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All the Things These Moms Wish They Knew Years Ago About Reactive Attachment Disorder

Updated: Sep 19, 2023


All the things these moms wish they knew years ago about reactive attachment disorder

It’s been two years since we relinquished custody of our son with reactive attachment disorder. I spend a lot of time dissecting the past and thinking of all the things I wish I’d known or could have done differently. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.


When I first wrote on the topic of what “I wish I’d known sooner,” I focused on three things: wishing I’d known about reactive attachment disorder sooner, wishing I’d found my own therapist sooner, and wishing I’d found my community and RAD Advocates sooner. You can read that blog here.



All that is still true, but I’ve thought of several more things to add to my list as well as heard from other parents.


If you’re still in the thick of raising a child with reactive attachment disorder, then maybe some of our regrets can become resources for you.


On Books While Raising a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder


Prior to adopting and when our kids were with us, I focused on reading books about how to parent like The Connected Child, Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control, Parenting with Love and Logic, and The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child. While these are great books, they reinforced my beliefs that I just needed to “parent right.”


Now I’m reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, and boy do I wish I’d read this before adopting. If you or your children have experienced trauma, this is a must-read. It explains trauma and what it does to the mind, brain, and body better than anything I’ve ever read. Reading this book first would have given me a much better understanding of where my kids were coming from and how I might actually be able to help them, as it covers many treatment options. It would have also helped me realize what I could do from an adoptive parenting perspective was only a small part of the equation.



With specific regard to kids with reactive attachment disorder and food, I would've read Love Me, Feed Me. Although I still haven't read it yet, it comes highly recommended. I do wish I’d found ways to reduce our food battles and drama over food. That was a tricky one for me because I know a lot about nutrition, and I strongly believe we are what we eat and that eating junk contributes to hyperactivity and moodiness.


On School + Reactive Attachment Disorder


School was a battleground for us that I wish I’d found a way to better navigate. I’ve talked to parents raising children with reactive attachment disorder who say, “Let the school deal with school.” I totally get this. We have enough on our plates surviving at home. But I couldn’t do it.


I wanted my kids to be able to support themselves in adulthood and felt a high school diploma followed by some type of advanced training such as trade school was imperative. Of course, I didn’t know that despite my efforts, neither of our kids seem to be on this path, and all those battles didn’t change the outcome. You can’t know the future, but you do need to find ways to lessen the stress and drama in your home, even if it means letting go of things that “typical” parents wouldn’t, including academics.


On Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder and Their Hygiene


When our son moved in at nearly 10, the mere mention of a bath or shower would send him into an hours-long tantrum. Teeth were another drama. Years later, his second therapist said, “If he wants to let his teeth rot, let him.” I honestly had never thought of just letting this go. Wasn’t it my job as his parent to make sure he took care of his teeth? Would his body odor and bad breath have eventually drawn comments from other kids and self-motivated him? Who knows. If it wasn’t to the point of bothering us — those living with him — maybe I could have backed off a bit in this area too.


On the Battles Over Battling with Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder


There’s a long list of things I could have backed off more on. I was driven by a desire to be a good parent and raise caring, responsible, hardworking children. Those are good motivations. But we can’t control outcomes. We can’t control other people or how they act or who they become. We can lead by example. We can provide safety, nurturing, and structure. But we absolutely should pick our battles. We should always ask ourselves, “Is this a battle worth fighting? Is it worth my time, energy, and sanity? Is it worth the sanity of the other family members? Will forcing the issue create an outcome that’s best for everyone?”


You can’t know the future, but you do need to find ways to lessen the stress and drama in your home, even if it means letting go of things that “typical” parents wouldn’t, including academics.

If I’d actually examined each thing I was battling over, I would have let go of much more. In hindsight, I definitely wish I had.


On Reacting to Reactive Attachment Disorder as a Parent


Lastly, I wish I’d focused more on the one thing I could control: my own actions and reactions. I wish I hadn’t engaged in pointless arguments and “rabbit hole” discussions. Some parents report that the Grey Rock Method helps. This method was developed for dealing with people who enjoy getting a rise out of others or are narcissistic, manipulative, or emotionally abusive. In this method, you give short, straightforward responses without any emotional reaction. In essence, you act like a rock.


As part of wishing I hadn’t let my son with reactive attachment disorder “hook” me so often, I wish I’d left the house more when things weren’t going well and just disengaged (and left my husband in charge!). I wish I’d done more for myself — more things that brought me joy, more things focused on my own mental health.


In a RAD Advocates survey, we asked other parents raising children with reactive attachment disorder what they wish they’d known sooner, and here are some of their responses.

On Understanding Reactive Attachment Disorder

Wisdom from the hearts and minds of experienced RAD parents via a RAD Advocates survey:


  • "RAD is much more prevalent than anyone admits. It occurs in children removed at birth as well as those removed older.”

  • “(Seek an) early diagnosis.”

  • “I wish I had known that when my child raged for hours when he was young (3-7), I could have taken him for an evaluation (and begun that paper trail).”

  • “The child (with RAD) has an innate distrust of adults and feels he will be abandoned again.”

  • “Trauma changes their brain."

  • “I wish I would have known about the ‘nurturing enemy’ and what that meant.”

  • "I wish I would've realized how RAD triangulates and destroys families."

  • "It does exist. Children can behave in a way that inexperienced people can never believe or understand.”

  • “I wish I’d known about the high risk of reactive attachment disorder before adopting.”


On Raising a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Wisdom from the hearts and minds of experienced RAD parents via a RAD Advocates survey:


  • “You have to meet them where they are and mourn what you thought it would look like, lots of prayer, and the most important is support from RAD families that ‘get it’.”

  • “It’s a mental disorder that required the brain (to act) to survive.”

  • “Don’t rescue your child with RAD. Let them navigate through their difficulties to learn and grow.”

  • “Document, document, document.”

  • “That closeness, affection, intimacy, loving words, kindness, gift-giving, actually make a child with untreated RAD more scared.”

  • There are "limitations in brain development that no rewards or consequences can touch."

  • “Call the police when your child attacks you, every time."

  • “Get cameras, alarms, and other aides to provide concrete evidence.”

  • “Each child is different. You have to figure out what works for your child through years of trial and error."

  • “I wish I knew to NEVER EVER EVER let her have a smartphone.”

  • "Children who suffer from early childhood trauma have a chronically activated sympathetic nervous system.”

  • “I wish I knew the causes behind the behaviors, including the changes that occur in the brain, and how it differs from other disorders.”

  • “My child will never really bond with me and, as the main caregiver, I will be her main target for manipulation, aggression, lying, etc.”

  • “RAD kiddos make perfectly sane adults seem crazy and controlling."

  • “To love a child with RAD means to turn the temperature way down. It is loving to keep them regulated, even if to others it looks rigid and not nurturing.”

  • “I wish there were more discussions of RAD as a spectrum disorder, so that those of us whose children don't fit the extreme examples of RAD won't fall through the cracks.”


On Treatment for Reactive Attachment Disorder

Wisdom from the hearts and minds of experienced RAD parents via a RAD Advocates survey:


  • “So many professionals don't have even a small amount of understanding — therapists, teachers, doctors, police, child protective services.”

  • “I wish I would have been more demanding that my daughter’s treatment be more focused on the RAD disorder. Instead, I always went along with the doctors who primarily focused on and treated the ADHD, unsuccessfully, I might add. I'm positive I knew more about RAD than most of the doctors we've had, but I was always dismissed as over-reacting, stressed out, etc.”

  • “It has so many other disorders that can go along with it or that it mimics."

  • “When you have a child with RAD, there is very little help available.“

  • "I wish I knew the importance of neurofeedback, bipolar meds, and the fact that talk therapy won't heal them.”

  • “Get connected to a RAD specialist even if your child shows very few symptoms. There most likely is an avalanche of other symptoms the child is exhausted trying to hide.”

  • “No one understands unless they’ve lived it.”


On Reactive Attachment Disorder Living in a Family

Wisdom from the hearts and minds of experienced RAD parents via a RAD Advocates survey:

  • “Healing is not possible without safety first. Everyone in my family deserves the opportunity to be safe and heal, not just the child with RAD, who is the one creating the unsafe environment.”

  • “A child with RAD can commonly cause secondary trauma on every other single person in the home, including siblings."

  • "Having a child with RAD can change the entire culture of a home.”

  • “Parents have to be united on everything."

  • “Make sure to take the time and focus on your marriage and other children if you have them. They are struggling just as much as you are due to RAD.”


On Oneself as a Parent of a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Wisdom from the hearts and minds of experienced RAD parents via a RAD Advocates survey:

  • “Putting myself first is essential for my health and the health of my family. I can't heal anyone except myself.”

  • “I am not going crazy.”

  • “Sometimes you can't make it better, and it's not your fault.”

  • “I need to get STRONG support for ME as a parent."


Many parents also echoed my appreciation for RAD Advocates.


One parent commented: “Without RAD Advocates I think I would have so much more guilt, shame, and negative thoughts about myself as a parent. Even with our adoption agency friends and an adoption support group, I never was able to hear from other parents and professionals about reactive attachment disorder before I found RAD Advocates.” Another said, “Thank God and thanks to RAD Advocates, we are now on the road to possible healing.”


The Trouble with Hindsight for Those Raising Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder


As "good" parents, we're hopeful. We don't give up. We have so much love to give that nothing can get in our way. I believed all of these things too at one point. I wanted to believe a lot of these things that other people, including professionals, affirmed. But they didn't know either and listening to them only made matters worse.


In hindsight, I don't know if the wisdom of experienced parents would've gotten through to me at the beginning of our reactive attachment disorder journey. After all, as many parents have said, it's incredibly difficult to understand what RAD parenting is like unless they've gone through it in some capacity. And the journey is unique for every family.


But I hope that, if nothing else, parents who currently struggle know this — they are not alone.


p.s. - I highly encourage all parents raising kids with reactive attachment disorder to attend NavRAD this October. I went to the first one and left with more resources, confidence, connection, and a path forward than when I arrived.



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4 Comments


Thank you for writing this article. I'm interested in knowing how RAD is formally diagnosed. Are there specific questionnaires and evaluations that can confirm whether a child's primary diagnosis is RAD?

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micaela
micaela
Aug 25, 2023
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There are. I took a questionnaire at the conference. It's also diagnosed by various professionals using the DSM.

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Such truth in these words! RAD is a sneaky mental illness. Little knowledge and little belief that it even exists. The primary caregiver stops looking for help and suffers in silence. Or looks incessantly for help that just isn't there and loses herself in the process. Families destroyed. Much more education and awareness is needed.

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