Updated: Apr 30
It’s a common story: A couple decides to share their love for each other with an adopted child. Family and friends call them “saints” for doing so. They’re flooded with gifts and congratulations.
Yet the child, through no fault of their own, brings trauma into the home. And trauma brings confusion, conflict, and chaos. Rather than the bigger loving family the couple had envisioned, theirs is a bigger troubled family.
The couple begins to argue about the best way to parent. Their friends stop calling. Family members judge them. The support for their family is gone when they need it most. Their relationship starts to deteriorate.
I work with families every week who experience this dynamic. It’s not anyone’s fault. Here’s how it happens...
A child’s experience
When a child is abused or neglected in the first three years of life, whether due to a biological parent’s addiction, mental health issue, or trauma history, they can experience developmental trauma. If properly assessed (which can be difficult to secure), this affliction is commonly diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder.
A child with reactive attachment disorder doesn't develop normal, healthy pathways in the brain. And if the child enters foster care or an orphanage, the effects of their trauma are only compounded.
Like a war veteran, the child lives in a constant state of fight or flight even after they’re in a healthy and stable family. Their survival instinct is on high alert. The child manipulates the people around them to feel in control. And they do everything possible to keep people at a “safe distance”.
One parent’s experience (often the mom)
Many social workers and therapists mistakenly tell adoptive parents that love conquers all. If they just give the child enough love, they say, everything will be fine. So the primary caregiver, often the mother in my experience, does everything she can to attach to and nurture the child. Sadly, however, love does not “fix” reactive attachment disorder.
The closer the mom tries to get, the more the child spits her attempts to love (sometimes literally) back in her face. The child she so desperately wants to love reacts with hatred at her pursuit of attachment. The mom spends day after day trying to connect with a child who reacts to attachment in a disordered way.
The other parent’s experience (often the dad)
In my work, I’ve seen mostly moms fill the primary caregiver role to children. While often well intended and loving, many dads don’t get as close to the child. Because the child doesn’t feel the pressure to connect with the dad, the child feels safer with him than with the mom. That said, the dad often has a very different experience with the child than the mom does. He only sees the charming side of the child because that is what the child wants him to see.
The couple’s experience
The different ways in which parents experience their child over time creates division.
When the couple tries to communicate, the mom explains her experiences with their child. But the dad doesn’t see her point of view at all. He doesn’t understand why she is so upset with a perfectly happy-looking child. He assumes she’s too hard on their child. Meanwhile, the mom feels unsupported, dismissed, and angry. She often experiences post-traumatic stress disorder herself.
The couple stops communicating and understanding one another and their relationship begins to deteriorate.
Reactive attachment disorder doesn’t need more love, “better” parenting, or time to “fix” it. What it does require, however, is plenty of outside support and expert intervention to strengthen the family foundation and help the child to heal.
It all starts with a strong parent union.
But that stability is far from easy. The very nature of reactive attachment disorder is to create chaos and triangulation in relationships. It is, ironically, how the child feels temporarily safe. But if the child succeeds, everyone including the child suffers.
If it is your relationship at peril, it is time to find a way back. You need one another as parents. It is the only way through for your family.
Recognize that you are traumatized as individuals, as a couple, and as a family. Find effective help from clinicians who understand reactive attachment disorder. And find solutions toward healing, for everyone’s sake.
But above all, know that the culprit in your home is the child’s early trauma, not one another. Remember where you began—a loving couple decided to bring in a child and share their love...
Carrie O’Toole has adopted domestically and internationally and is a biological mother. After parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder for eight years, the O’Tooles made the heart-wrenching decision to relinquish their son to another family in 2009. Since that time, Carrie has earned her master's degree in human services specializing in marriage and family therapy. Because parenting traumatized children is traumatizing, Carrie works as a coach and helps other struggling adoptive parents to heal from their own grief and trauma. Carrie also helps parents through her book Relinquished: When Love Means Letting Go, documentary film Forfeiting Sanity, the Relinquished Retreat for Parents, blogs, and podcasts.