Updated: Jan 12
When we adopted our son, he was nearly 10, and he didn’t yet have the reactive attachment disorder diagnosis. He was very adept at lying and stealing, so it took us a while to catch on as naïve first-time parents. I found it extremely triggering. How could I get close to someone who was always lying to my face and stealing cash, jewelry and other items right out of my purse and bedroom drawers?
When he eventually received the reactive attachment disorder diagnosis at 14, and I joined related forums, I came to learn that virtually every child with this diagnosis presents with these behaviors. Why? And what can be done about it? To find out, I spoke to expert Forrest Lien, LCSW, who has spent the last four decades of his career working with children with developmental trauma and their families.
Why Kids with RAD Lie and Steal
“Lying and stealing go hand in hand,” Lien says. “These are the two things that upset adoptive parents the most.”
Telling fibs and grabbing things that aren’t yours have their place in normal childhood development, but with loving guidance don’t become a problem in healthily bonded children.
During the first 18 months of life, babies are learning whether the world is a safe place and whether they can rely on and trust their caregivers. If they have consistent, loving caregivers, they learn to trust. Having their needs met is internalized—their needs matter, they matter, and they’ll be taken care of. As they grow, they want to please their caregivers, which makes it easier for parents to modify behaviors like lying and stealing and guide them toward acceptable norms.
However, youngsters who experience abuse, neglect or breaks in attachment learn not to trust their caregivers. Children with reactive attachment disorder generally do not accept guidance easily and do not care about pleasing their caregivers. They believe that they are entitled to have what they want so they steal. When confronted, those with reactive attachment disorder will lie to get out of trouble.
As parents, it’s maddening to be constantly lied to – often for no reason. For example, one time – after years of lying, stealing and going through all our things – my wedding ring went missing from my jewelry box in my dresser drawer. By this point, I knew if something was missing, it was mostly likely our son. However, as usual, he adamantly denied taking it. After turning his room upside down, I found it under his bed. Of course, he still denied having anything to do with it.
The lies that children with reactive attachment disorder tell can be so obvious and illogical that many parents begin to question themselves, says Lien. He reassures parents that, for children with reactive attachment disorder, outrageous lying is a common symptom of the disorder. Lien has been the keynote speaker at the RAD Advocates' Navigating RAD event and has presented “'Why Am I Feeling Crazy?': The Life of RAD Parenting.”
It is hurtful to have a family member steal from you. But reacting from anger can compound the issue, Lien says.“If children are shamed, yelled at or hit, they internalize making a mistake with ‘I am a mistake,’” he explains. “A lot of these kids have an internalized sense of ‘I’m not worth it. I’m not good enough. I always make mistakes,’ therefore they’re going to present in the world as a mistake and entitled. I always tell parents that their children with RAD don’t have healthy guilt, they have shame. They expect to be yelled at, hit and rejected because their shame core matches how they approach limits and rules. They stay stuck in the ‘I see it, I take it, it’s mine’ and ‘I deserve to have what I want.’”
What to Do
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix. Healing and trust are the solutions, but it’s no easy journey. Kids with moderate to severe reactive attachment disorder often need treatment outside the home—away from triggered, exhausted parents—before healing can begin.
Lien offers the following guidance for parents dealing with these issues.
1. Understand it’s a developmental and attachment issue, and do not take these behaviors personally. This is very difficult. Finding a good personal therapist can help you learn to be less triggered in the face of lies and theft.
2. Find an appropriate attachment specialist or therapist to work with you and your child. This person needs to understand reactive attachment disorder and approach your child from their developmental age versus their chronological age. See this article for more tips on finding an appropriate therapist.
The lies that children with reactive attachment disorder tell can be so obvious and illogical that many parents begin to question themselves, says Lien. He reassures parents that, for children with RAD, outrageous lying is a common symptom of the disorder.
3. You also need to parent your child from their developmental age versus their chronological age. Toddlers are always kept in a parent’s line of sight because they need that constant supervision and guidance. Children with reactive attachment disorder often need this same type of support. A parent can say: “Mom and dad will keep you close so we can teach you about rules and limits, and we look forward to the day when we can trust you.” Lien says: “I encourage parents to ‘time kids in’ not ‘time them out.’ Consequences like time out feeds into the child’s need to create distance with a parent.”
Keep in mind that homes with toddlers are often “toddler-proofed” as well. In similar fashion, reduce your child’s opportunities to steal by keeping cash and other tempting items secured.
4. Watch how you react. When children do lie and steal, use a love and logic approach. Use empathy to join with them and let them know you see they’re struggling and are there to help. “To join them in their struggle is so important,” Lien says. “Even the tone of your voice is important. If the child knows you’re angry, they’re not going to hear your message. They’re just going to hear that you’re mad at them and focus on the parent’s anger as unfair. When a parent handles it in a calm way, it’s easier for the child to trust that they’ll be safe with that parent.”
Lien reminds us that all kids lie every now and then; however, healthily bonded kids are more likely to do so to avoid disappointing their parents which is not the case for kids with RAD. Even though RAD behaviors may look similar to those of a neurotypical child at times, the reasons behind the behaviors are different. The response to such behaviors must differ accordingly as well.
Raising a child with reactive attachment disorder is a huge challenge. It’s hard living with someone who lies and steals, but reframing how we understand and respond to these difficult behaviors can definitely help.
About the Author:
Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. She was a member and is a supporter of RAD Advocates. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Wyoming.