Updated: Mar 31, 2022
You’ve probably looked everywhere and haven’t found it—a reactive attachment disorder parenting guide, that is.
To raise a child with reactive attachment disorder is a bewildering experience. While you may have picked up some tips here and there, you likely still feel overwhelmed.
Sadly, many professionals don’t have the training or experience to guide you. And well-meaning friends and family share traditional parenting styles that have worked with their kids…but backfire for you.
You probably question your parenting abilities regularly. But rest assured, you are not the problem. Sure, there are some approaches that may work better than others.
But reactive attachment disorder is a disorder—not a parenting issue. You don't need judgment from others. Rather, you need guidance from those who (truly) understand as well as overwhelming support from everyone.
Here are a couple of the many ways reactive attachment disorder is particularly tricky—
Your child simply isn’t like “all other kids”—though he often acts that way (depending on the audience)—on the outside. The differences between your child and his peers lies in the extent of her behaviors (often reserved just for you behind closed doors) and the reasoning behind the behaviors.
And, even trickier, the tips to help navigate these behaviors might also look “normal” at first glance. Again, the difference is in the extent to which you must follow through and the reasoning behind your parenting strategies.
Yet, your loved ones might look at your “normal-looking child” and your seemingly “normal parenting strategies” and think…you must be the reason it’s not working. After all, it works for them.
But, again, you are not the problem. It is the disorder’s fault.
Children with reactive attachment disorder have experienced trauma that altered their brains altogether. Hence, they have very specific and special needs based on what’s going on inside.
Reactive attachment disorder parenting requires different tools depending on where your child falls on the spectrum. Yet, the following “reactive attachment disorder parenting guide” is a solid starting point for most families. From this starting point, you can begin to add tips that work specifically for your child.
And, again, while these tips may look “typical” at first glance, it is again the reasoning behind them and the extent that makes the difference for children with reactive attachment disorder. So read closely...
As a parent, your primary role is to provide safety.
Always put safety first while parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder—this means physical and mental safety for everyone in the family, not just for the disordered child. To recognize when someone doesn’t feel safe in the home and find solutions for all is critical. Healing cannot occur for anyone without a felt sense of safety first. Everyone has the right to be safe and this includes you, the parent.
“Due to early trauma, children with reactive attachment disorder have brains hard-wired in survival mode,” said renowned trauma expert Forrest Lien, LCSW, Owner and Founder of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. “They will go to great lengths to take control of their surroundings to feel safe and reject those who try to nurture them.”
Sadly, this survival-based need for safety is the basis for others in the home feeling unsafe. Children with reactive attachment disorder will find and target weaknesses in their family members and create chaos in the home. That said, safety can look different for each family member, including for the disordered child himself.
To provide safety for your disordered child is going to require a different approach—usually it is counterintuitive to how we think and feel. For example, a mother’s natural instinct for a child who injures himself is to rush in with hugs, kisses and caring words. For a disordered child, however, this can feel extremely uncomfortable and triggering. A different approach is to acknowledge that the child is hurt but respect his need for distance. Help the child to be able to identify what he needs to feel better and assist with getting what he needs.
To care for yourself is to care for your family too.
Your care needs to be a priority so you can continue to care for your family. Self-care can look different depending on where you’re at in this journey. You may be in a place where it’s hard for you to even know your needs because you’re in survival mode. If this is where you are, self-care can mean declining extra commitments other than your immediate family’s needs.
…but if you can do more, do so without guilt or remorse.
It’s important to fill yourself up in any way that makes sense to you. This can be as simple as scheduling time for a nap, glass of wine, a warm bath with candles or headphones with soothing music. Or schedule a massage or pedicure.
If all you can do is lock yourself in the closet to enjoy five minutes of quiet time and a chocolate bar without sharing, do it. It is a start to self-care.
Regardless of where you are at with reactive attachment disorder parenting, your needs are important too. Allow time to focus on what you need too.
Be mindful of your other children’s needs.
To raise a child with reactive attachment disorder is incredibly demanding. That said, it can feel impossible to tend to everyone’s needs. Yet, to carve out time to chat with and spend time with other children in the home is vital. When a parent spends hours helping the disordered child regulate, the other children do not get what they need by default.
“The one thing I will never forget was from a social worker friend,” said RAD Advocates Kathleen Johnson. “She said that we needed to be very careful because while we were so focused on our ‘sick’ child, our healthy kids would get ‘sick’. I didn’t believe her at the time.” Years later, Kathleen is still in therapy with one of her children due to the trauma endured from the disordered sibling in their home.
RAD Advocates Chief Operating Officer Heather Houze adds, “If I had known how my other kids were being affected, I would have fought the fight far differently. If someone had insinuated that I was neglecting my other children, my “mama bear” would have come out. I firmly believe I would have fought even harder for all of us, instead of feeling like it was my problem. I didn’t see how anyone else was being affected.”
You’ll likely need to get incredibly creative to tend to all of your children—but it is worth the mental health and future of your entire family.
Put forth structure and boundaries in your home
Extreme structure and boundaries are vital for children with reactive attachment disorder. While healthy children can enjoy some personal time, unstructured times gives children with reactive attachment disorder greater opportunities for destruction. A routine will also allow you to monitor your disordered child’s behaviors and symptoms to identify patterns that might trigger her.
An important note—Don’t share your routine with your disordered child. Doing so provides him with a greater chance to sabotage the plans and create chaos. Yet, do share the details of your routine with your regulated children. This will help them to have some sense of predictability—which is otherwise difficult in a home with a child with reactive attachment disorder—and to feel safe.
Boundaries and routines will also help you to stay regulated and calm. Remember, this disorder thrives in chaos. It takes time, practice and some sort of predictability for your family to stay calm and avoid participation in the chaos.
Documentation can aid you in many ways. It can help you—as well as professionals charged with helping you—recognize patterns in your child’s behaviors to come up with possible solutions. Also, documentation can protect your family. Many children with reactive attachment disorder falsely allege family members of abuse and neglect. It’s always better to have documentation and not need it then need it and not have it. On the positive side, documentation may also help you to see how and when things actually go well which can help with your mindset.
We suggest the following:
—Keep a journal of the various parenting strategies and therapies you’ve tried
—Track times of day and circumstances when your child is triggered or when you’ve called first responders for help with your child
—Collect forms regarding school incidents, case notes from hospital or residential visits, etc.
Parent tip: “Documenting everything was a daunting thought for me in the beginning,” said Heather House. “Then I just bought a few 5x7 notebooks that looked cute to me and I just started documenting almost daily at night before bed. It definitely came in handy multiple times.”
Develop your support system.
Parenting with support is an obvious tip that many take for granted. This disorder can leave parents feeling extremely isolated and hopeless. Sadly, those raising children with reactive attachment disorder rarely get the support they so desperately need.
As you develop your support system, don’t forget those closest to you. The nature of reactive attachment disorder is to triangulate relationships, as mentioned before. As difficult as it is, do not give up on communicating with those closest to you, perhaps your spouse. You cannot do this all alone.
It truly takes a village to raise a child with reactive attachment disorder. But your village must understand what you're going through—or at least be willing to learn. That said, it’s important to teach others about reactive attachment disorder and share how they can specifically support you rather than how you’re feeling (read more here). To have someone with whom to chat or ask for help can go a long way. When a person feels supported, they can do harder things for longer.
Let’s be frank—there’s no surefire or easy way to raise a child with reactive attachment disorder.
You’re unlikely to find a tried and true reactive attachment disorder parenting guide from an expert at your local bookstore. But when parents get together, share what has worked for them and raise each other up, we can all get further together. You’re not alone, wherever you are right now. Know that we’re here, rooting for you and sending hugs from afar.