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

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

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 Mom and Dad to siblings and pets.

Don't miss #NavRAD22, the conference for parents of kids with RAD. Buy tickets now.

Sometimes, the more you try and love a child with RAD, 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 2022 conference, to be held Oct. 7-9, 2022, outside of Atlanta. There, Lien will present on “'Why Am I Feeling Crazy?': The Life of RAD Parenting.”

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

The effects of RAD on parents

Lien outlines two main issues that parents primarily face with children with RAD. 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.’”

With the second issue, triangulation, the primary caregiver becomes the “nurturing enemy”—the person children with RAD try to push away the most. The nurturing enemy is typically Mom. The child with RAD often triangulates between the two caregivers as well as Mom and other adults. If, for example, the father or secondary caregiver works outside the home, the two parents have very different experiences.

“The children typically charm and engage Dad which creates conflict between the parents,” Lien says. “I’ve seen that over and over again with couples, where Mom is emotionally distressed about her day with the child, but Dad doesn’t see the same child when he gets home because the child is charming toward him.”

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If the dad or secondary caregiver is duped, it creates tension and distance in the marriage. Not only can Mom lose this important source of support, she may also lose friends and extended family because they don’t see what she sees, they are tired of her complaining, or she just doesn’t have time to get together.

Lien says this often results in emotional issues and depression for moms.

“The moms 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 Dad, RAD children 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 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 RAD tend to manipulate and utilize those relationships to ostracize Mom from the whole circle,” Lien says. “Mom is looking unreasonable to these other people as well. Mom feels resentful because they're not listening, and Mom is looking kind of crazed because no one is supporting her.”

The effects of RAD on siblings

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

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

The effects of RAD on pets

Similar to their younger siblings, children with RAD often try to control pets.

“I don't recommend that children with RAD 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 conference features many other experts that will cover a range of reactive attachment disorder topics and options. To learn more about the Navigating RAD2022 conference or to register, click here.

Don't miss #NavRAD22, the conference for parents of kids with RAD. Buy tickets now.

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.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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