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Adoption, children with reactive attachment disorder & family: Expectations vs Reality

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

I can’t remember a time that I didn’t think adoption would be part of my future.

My husband and I knew from the time we married that we wanted to adopt a child someday. By the time our youngest daughter was about six-years-old, we felt the time was right.

Our family was healthy and close and everyone was excited about the adoption. We were given little to no advice about living with children with reactive attachment disorder. Nor did we have extensive history about the child we were about to embrace into our family. We simply assumed, with all the love we had to give, that everything would be fine.

The photo above was taken at school the first week our daughter joined our family. Being in the same grade, our daughter by birth was thrilled to introduce her new sister to second grade. All four of our children did everything they could to make her feel welcome.

The honeymoon lasted about ten days.

While she seemed to settle into our home very quickly at first, our daughter’s behaviors began to change. It began with stubbornness and defiance. She struggled with me, in particular, with accepting direction.

I thought I just needed to hang in there until she realized she was in a safe home and loved deeply.

We tried to give her all kinds of experiences with sports, friends and school activities. Although she seemed to thrive outside of our home, the battles continued to escalate behind closed doors.

Our youngest daughter was the main recipient of the physical abuse. Our newest daughter threw things at her, hit her and pushed her. She said incredibly hurtful, spiteful things to our other daughter. It was heartbreaking.

We thought our daughters just had personality differences and we moved them into separate bedrooms to give more space. This only helped in giving a place to go during conflicts. Still, the tension continued to grow.

Our home was no longer a refuge.

It was hard just to get out of bed each morning to face another day. Our four other children were now spending more and more time isolating themselves in their rooms. They left the house as much as possible.

Our family was falling apart

After six months, I was in therapy for the first time in my life.

I could not see how we would survive another month, let alone eight years before our daughter would be able to live independently.

I remember looking at the therapist through a flood of tears. “I can do hard,” I said. “But I cannot do hopeless. I need you to show me there is hope.”

Despite our efforts to get support and guidance in our parenting, our relationship with our newest daughter continued to deteriorate.

About two years after she joined our family, I realized our daughter was restricting her food intake. She was becoming dangerously thin and was in need of medical intervention. This was the beginning of a two-year cycle of hospital, home, hospital, residential treatment center, hospital.

No matter how well she did in the eating disorder programs, she refused to eat the instant she returned home. It was her way to get away from us—back to another facility.

The more we tried to support and nurture our daughter, the more resolve she seemed to have to restrict her food intake.

We could not keep her alive in our home.

When she was ultimately diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, all the behaviors finally made sense.

It was incredibly hard to accept that our close family relationships, love and nurturing were too difficult for our daughter. Her early trauma had altered the way her brain had developed and she was in a constant state of survival in our home.

In order for our daughter to be safe, we needed to provide her a living situation without her triggers—us.

We eventually found our daughter a home specifically for children with reactive attachment disorder. In this home, she had no threat of love or nurturing. To her, that felt safe. She became more regulated and, in time, the food restricting subsided.

Ours is not the adoption story people expect or want to hear.

While I wish our journey could have gone differently, it has led me to one of my life’s missions and passions. I am an avid advocate for families of children with reactive attachment disorder.

Certainly not all adoptions lead to a story like ours. Nor are all children with reactive attachment disorder adopted. No matter how our stories come to be, however, families of children with reactive attachment disorder need a voice and incredible support systems. Yet, they rarely have either.

I wish I had known then what I know now—that no amount of love from us would have made her early trauma disappear. If we had known, perhaps we could have gotten her the right help early on. Maybe we could have saved our other children from the trauma we endured in our home.

We were so hopeful that we could embrace our daughter and give her a family. Even though she cannot be in our home, she will always be in our hearts. That is why I advocate for children with reactive attachment disorder and their families everywhere. Collectively, we need a voice.


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