How a mother of a child with reactive attachment disorder develops "trauma brain"

Updated: Mar 2

I used to be a fun person. In college, my coworkers awarded me the “shining smile award” for my spontaneous and fun-loving personality. This inclination led me to my husband. When we first met, we instantly connected through our similarities. We both saw the world as a playful and exciting place, ripe with enjoyment and new opportunity around every corner.

Our greatest adventure together began with adoption.

After having lived in a Chinese orphanage, our daughter entered our lives at age 2. We hadn’t planned to adopt a toddler but felt up for the challenge. We saw our school psychology and social work degrees as assets.

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Thankfully, everything went smoothly with our daughter. She had received some early nurture in the orphanage. And she has an inner resolve and a strong and quick-witted temperament that helped her adjust to our family.

We expected a similar experience when we adopted our son Evan a year and a half later. It wasn’t. He had suffered profound trauma, malnutrition, and neglect in his orphanage which proved life-changing—for Evan and for our entire family.

Our son’s needs felt endless. He had profound developmental delays in every aspect imaginable. He hoarded and gorged food and resisted attempts to learn the most rudimentary skills.

But the hardest aspect of parenting Evan was his strong resistance to attaching—to me, to my husband, to anyone. He fought hard against any form of human nurture. To avoid eye contact, he’d turn his head, close his eyes, and thrust his head back. He viciously kicked and squirmed away when I tried to hold him.

I knew there was something very strange in the way my son related to the world.

As Evan grew, so did his means of detaching. He lied and stole from other kids at school. He created chaos and control battles in the classroom. He hit children on the bus and urinated in the school water fountain.

Evan exuded a wide smile and superficial charm that usually got him off the hook with people. After all, he was cute. But he completely lacked true relationships in his life.

The firm limits and consistency my husband and I kept helped to manage Evan’s behaviors at home—but only slightly. Our family certainly did not experience normality. We lived in an abusive relationship with our son as the root of manipulation and persistent emotional exploitation. I toggled between numb or on-edge at all times—never at ease.

Evan constantly went into his sister’s bedroom to rip up her drawings. He stole her things. He purposely peed on our carpet. He peed on me when I tried to hug him. One day, my daughter saw my son turn on all the burners on our gas stove. Thankfully, she caught it in time to turn them off immediately.

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In theory, I understand the rationale behind the reactive attachment disorder with which my son was eventually diagnosed. He built emotional walls to survive two years of orphanage hell. I understand that trauma bathed his brain in stress hormones during his critical formative years. I know that while other children innately trust and connect with others, Evan's brain is wired to disconnect.

I know that Evan’s inability to attach to me is not personal. But it feels horrible—an awful lot like a loss.

We live in a world that defines a family’s reality with typical norms. And people blame “abnormal” on the maternal caregiver. We expect a mother to sacrifice everything for her children. But when a child’s early deprivation is so vast, the intense need and resulting dysfunction can suck the mother dry. It did to me.

Just as trauma rewired my son’s brain, it also restructured mine. My brain is a wound-up top that came unraveled. A pressure cooker that exploded.

And a solution in any regard does not come easily. The normal prescriptions for self-care and toxic relationships don't apply in the highly abnormal relationship of parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder. The logical answer in dealing with the problem is to empower oneself and move on.

But we can’t just move on when the problem is our child. There is a stuck-ness that permeates every decision. It is an identity crisis of sorts that isn’t easily remedied or fixed.

Growth has happened over the years. Healing has happened. Through hard work, fits, and starts, Evan has made great strides. He has finally attached to my husband and made decent progress. But the costs have been huge.

The mental gymnastics of readying for constant triangulation and splitting within our family has taken its toll. My trauma-brain continues to percolate under the surface—I still experience the brain-fog, sadness, and depression. Our marriage has suffered. Our daughter has secondary post-traumatic stress disorder from the stress of living with a sibling with reactive attachment disorder.

I still feel like a shadow of my former self. I miss the me that was happy-go-lucky. I miss my early marriage. I long for the days when life was filled with wonder and ease, rather than distrust, hyperawareness, and suspicion.

I know that I did not create this disorder. I can help my child with reactive attachment disorder but I cannot heal him. Healing will come in his own time when he is ready. And in the meantime, I can only try to continuously heal myself.

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Mom, wife, writer, speaker, hospital chaplain, advocate, and former social worker and retreat leader, Chris Prange-Morgan earned her Master of Religious Studies from Cardinal Stritch University in 1995, and MSW from Loyola University Chicago in 2002. Chris also has done advanced graduate work in pastoral counseling and has worked as a therapist in the inner city of Philadelphia prior to returning to her home state of Wisconsin. In April of last year, Chris’ parenting article featured in the Huffington Post got the attention of NBC and landed her on the television program Today, where she shared some of her parenting and health journeys. Chris continues to be a “recovering idealist” an advocate for self-care and mindful parenting.

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