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How Reactive Attachment Disorder Impacts the Whole Family, Not Just the Child

Updated: Oct 18, 2023


How reactive attachment disorder impacts the whole family, not just the child

Updated June 2023


As parents, we’ve heard it often—how charming our children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) can be outside the home. Others just don’t see the same child we see.


It’s a scenario licensed clinical social worker Forrest Lien knows all too well from working with children with RAD and their families for more than 40 years.


“The RAD diagnosis really impacts the whole family because the RAD dynamics play out in intimate, close relationships,” he explains. “Others don’t often see the same dynamics outside the family because of that.”


It’s a diagnosis that affects everyone in the immediate family, from parents to siblings and pets.



Sometimes, the more you try and love a child with reactive attachment disorder, the more fearful they become and the stronger their need for control.


“The whole family suffers,” Lien says.


He is the keynote speaker at the Navigating RAD 2023 experience, to be held Oct. 13-15, 2023, in Kansas City. There, Lien will present on “'Why Am I Feeling Crazy?': The Life of RAD Parenting.”


Here, Lien walks us through how reactive attachment disorder can impact each member of the immediate family.


The effects of reactive attachment disorder on parents


Lien outlines two main issues that parents primarily face with children with reactive attachment disorder. The first being rules and boundaries, and the second is triangulation.

Issues with rules and boundaries manifest from trauma and lack of bonding in the first three years of life.


“Reactive attachment disorder is developed prior to the age of 3, so children with the disorder have pre-memory trauma hardwired into their brains that affect that toddler stage,” Lien says. “A lot of families get the children after those developmental processes, so you basically have a personality that never had the chance to connect and trust in a caregiver. And then limits and rules are off because there’s no buy-in to the caregiver. As the children grow older, they remain stuck in a mode of ‘It doesn’t matter how I get it, I just need to get my way.’”


Sometimes, the more you try and love a child with reactive attachment disorder, the more fearful they become and the stronger their need for control. “The whole family suffers,” Lien says.

With the second issue, triangulation, the primary caregiver becomes the “nurturing enemy”—the person children with reactive attachment disorder try to push away the most. The most common nurturing enemy Lien and RAD Advocates have worked with in this role is the mother figure, although anyone who is a primary caregiver can fill it. A child with reactive attachment disorder often triangulates between their two caregivers as well as their primary caregiver and other adults. If, for example, the secondary caregiver works outside of the home and the other is primarily at home with the child, the two parents have very different experiences.


“The children typically charm and engage the less involved parent which creates conflict between the couple,” Lien says. “I’ve seen that over and over again in relationships. The most common dynamic I see is a mom who is emotionally distressed about her day with the child, and her spouse doesn’t see the same child when they get home because the child is charming toward them."



If the secondary caregiver is duped, it creates tension and distance in the couple's relationship. Not only can the primary caregiver lose this important source of support, they may also lose friends and extended family who don't see what the primary caregiver sees. Friends and family grow tired of them complaining, or the primary caregivers just don’t have time to get together.


Lien says this often results in emotional issues and depression for the primary caregivers.


“The more involved parents tend to be on an island by themselves with all these feelings because they don’t get the validation they need from spouses or support systems,” he says.


In addition to the second caregiver, children with reactive attachment disorder are often experts at charming adults outside the home, such as teachers and grandparents. If, for example, Grandma spoils the child, the child will act out more at home because he or she would rather be with Grandma.


“The reactive attachment disorder (RAD) diagnosis really impacts the whole family because the RAD dynamics play out in intimate, close relationships,” Lien explains. “Others don’t often see the same dynamics outside the family because of that.”

“So the more superficial the relationships are outside the family, the more children with reactive attachment disorder tend to manipulate and utilize those relationships to ostracize their nurturing enemy from the whole circle,” Lien says. “That parent is looking unreasonable to these other people as well. The parent feels resentful because friends and family aren't listening, and this parent is looking kind of crazed because no one is supporting them.”


The effects of reactive attachment disorder on siblings


Children with reactive attachment disorder are often experts at identifying power dynamics, and this includes siblings. A younger girl with reactive attachment disorder, for example, may try to charm her older brother. If the child with reactive attachment disorder is older, he or she will often try to exert control over the younger children, whether physically or mentally.


Siblings of children with reactive attachment disorder suffer in other ways as well, such as Mom no longer being able to attend their extracurricular activities because she must tend to the child with reactive attachment disorder. And, of course, they’re impacted by Mom’s mental state in dealing with the stress reactive attachment disorder causes in the family, including her worry over the safety of other children in the home.


The effects of reactive attachment disorder on pets


Similar to their younger siblings, children with reactive attachment disorder often try to control pets. “I don't recommend that children with reactive attachment disorder be allowed to spend alone time with family pets,” Lien says. When a pet has had enough of the controlling treatment, it may lash out with a nip or scratch and the child may, in turn, treat the animal poorly.

But Lien says there is hope. With greater understanding comes greater support. In addition to his keynote address, the event features many other experts that will cover a range of reactive attachment disorder topics and options. To learn more about the Navigating RAD23, click here.




About the expert:


Over the last three decades of his career, Forrest Lien has avidly shared his expertise to advance the field of trauma. He has consulted with 20/20, HBO, and The Today Show and has presented at over 300 workshops internationally on the effects of early trauma, including at the Mayo Clinic. As founder and owner of Lifespan Trauma Consulting, he continues his legacy of highly sought-after training, reactive attachment disorder assessments, program development, and advocacy for adoptive and foster families and their children.


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. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Wyoming.


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