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How to Chat with Staff When Your Child with RAD is in Residential Treatment: 5 Tips for Parents

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

If your child with reactive attachment disorder is in an out-of-home placement, chances are you've found yourself frustrated when trying to explain their needs to facility workers, therapists, and teachers. Here are five important strategies for communicating with staff when your child is in residential treatment.

Why Communication Breakdown Happens with Kids in 24/7 Treatment

I have experience as a parent whose child lived in residential treatment, and I've also worked as a family advocate for an agency that owns several large residential treatment facilities. This gives me a unique perspective into both sides of the situation when a child is in residential care.

I've been a frustrated parent who felt my concerns were being dismissed. I've also been a staff member who was perplexed by what appeared to be a parent's unrealistic demands or lack of concern.

How can we come together in these situations and do what is best for the child and work toward healing? Keep reading for helpful guidance.

When Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder Go to a Residential Treatment Center

The truth is that when any child goes into residential treatment, the situation is rocky. Kids were meant to grow up in families (although not all children can). Even the best out-of-home placement is an unnatural circumstance (which is exactly why children with reactive attachment disorder actually prefer them over their own homes). For many families, however, outside care is essential for the safety and wellness of everyone in the home including the child with RAD.

Only kids with the most severe behaviors are placed residentially, so the whole team is working with extreme behaviors. Parents are exhausted and weary. The child was probably at the brink of being out of control.

While there are patterns that we come to expect with kids with reactive attachment disorder, staff have the challenging job of figuring out their unique behaviors and quirks, all while keeping your child plus the other children safe. I don't envy their job.

Despite these challenges, there are ways parents can formulate the conversation in order to keep everyone working together as a team.

How to Speak So Staff Will Listen: 5 Tips for Parents

Moms and dads, if you've found yourself frustrated or feeling like you aren't being heard, here are five helpful strategies for how to speak to staff and have the most positive experience.

1. Remember that you are a vital part of the team.

Parents, you are the expert on your children. Never doubt your critical role in your child's upbringing, even if they are not currently living in your home.

I'll never forget a phone call I had with a staff member where my son had been in treatment for about six months. He said to me, "No one knows your son better than me."

While he was trying to reassure me that he had developed a good working relationship with my child, I was so angry I saw red. I raised my son for the first years of his life and spent countless hours, days, and years with him. I sat by his hospital bed after surgery and took him to his first day of Kindergarten. In fact, no one knows my son better than me.

Don't be intimidated by your lack of credentials. While doctors, teachers, and therapists all have their important work, few of them have actually parented a child with reactive attachment disorder day in and day out. You have.

If you have a child with reactive attachment disorder and you are alive and standing, you deserve a medal - not to be dismissed.

2. Give specific suggestions for managing behavior.

Residential staff are busy, overworked and underpaid. They move in and out of shifts and, just like the rest of us, are balancing work with busy lives and commitments.

The more you can give specific advice, the more you will be heard. Don't be bossy, but approach it as giving them helpful input about what you've learned the hard way.

Here are some examples:

  • Don't say, "Watch out. He lies a lot." Say, "We've seen that he lies about how much he eats and if he's taken a shower."

  • Don't say, "She has food issues." Instead say, "Expect her to beg you for extra servings of junk food. We only allow one serving because she will eat to the point of making herself throw up."

  • Don't say, "He's going to try to manipulate you." Say, "He will be friendly and personable with you in an effort to get special favors. This is part of his reactive attachment disorder. Please don't give him extra treats or favoritism because this makes his behavior worse in the long run."

3. Don't assume the staff has been trained about reactive attachment disorder.

In my experience, the world of mental health treatment has a long way to go in understanding attachment issues. We've made some progress (thanks to organizations like RAD Advocates) but we have a long way to go.

At the agency where I worked as a family advocate, we received extensive training about trauma-informed care, but we received almost no training about reactive attachment disorder. This means that staff is starting to understand the impact of early childhood trauma, but they haven't been taught how some children lie, manipulate, control, belittle, smear feces, act out sexually, or constantly challenge authority because of their fear.

This is an important distinction because many staff will feel for kids who have experienced trauma and want to "be nice" or "develop a relationship". They don't understand that strict boundaries help our kids feel safe.

Once a staff member told me, "I am working on helping your son learn to trust me." My response was, "Because of his early childhood trauma, my son doesn't trust me and he's been living with me for 14 years. Please don't expect him to trust you."

While it's not your role to train staff, you can explain your child's needs and the strategies you have found most effective.

4. Watch for triangulation.

Children and teens with reactive attachment disorder are experts at triangulation. Even as experienced adoptive and foster parents of 25 years who have raised 35+ children, my husband and I still find ourselves arguing over our kids at times. We will be in the middle of a heated debate and one of us will say, "Wait a minute...we've been triangulated!"

Triangulation is when your child attempts to create friction within a relationship near him by telling lies, half-truths, or spinning the story to play the victim.

If you have a child with reactive attachment disorder and you are alive and standing, you deserve a medal - not to be dismissed.

Expect that your child will attempt to come between you and the staff and be prepared.

Here are some ways you can stop triangulation before it starts:

  • Keep lines of communication with staff open on a regular and ongoing basis. Develop a communication system that works for everyone involved.

  • Don't assume what your child tells you is true, especially if the story places them as the victim or the hero.

  • Ask to speak to the staff member involved directly.

  • Remember that in addition to triangulating you, your child may well be attempting to triangulate staff with other students and staff with other staff.

  • Recognize that your child has probably told the staff things about you that aren't true, and they probably believe at least some of them. You can't fix this, but you can be aware of it.

5. Let go of what you cannot control.

Finally, when you've communicated to the best of your ability, let go of control.

When my son was in residential treatment or inpatient hospitalization, one of the toughest things for me as a mom was seeing that he was manipulating the staff and getting special favors. We had spent years trying to stop that type of behavior so it was infuriating to watch it unfold.

Yet I came to recognize there was only so much within my ability to fix. I had to let things go. Residential treatment isn't ideal, but it was the best choice available for our family at the time.

I worked to develop a sense of gratitude that our son was safe and our family was getting a break. We began to heal from our own trauma of raising a child with reactive attachment disorder.

Use this time to take care of yourself. Reconnect with your spouse. Focus on your other children. Regroup in ways that weren't possible when your child was at home.

Using these five effective strategies, you'll find the best methods to communicate with staff when your child is in residential treatment.

About the author:

Alyssa is a certified family advocate who has worked with hundreds of parents and children. She has extensive experience working with children with attachment issues, reactive attachment disorder, foster care, adoption, trauma, developmental delays, medical issues and more. She is a parent by birth and special needs adoption and was a foster parent to many children. She has personal experience placing a child into residential treatment successfully. Connect with her at

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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