Updated: Mar 2
Our son Wesley* has gorgeous, big brown eyes.
But after one particularly hard day, I noticed his eyes had turned black. I stared a little longer and realized that his pupils were dilated—they were nearly the size of his entire iris. They looked soulless, empty, and distant.
We were used to Wesley's trouble with eye contact. His eyes darted from side to side, never back at ours, when we spoke to him. But I still had no idea how my son’s eyes had turned from beautiful to haunting. At the time, I had never heard of reactive attachment disorder.
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Now I realize that Wesley's black eyes were a trauma response—one of many reactive attachment disorder symptoms that I missed early on.
Many reactive attachment disorder symptoms exist. But some are trickier than others. They can look neurotypical at times. The disorder can also mimic or coincide with other disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder. To complicate it further, reactive attachment disorder symptoms vary from one child to the next.
So reactive attachment disorder often goes misdiagnosed.
I wish my husband and I had known the reactive attachment disorder symptoms to look for early on. We may have gotten Wesley the help he needed sooner.
Here are 6 reactive attachment disorder symptoms that I missed early on with my son:
Early trauma wires a child’s brain for survival. So children with reactive attachment disorder are often keenly aware of their surroundings. They watch and listen closely.
I often sensed Wesley watching me from a distance. But when I looked over, he’d quickly looked away. I began to pay attention to ensure I wasn’t imagining it. I strategically placed him at the dinner table so I could see him in my peripheral view. That is when I grasped the full effect of his staring.
I once zoomed into a photo I had taken of Wesley and my daughter sleeping in the back of the car. My daughter was asleep. But I realized that Wesley’s eyes were wide open and glaring at the camera. I had missed it in the moment.
5. Chronic lying, stealing, and arguing and poor impulse control
Oh, the lying and stealing.
If Wesley wanted something, he took it. Nothing was spared, nothing sacred. And if confronted, he’d lie incessantly. He’d lie even as he held the empty wrapper of someone else’s candy.
When young children experience trauma, the brain gets “stuck” in that stage developmentally. So many reactive attachment disorder behaviors mimic those of a toddler. And we all know that toddlers have a grand sense of entitlement. It is developmentally appropriate for young children. But not for older children.
“Children with reactive attachment disorder don’t outgrow the toddler stage because it's not actually a developmental stage at that point—it is a disorder,” said Forrest Lien, LCSW, Owner of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. “So the toddler behaviors, including poor impulse control and entitlement, remain into adulthood without effective intervention.”
4. Lack of cause-and-effect thinking
Trauma isn’t “logical”. When a parent abuses a child for a soiled diaper, for example, logic is lost. But that action still wires the brain improperly, leaving a child with reactive attachment disorder to lack logical cause-and-effect thinking long after the trauma has passed.
I remember taking a dry erase marker one day and writing on Wesley's bathroom mirror, “If I __________, then I _________.” Each time something came up, I sent him to fill in the blanks. It didn’t help. I had been expecting neurotypical thinking from a traumatized brain. His brain stayed traumatized no matter how many colored markers I bought. A trauma-wired brain needs trauma-informed parenting and therapy.
3. Abnormal eating patterns
From the age of 6, I could serve Wesley a plate of food larger than I would serve a grown man, any time of day. He’d consume it in a matter of minutes and ask for more.
Many children with reactive attachment disorder sneak food or use food as a form of control. A child may purposely starve to gain control, for example. Sadly, many traumatized kids experience food deprivation at young ages. Like other trauma events, their brains develop around those times. Their maladaptive brains don’t always alert them if they feel hungry or full, if something is good or rotten, etc.
2. Harmful to self, others, and things
Some children with reactive attachment disorder harm themselves or others and break things in an attempt to gain control.
Although Wesley destroyed things, we never saw him doing so. We would just find his belongings or those of his siblings broken or torn up. And his room always looked like a trash can. Even after I told him to clean his room, I’d find torn pieces of paper everywhere. He also often complained of some random issue with his bicycle and took it apart. His “fixing” usually ended in a broken bike.
I assured myself that kids just break things sometimes. And I attributed his messes to childhood. But I still knew deep down that something about it felt different.
1. Lack of trust in adults and controlling behaviors
When children experience early trauma, they struggle to trust adults. And rightly so. In order to survive, the brain wires itself to control the environment. But this means of survival no longer works in the children’s best interest when they’re no longer in danger. Yet, the maladaptive behaviors remain even with safe adults.
The innate need for control creates all sorts of problems for the children and their families. And it is the trademark of reactive attachment disorder.
Children with reactive attachment disorder can go to great lengths to control the people and places around them. They may break things (see #2). Or control animals and younger children. Often, children with the disorder control adults without the adults even realizing it. They’re often skilled in leading teachers, neighbors or other adults to believe that their caretakers abuse or neglect them. My son told a good friend of mine that I hit him. And as well as she knows me, my son’s keen manipulation led her to question my character.
Ironically, the ability to control others is not comforting to children with reactive attachment disorder. They actually feel quite unsettled when they succeed. It only confirms their belief that they can’t trust or rely on adults to take care of them.
During Wesley's treatment and in educational meetings, professionals often asked me about his strengths. Honestly, I hated this question. We lived so deeply with reactive attachment disorder that I struggled to answer. My go-to answer was always resilience.
Years later, a lovely and trusted therapist told me that my son’s resilience led to his disorder. Wesley's brain could adapt to terrible circumstances in order to survive. But his adaptation led to maladaptation, sadly. She told me that children with reactive attachment disorder survived experiences most adults could not handle.
Our family is now “on the other side” of our reactive attachment disorder journey. Our son has worked hard and with the help of others to, as he puts it, heal his brain. We talk often about his triggers and the techniques he can use to calm himself.
About a month ago, Wesley called me from the bathroom at work. His boss had called the police to deescalate a situation in the restaurant. My son recognized that the very sight of an officer in a chaotic situation scared him. He called to tell me that he noticed how dilated his pupils were when he looked in the mirror. Wesley knew to call for help and asked me to talk him through it.
Success is possible. But it starts with recognizing the problem and the path to get there. Resilience can prevail, if given another chance, for the better.
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*Name changed to protect identity