through.
A child with reactive attachment disorder, whether officially diagnosed or not, requires different parenting styles, therapy, and constant research to figure out how to minimize the damage to relationships, property, and academic progress.
If you know a mom of a child who suffers from early trauma, here are 5 things you can do to be a good friend:
1. Don’t judge.
It is easy to look at a mom who is struggling with her child and think to yourself, “My kid would never do that.”
If that’s the case, consider yourself lucky.
Because your child’s past likely differs from that of your friend’s child, the behaviors will differ as well. Your friend’s child may have endured early abuse, neglect, or medical trauma. Even though these things might have happened a long time ago, they can make lasting and sometimes permanent imprints on the brain. Your friend’s child lives in a perpetual state of “fight or flight” in which he or she may lash out in anger, run away or shut down altogether.
Rather than judge your friend, remind yourself that your parenting experiences with your child are different from hers. The stuff you read in those parenting books doesn’t work for kids with a traumatic past. Therapists may also suggest that your friend try some unconventional parenting methods that typically work for kids with these struggles. To the outside observer, such techniques might seem counterintuitive to you. As you support your friend, remember that parenting is not a “one size fits all” experience.
2. Avoid boasting.
Of course, you feel proud if your child is well-mannered and polite, gets good grades, wins trophies and the like. Yet, try not to boast in front of your struggling friend. It’s okay to celebrate the achievements with your spouse or parent but doing so with your friend may only make her feel inadequate.
Parents often simply wish for a genuine hug from their traumatized kiddos. As a parent of a child with reactive attachment disorder, I would have been thrilled for a day without a call from the school or a public meltdown in the middle of Target. Trophies and straight-A report cards were not even on my radar. I just wanted to get through the day. Try to put yourself in those shoes on behalf of your friend.
3. Try to understand.
We all have good days and bad days. To parent a child with reactive attachment disorder, however, usually includes significantly more bad ones. Your friend may have to cancel plans with you at the last minute because her child is in the middle of a meltdown of epic proportions. These can happen multiple times a day and sometimes last for hours.
No matter how often she cancels, keep inviting your friend to spend time. Don’t shut her out of your life when she needs you the most. Instead, send her a “thinking of you” text or bring her a bottle of wine or favorite tea. She needs all the help she can get to soothe her fraying nerves. Even if you rarely see her, she’ll feel good just to know that you’re thinking of her.
4. Do a little research of your own.
If you discover a plausible diagnosis for your friend’s child, do some research on that particular condition. There are some great TED talks on reactive attachment disorder, early childhood trauma, fetal alcohol syndrome, and other psychiatric conditions. In 20 minutes or less, you can gain a much better understanding of what your friend experiences as a parent. There are lots of great articles and blogs by parents just like me who are open and willing to share their experiences in order to promote understanding. After you learn more, you can ask your friend informed questions and perhaps offer help where you can.
The most important thing you can do for a special needs parent is to offer a sympathetic ear. Tell your friend she has a safe place to vent. Honor her trust and respect her parenting choices. Relay that you understand that there are reasons behind her child’s behaviors. Trauma prevents the brain from developing properly which results in behavior dysregulation. Children with reactive attachment disorder are quick to anger, resulting in property destruction, physical abuse to siblings and parents, or even severe violence. A day in the life for your friend is likely very, very difficult. It means more than you know for her to have someone who will just listen, empathize, and offer hugs.
To parent a child with reactive attachment disorder is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Throughout our decade or so of helping our son heal from his trauma, I lost countless friends and many jobs. I felt other moms whispering about me at school and I had more than one stranger tell me to my face that I was a bad parent. I cried on the floor of my closet often.
But through it all, I was extremely lucky to have one or two close friends who didn’t judge me when we were having a bad day, friends who would allow my “runaway” child to hang out at their homes, and friends who would share a bottle of wine with me and listen to my woes. I’m not sure I would have survived without them.
If you have a friend raising a child with reactive attachment disorder or other issues caused by trauma, please do your best to be their safe place. You will never know how much it means to her.
Gina Heumann is a mom of a child with reactive attachment disorder, TEDx speaker and author of the Amazon best-selling book Love Never Quits: Surviving and Thriving After Infertility, Adoption, and Reactive Attachment Disorder and GOLD recipient of the prestigious Mom's Choice Award.