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8 Parenting Tips We Learned the Hard Way From Reactive Attachment Disorder

Updated: Jun 26


8 Parenting Tips We Learned the Hard Way From Reactive Attachment Disorder
"I can’t change the past. But at least I can share it with those living or working with kids with reactive attachment disorder/developmental trauma. Maybe our experiences can help to pave a smoother path for others."

Even after years of healing from parenting a child with severe reactive attachment disorder, also known as developmental trauma disorder, I still look back. I’m haunted by what could have been if we had parented my son differently. Maybe, just maybe, he'd still be in our home.


Because my husband and I lacked education about reactive attachment disorder, we inadvertently enabled Joe’s disorder.



I wouldn’t know what I do now if we hadn’t gotten through the painful journey that we did. I can’t change the past. But at least I can share it with those living or working with kids with reactive attachment disorder/developmental trauma. Maybe our experiences can help to pave a smoother path for others.


What We Didn’t Understand About Reactive Attachment Disorder


Children with developmental trauma behave in ways that often confound naïve and optimistic new parents. My husband and I dismissed Joe’s more concerning behaviors as those of a merely traumatized toddler. But Joe has far more than “attachment issues” — he has a serious disorder that impacts his brain. 


We didn’t understand that, due to his disorder, Joe was terrified of intimacy and nurturing. Because we didn’t know about reactive attachment disorder back then, much less understand it, we essentially tried to force our love and nurturing onto Joe to help him feel safe in our family. We didn’t realize that, by doing so, we were triggering him. He was far from able or ready to accept love. Joe escalated his behaviors in a desperate attempt to escape us. The underlying motive of his disturbing behaviors — symptoms of his disorder — was to create emotional and physical distance from us. And it worked. We were allowing the disorder, not us as his parents, to take the lead in our home. 


The Rollercoaster of Reactive Attachment Disorder


Before understanding reactive attachment disorder, parenting Joe was like a roller coaster. I felt hopeful with every new parenting technique, exercise, diet recommendation, and therapy we tried — and we tried them all. Whenever Joe was well-behaved or shared a vulnerable moment with me, I genuinely believed he was progressing. I'd be so relieved. But every seeming improvement Joe made was followed by an equally disruptive setback. And that made every regression all the more devastating. It was a vicious and heartbreaking cycle.  


As the years went on, Joe’s behaviors grew more concerning. I was desperate for safety. I followed therapists’ recommendations to buy his compliance. Behavioral modification systems like sticker charts operate on this concept of transactional relationships. The old-fashioned method was simple — good behavior gets a tangible prize. 


Because we didn’t know about reactive attachment disorder back then, much less understand it, we essentially tried to force our love and nurturing onto Joe to help him feel safe in our family. We didn’t realize that, by doing so, we were triggering him.

Behavior modification worked for a while with Joe, until it didn’t. Positive behaviors didn’t stick. Rather than the behaviors increasing and the rewards gradually decreasing, we saw the opposite effect. His expectations of rewards increased for the same or worse behaviors. For example, if he got five minutes of video games for positive behavior, he soon demanded 15 minutes. That grew to 30 minutes and then his own TV. And if he didn’t get what he demanded, he became emotionally volatile or physically violent.


Joe once lost privileges at school for misbehavior with the condition that he'd earn them back after several days of positive behavior. I predicted to Joe's teacher that Joe would regress within 48 hours of regaining his privileges. When he tossed a table and threatened to burn down the school 36 hours after receiving privileges, his teacher was shocked that I was right.


What We Learned the Hard Way About Reactive Attachment Disorder


Joe manipulated and exploited me — he knew he could and used that knowledge to his advantage. It was a roller coaster of hope and despair for me and a merry-go-round of behaviors for him. I was aware of the pattern but felt hopeless in changing it.


I played the game for far too long. I once agreed to buy him the Air Jordan basketball shoes he wanted if he would finally learn how to tie his shoes. He learned. He got the shoes. He tied the shoes once. He destroyed the shoes within a month because he wanted different shoes.



And then one day, in what I can only describe as a divine vision, I realized that our trajectory was unsustainable. After years of our dysfunctional dynamic, I finally saw that Joe’s behavior wasn’t improving. And the rest of the family was suffering. Joe’s disorder dictated our time, money, activities, relationships, and the emotional climate of our home. 


Rather than continuing to let Joe’s behaviors take the lead, it was time for my husband and I to decide what we wanted for our family and make decisions accordingly. We realized we had to start setting firm boundaries, regardless of Joe’s reactions.


As someone who admittedly turned herself inside-out to make Joe happy, I felt mean saying no initially. I didn’t like disappointing him. And I was nervous too. I modified my behavior in an attempt to prevent his rages. 


After years of our dysfunctional dynamic, I finally saw that Joe’s behavior wasn’t improving. And the rest of the family was suffering. Joe’s disorder dictated our time, money, activities, relationships, and the emotional climate of our home. 

I eventually realized, however, that it didn’t matter what I did. Joe would find a reason to be unhappy with whatever I did or did not do. It was my responsibility to learn how to navigate life without becoming caught up in Joe’s emotional roller coaster.


From that time on, I set a boundary for every rage, regression, and setback. My husband and I decided the boundaries based on what we were willing to engage in and what we needed to maintain our integrity and standards of behavior and peace, never as punishment for Joe. In doing so, we learned the following. 


8 Ways We Would’ve Parented Our Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder Differently From the Beginning (with 20/20 hindsight and after lots of therapy):


1. Establish physical safety for everyone in the home.


Everyone deserves to be safe in their own home. We set boundaries to protect personal and household peace, time management, financial concerns, and other less dangerous behaviors like disrespectful speech, lying, etc.


Physical safety for a child with reactive attachment disorder often includes measures such as providing their own bedroom, monitoring indoor cameras and alarms, and securing potential weapons and fire-starters.


We added code locks from the inside on all of our doors except Joe’s and the bathroom. This allowed my other children to lock themselves into their rooms while Joe raged. Eventually, however, our safety measures weren’t enough to keep everyone safe. We needed out-of-home placement for Joe.


2. Track patterns.


We eventually learned to predict Joe’s highly unpredictable behaviors and stepped off the reactive attachment disorder roller coaster. I used a 5-year calendar and tracked his meltdowns, rages, and regressions. I could eventually predict his day-to-day behaviors and the larger cycles that included massive regression and escalations in the fall and early spring.


My husband and I decided the boundaries based on what we were willing to engage in and what we needed to maintain our integrity and standards of behavior and peace, never as punishment for Joe.

Once I saw the pattern, I could prepare for crises ahead of time. I engaged in more self-care, kept more open space in the schedule for inevitable crises, and ensured my other children had care in case of emergency. One of Joe’s patterns was that he escalated while my husband was out of town. Although I couldn’t prevent my husband’s work travel, I secured babysitters and possible overnight stays for my other children if Joe’s behaviors became unsafe.


3. Become a “gray rock”.


The gray rock method is a strategy for dealing with people who attempt to provoke others, as children with reactive attachment disorder often do to gain control. The less a parent reacts and the more boring they become — like a gray rock — the better the chance that the child will lose interest in provoking them. 


If I was upset, Joe’s disorder was in control. I learned to control my emotional reactions to Joe’s behaviors. In my case, I ended up repeating the same sentences verbatim each time Joe repeatedly argued with me or attempted to negotiate. I’d explain minimally and didn’t get caught up in defending myself. I also kept a flat affect so as not to reflect how his behaviors impacted me. Also, I never asked questions that would only lead to lying or more arguing. 


Had I understood reactive attachment disorder early on, I would have been much less emotionally invested in Joe’s behavioral merry-go-round. Instead of forcing hugs and encouraging, I would have been more removed and matter of fact. Perhaps my emotional distance would have allowed him to feel safer and settle into our family over time. 


4. Accept all “jokes” and threats as real and act accordingly.


One of the more frustrating things about reactive attachment disorder parenting is the response most people have when a child “jokes” about violence, self-harm, or homicidal ideations. Many assume that the child isn’t serious. The fear of overreacting to our child can paralyze us parents. I know it did for me. 


In our reactive attachment disorder journey, I quickly learned to take Joe’s “jokes” or threats as red flags of things to come, even if it was years in the making. 


When Joe was nine years old, he’d flippantly remark that I abused him during therapy sessions. Thankfully, the therapist was familiar enough with reactive attachment disorder and with Joe and me to know that he was lying. In that case, Joe’s remarks didn’t cause any turbulence. But then he started saying it in public. Since I was always with him, however, I could explain his disorder. 


Had I understood reactive attachment disorder early on, I would have been much less emotionally invested in Joe’s behavioral merry-go-round. Instead of forcing hugs and encouraging, I would have been more removed and matter of fact.

Eventually, Joe began telling his teacher that I abused him. She told him there was nothing she could do unless there was a mark. A few days later, Joe smashed his head on his bed frame. While I was tending to the wound on his forehead, asking what happened, Joe replied, “It doesn’t matter what happened. I’m going to school and tell them you did this and you will go to jail.”  There was about a year between his first accusation in therapy to his first credible false accusation.


Most professionals, friends, and family do not understand the seriousness of the disorder. Far too often, we parents are encouraged to dismiss our concerns until our child has actually done something irreparable. Always take threats seriously.


5. Keep doing whatever works.


Because my husband and I rode the emotional roller coaster, we often relaxed boundaries whenever Joe showed temporary improvement. All this did was make it more difficult the next time Joe inevitably regressed. Joe learned we cave. All he had to do was wait us out.


As parents, we wanted Joe to enjoy the same privileges as his peers so we allowed things that he was not capable of handling. This often becomes an issue in parenting kids with the disorder, especially when peers earn age-appropriate privileges that our children are too emotionally immature to handle responsibly. Because we live in a secluded and safe neighborhood, we allowed our kids to play with the kids two streets over without supervision when Joe was 8 years old — an age-appropriate privilege for many neurotypical children.


Our condition for the privilege was that all of our children listen to my oldest child who wore a watch when he said it was time to go home. Joe repeatedly refused to return home when his brother called time. My other two boys, one younger than Joe, had no problem returning home on time. Because of this and multiple complaints from neighbors about Joe’s behavior, he lost the unsupervised privileges in the neighborhood.


Rather than let our boundary relax, we learned by then to keep it. In fact, we solidified it further. Because it was also impossible to supervise Joe when I was the only adult home with multiple children, my husband and I, along with Joe’s care team, got creative. Joe’s caseworker found an after-school program that allowed him the illusion of unsupervised play. He was relatively well-behaved at the program. This arrangement also allowed my other children and me the ability to maintain some level of normalcy. This system remained in place until Joe’s behavior became such that out-of-home placement became necessary.


6. We’d prioritize other family members.


A “glass child” is a term for siblings of children with special needs. They experience neglect and subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder because their higher-need sibling requires their parents’ attention and resources. Glass children suppress or hide their needs and take on responsibilities greater than their years because they see their parents struggle with their high-needs sibling.


One of the more frustrating things about reactive attachment disorder parenting is the response most people have when a child “jokes” about violence, self-harm, or homicidal ideations. Many assume that the child isn’t serious.

Joe’s siblings — our glass children — missed out on normal childhood experiences because my husband and I were consumed with Joe’s behaviors and a constant vigilance to maintain safety. When I began to understand the severity of Joe’s disorder and its unfortunate effects on my other children, my husband and I began making intentional efforts to connect with them. We’d split up so the other children could have one-on-one time with each of us. We made efforts to enroll them in activities they enjoyed away from home and away from Joe.


My husband and I also made our marriage a priority and started going on regular date nights.  Did Joe get away with stuff while we were gone? Yes. Was a few hours away to reconnect outside the context of our parenting worth it? Absolutely. I believe this is one of the reasons our marriage survived this journey.


Looking Back on Parenting a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder


My family and I learned the necessity of boundaries while parenting a child with developmental trauma the hard way. 


I wish we would’ve been better prepared prior to bringing Joe into our home. Perhaps if we wouldn’t have forced love on him, he could’ve learned to feel safer sooner. Maybe setting the right boundaries earlier would’ve helped him to see that healthy parents were safer than his disorder’s need for control. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.


Our family was forced to set boundaries with Joe outside of our home to reestablish physical safety for everyone. But maybe, through our stories and hard lessons, other families don’t have to get to the point we did. 


If nothing else, perhaps other parents can preserve their self-care and mental health from the beginning of their journey. The greatest lesson I’ve learned through parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder is that nothing is certain. There are no guarantees. I’ve learned that the only control I had during the entire journey, and perhaps life, was over myself.  



*name changed to protect identity


About the Author:


After parenting a child with developmental trauma/reactive attachment disorder, the author is passionate about furthering advocacy and education for families like hers. She hopes that, one day, other families will receive more support, understanding, and empathy than hers did. For now, she chooses to remain anonymous until that time comes. But she continues to volunteer for RAD Advocates in their mission to educate and advocate to equip families, communities, and professionals to effectively support children with developmental trauma.


Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

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