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Domestic Violence: When the Victim is a Parent of Their Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder


Domestic Violence: When the Victim is a Parent of Their Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder

The U.S. Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.”


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and awareness efforts have helped reduce domestic violence rates. Yet it’s still a major issue: The Centers for Disease Control reports that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical violence by their intimate partner at some point during their lifetimes, with intimate partner violence occurring in over 10 million people each year.


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When we think of domestic violence, we often picture a woman at the hands of an angry and abusive man and, indeed, this is often the case. For most of us, our reaction is to want to help the woman get out of this dangerous situation and into safety. Many organizations work across the country to do just that.


But what if it’s your own child abusing you?


Those working with or raising neurotypical, healthily bonded children can’t even imagine waking up to their child holding a knife declaring he or she wants to kill them, or shoving them down the stairs or attacking them as they drive drive. However, for families raising children with moderate to severe reactive attachment disorder (or certain other severe mental health issues), this is quite common. Not all children with reactive attachment disorder pose physical or emotional harm to others. The further their disorder lies across the spectrum from moderate to severe, however, the greater the potential.


“On a near weekly basis (sometimes more often), I am physically assaulted,” writes Caroline* a mother raising a child with reactive attachment disorder. “I am hit, kicked, spit at, scratched. I’m told that I’m stupid, that I’m a bad mom, that I’m hated, that I should be dead. I’ve had threats against my life and the detailed plan to do it calmly stated behind a cold smile. I worry that one day, it may not be just words any longer. My dog was already poisoned on purpose, and yesterday we found my cat dead.”


It's shocking, but we at RAD Advocates hear these stories daily. Of course, it is not the fault of the child. Their behaviors come from trauma, often severe and multiple traumas. They unconsciously believe they can’t trust their caregivers and only feel safe if they are in control. They need help far beyond what the average parent can provide.


Not all children with reactive attachment disorder pose physical or emotional harm to others. The further their disorder lies across the spectrum from moderate to severe, however, the greater the potential.

The issue is that families living in these situations are not believed, are often criminalized and are not supported. We must expand the understanding of domestic violence to also encompass families living in these frightening and complicated scenarios.


Living with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Let’s pretend you have a coworker. You meet her husband at the holiday party, and he seems charming. Later, she confides that he beats her. Do you believe her? Most likely yes. You realize that what you saw when you met him was only surface level. You realize that what goes on in a relationship behind closed doors is often much different than the public persona.


Yet, parents aren’t given that same benefit of the doubt. As a society, we blame parents if children have bad behavior. We also can’t fathom a child acting like that. Further complicating things, children with reactive attachment disorder are often quite charming to adults outside the home. This is a survival mechanism. Because of their trauma, they are often hypervigilant to what’s going on around them and very adept at reading adults. They have found ways to get their needs met.


At home, it’s a different story. They want to push their primary caregivers away because that closeness scares them, as does the loss of control. When caregivers are in charge, the child’s survival mechanism triggers them into hypervigilance and fear that they will get hurt or abandoned; they unconsciously feel much safer if they are in control. We as the primary caregivers become either a tool or an obstacle. We are a tool if they can use us to get what they want. We are an obstacle if we see through their manipulation, if we put rules in place, or if we try to force a parental bond or relationship.


The issue is that families living in these situations are not believed, are often criminalized and are not supported. We must expand the understanding of domestic violence to also encompass families living in these frightening and complicated scenarios.

“No one seems to get it, and more often than not, people don’t believe me,” Caroline writes. “They think I’m crazy because it’s not what they see. They see a charming, sweet, kind child. Only behind our closed doors does the disorder really reveal itself. My home is often a war zone. I go home and I am screamed at and torn down. I am lied to so often that I don’t even know how to find the truth anymore. Every day I go home with fear and anticipation of what is waiting for me. I do my best to protect my other kids, but they live in fear, too. We all live a life that no one sees or knows. We go to work and school each day and put on a smile and tell ourselves we’re OK. We aren’t OK, but I made this decision, so what choice do I have now?”


Need help navigating the system as a RAD parent? Become a RAD Advocates member or/and attend NavRAD24.


Caroline illustrates what many of us feel: that we are stuck and that our only choice is to suffer in silence. If we do share what’s going on, we aren’t believed or supported. Even if someone does believe us, there’s not much help out there. When everyone is focused on only one goal—to get and keep a child in a family—they tend to lose sight of the needs of the parents and the family as a whole. They insist that we just need to parent differently or get everyone some weekly therapy. Yet we would never suggest to a woman being beaten by her husband that she just stay, love him harder and maybe see a therapist weekly.


“I know that my life makes people uncomfortable, so I don’t usually talk about it,” Caroline says. “I feel hopeless at times, but everyone keeps telling me if I just love enough, if I just handle things differently, it will be OK. I try my best but no matter what I do, it doesn’t seem to work. I also feel so very lonely and lost. We are pleading for help, for understanding, for support.”


Support for Families Living with Reactive Attachment Disorder


If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering what we can do to help families living with this often unrecognized form of domestic violence.

  1. Listen to the parents. They are the ones who really know what’s going on. It is difficult for people to accept that parents are the true experts of this disorder as they are the ones who live with the reality of it behind closed doors. The majority of clinicians and other professionals do not yet have the resources or education to understand and effectively support families.

  2. Support families living with reactive attachment disorder. If you know a family dealing with reactive attachment disorder, see how you can help. Read articles on the RAD Advocates site to learn more. Then offer what support you can, which could be listening, dropping off a meal or even being trained to provide respite care.

  3. Keep an open mind. As with all things we don’t understand, we need to learn from those who do. Reactive attachment disorder is a complicated developmental trauma disorder. There is no easy “cure.” There are modalities that can help, but due to the nature of the disorder, many families need to place their children out of their home for everyone’s safety and healing. More research and treatment options are desperately needed.

  4. Suggest that the abused parent create a safety plan. Print off online resources on the RAD Advocates website in that regard and volunteer to be a contact person in case of emergency.

Too many families struggle in silence with the abuse that moderate to severe reactive attachment disorder brings into their homes. The nonprofit organization RAD Advocates was founded by parents of children with reactive attachment disorder who learned this the hard way. They exist to walk beside parents as they navigate the disorder and advocate for their families within systems working against them. RAD Advocates also educates communities about the reality of the disorder.


“To raise a child with reactive attachment disorder shouldn’t be an experience filled with silence, shame, confusion, and fear,” says RAD Advocates Chief Executive Officer and Founder Amy VanTine. “Silence and shame only causes harm to families and children with reactive attachment disorder. When parents are brave enough to speak up and ask for help, people need to start believing them. Every time a parent is silenced and shamed, the cycle of abuse is perpetuated both within their family and for families worldwide.”


RAD Advocates still has a long way to go in their mission but, together, we can go further. We can all be RAD advocates. Together, we are stronger. There is still hope in education, advocacy, and support.


*name changed to protect identity


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Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash


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