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How to Set Boundaries with Professionals Before and After Bringing a Child with Developmental Trauma Into Your Home

Updated: Feb 22


How to Set Boundaries with Professionals Before and After Bringing a Child with Developmental Trauma Into Your Home
Understand that healthy boundaries are for you and your family. They aren’t about other people at all. They are a form of self-respect used for our safety and self-preservation as parents for our families.

“You signed up for this,” they said. I've heard it many times throughout our journey of parenting a child with developmental trauma disorder, currently diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder.


The reality is that my husband and I did not sign up for what we experienced after adopting a child with developmental trauma. We were woefully uninformed about the realities and likelihood of doing so. Not once in our foster care training was developmental trauma or reactive attachment disorder mentioned, much less thoroughly explained



We were told that parenting a traumatized child would require more paperwork and pose slightly more difficulty than parenting a non-traumatized child. So when the adoption agents gave us a checklist of diagnoses, disabilities, and behaviors traumatized children may exhibit, we naively marked most of the boxes as ones we could successfully parent.


We made the mistake of blindly trusting people from foster care and adoption agencies. We expected that they’d honestly share the diagnoses of the children in our care or at least prepare us for their unusual behaviors. We expected that we’d easily find knowledgeable professionals to support us or that they’d assist us in that search if needed. We expected continued support once the adoption was finalized.


None of that happened. So, no, my husband and I did not sign up for any of it. 


Understanding the Intricate and Complex Nature of Developmental Trauma


The nature of developmental trauma and the systems that create and perpetuate the disorder violated many boundaries that I didn’t even know we needed early on. We learned the hard way what those boundaries were and how to set them with uneducated professionals, family, and friends. 


But by then, we were years into parenting a child with severe developmental trauma. The damage had been done to our family and we were in crisis. It was too late to preserve the wellbeing of our family


Developmental trauma hinders early brain development in such a way that healthy family environments often trigger the child. Close relationships, open communication and a culture of connection feel scary and triggers the child. Everyone in the family is affected by the disorder. As parents, unhealthy or absent boundaries can lead us to enable or escalate our child’s disorder. This can lead to very real safety concerns for the entire family. 


Not knowing about or understanding Joe’s disorder, we kept trying to get close to him. We were determined to show him that he had a family who loved him. We didn’t understand that this terrified him and that he’d do whatever it took to escape us, including physical threats and attempts.



We lived in perpetual crisis with Joe. We inadvertently neglected our other children due to the amount of resources we had spent trying to help him. And we compromised their physical safety, especially as Joe became older, bigger and more violent.


My physical and mental health had declined substantially. I lived in fear that Joe would severely harm me or that I’d have a heart attack or stroke from the stress we lived in. Our marriage was strained and on the brink of divorce. We were deeply in debt from my inability to work while managing Joe and the hospital bills and weren’t covered by insurance. 


To make matters more complicated, no one saw the same behaviors we did from Joe. Another symptom of developmental trauma is how the behaviors typically present in the privacy of the family, most often in the presence of the primary caregiver. Children with the disorder manipulate and triangulate adults in their lives as a means of survival. 


Developmental trauma hinders early brain development in such a way that healthy family environments often trigger the child. Close relationships, open communication and a culture of connection feel scary and triggers the child.

No one believed what we were going through. We found the experience unbelievable ourselves. The difference was that we were undeniably living it. 


With the hopes to prevent this predicament for other families, I’lI share what I wish I knew and the boundaries I would’ve set from the very beginning of our parenting journey. While much of this is specific to our adoption experience, I believe the lessons are applicable to however a family brings a child with developmental trauma into their home. 


What I Wish I Would’ve Known and Done Earlier in our Parenting Journey with a Child with Developmental Trauma:


1. Know that boundaries are a form of self-respect, not punishment for others.


First and foremost, understand that healthy boundaries are for you and your family. They aren’t about other people at all. They are a form of self-respect used for our safety and self-preservation as parents for our families. They align with our priorities and maintain our integrity. And when used correctly, they can preserve our sense of self and improve the quality of our relationships.


Those who aren’t used to healthy relationships aren’t often familiar with healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries do not shame or manipulate others. They aren’t punitive measures to use against others out of a place of spite or anger. 


If our boundaries come from a place of self-respect, i.e. we have standards for relational interactions that protect our physical, mental, financial, and spiritual safety, then they become easier to set and maintain. They allow others in our lives to step up or step out because we slowly become predictable in our unwillingness to engage in or perpetuate chaos.


2. Require facts, documentation and ongoing support early on.


Calmly and patiently insist upon documentation and real support in writing from the beginning. Do not allow others to exploit your eagerness and kind heart. Slow down, even if others tell you to rush into permanency.


Most staff in foster care and adoption agencies have the singular goal to place kids, regardless of whether or not the parents and children are compatible. They took advantage of our openness and eagerness to say yes and painted a perfect picture of adoption. Once our children were in our home, they had a way of avoiding our questions leading up to adoption. They focused on our “big hearts” and brushed our concerns aside. Love would be enough, they said. 


Everyone in the family is affected by the disorder. As parents, unhealthy or absent boundaries can lead us to enable or escalate our child’s disorder. This can lead to very real safety concerns for the entire family. 

Once we finalized the adoption, despite us voicing our concerns about the significant behaviors we saw prior to the adoption, all of our supports fell away. When we reached out for help, the staff at the agencies treated us as the source of our child’s preexisting problems. They said our poor parenting was the issue, not the trauma our children had endured prior to coming to live with us.


Meanwhile, our son Joe* who has severe developmental trauma endlessly tested limits, created chaos, resisted our parenting and caused real safety concerns for everyone in our family. If we had known the reality of Joe’s struggles and secured support for his healing and behaviors early on, I believe we wouldn’t have gotten to the point of crisis management. 


3. Set the right priorities.


To set a healthy boundary from a place of self-respect, you need to first determine your priorities.


For my husband and I, Joe’s healing was our priority until it couldn’t be anymore. We spent years working with professionals trying to help Joe feel safe within our family. Nothing worked. The more we tried, the worse Joe became. The hard lesson we learned is that healing from developmental trauma cannot happen until or unless everyone in the family feels safe. We had our priorities backward.


Because of his unrecognized and untreated developmental trauma, Joe could not feel safe with anyone. This was particularly true in our home because we pushed so hard to nurture and love him. Over time, the behaviors that came from Joe’s lack of felt safety created genuine safety concerns for everyone in our home.


Not knowing about or understanding Joe’s disorder, we kept trying to get close to him. We were determined to show him that he had a family who loved him. We didn’t understand that this terrified him and that he’d do whatever it took to escape us, including physical threats and attempts.

At that point, we had to reprioritize and place our physical safety first. 


It took us years to get to the place of unequivocally knowing our priorities to withstand extreme outside pressure. I wish I would’ve required that everyone in the home felt safe before we attempted to push love, attachment and healing on Joe.


4. Learn to say no respectfully and firmly.


With the help of qualified professionals and countless self-help resources, I adapted the mantra that I am an immovable mountain. With enough consistency, others began to hear my decisions the first time. But it took years. It wasn’t always easy, but our boundaries kept us safe. 


At one point, hospital staff discharged Joe from an acute stay just three days after giving him a new medication. Since I knew Joe was medically unstable, we refused to sign the discharge papers and made a note with our reason. We did take him home but it was our resolve and paper trail that ensured he get readmitted into the hospital less than 48 hours later. As we had warned the hospital staff, he was indeed unstable. 


We had learned that we had a say in things, even if others didn’t like it. 


5. Accept and prepare ahead for the consequences of enforcing boundaries.


There are always consequences of our behavior. To set boundaries is no different. Those who benefitted from my weak boundaries escalated their efforts to get me to cave. Whatever boundaries you set, expect that others will most likely push back at first. 


In our case, we were left with only one way to maintain our boundary for safety to surrender custody of Joe to the department of human services (DHS).


Thanks to the guidance from the advocacy organization RAD Advocates after making our incredibly difficult decision, we were at least prepared. The DHS agents blamed and shamed us for poor parenting. Because we were certain of our priority for safety, however, we maintained our composure and did not cave to the emotional manipulation. 



Just as RAD Advocates had forewarned us, the DHS agents threatened to put us on the abuse registry for neglect. They told us that we’d likely go to jail and lose our other children. Because my husband and I were committed to ensuring safety for our entire family, we accepted and prepared in advance for those consequences. We were ready with a family plan to protect ourselves.


When the hospital staff called that time to release Joe from an acute stay, I let them know that we would not be accepting custody. We were charged with civil abandonment and neglect. The DHS staff tried to persuade us to bring Joe home for six months with in-home services. We had done in-home services before, however, and it hadn’t worked. We had tried everything before. 


It took us years to get to the place of unequivocally knowing our priorities to withstand extreme outside pressure. I wish I would’ve required that everyone in the home felt safe before we attempted to push love, attachment and healing on Joe.

I asked the caseworker, "So what happens at six months and one day?" She didn't have an answer. I asked for confirmation of our two options to accept the abandonment charges at that time or to bring Joe home, provide him the opportunity to harm the family and risk charges for failure to protect our children later.


She confirmed, "Yeah. Pretty much."


We took the abandonment and neglect charges to keep everyone in the family safe while hopefully allowing all of us, including Joe, the opportunity to begin healing. It was more acceptable than to keep Joe in an environment where he felt unsafe and triggered and had the potential to do irreparable harm.


The Necessity of Hard Decisions and Boundaries While Parenting a Child with Developmental Trauma


When we do not set boundaries, we’re easily manipulated by guilt and fear, the opinions of others, beliefs of what “should” be, and delusional hope. This comes heavily into play while parenting children with developmental trauma as most of society does not understand the disorder. The default is often to blame the parents. 


I don’t share our story to scare families out of bringing children with developmental trauma into their families. On the contrary, I firmly believe that supporting families is the only way to break the cycle of perpetuating the disorder. If we provide parents with realistic expectations, effective support, full disclosure and respect their boundaries, we have a greater opportunity to set them up for success


Healthy boundaries allow us to make difficult but necessary decisions. My hope is that our story helps other families to make less difficult decisions earlier in their parenting journey through developmental trauma than we did.


Because if we had that opportunity, perhaps our whole family could have been safe and intact today. We’ll never know. But it might still be early enough for other families. 



*name changed to protect identity


About the Author:


After parenting a child with developmental trauma, the author is passionate about furthering advocacy and education for families like hers. She hopes that, one day, other families will receive more support, understanding, and empathy than hers did. For now, she chooses to remain anonymous until that time comes. But she continues to volunteer for RAD Advocates in their mission to educate and advocate to equip families, communities, and professionals to effectively support children with developmental trauma.


Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

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Having a son with severe RAD for which I did not receive any support or understanding, I felt every word of this. Being shamed for your parenting is very difficult. It's also unacceptable. Our other children are impacted by the RAD child but are otherwise doing well. Why would we be parenting just one child poorly? Why would a child be placed with us in the first place if we weren't good parents? Did we suddenly become bad parents the day after the adoption was finalized?


Although my story ended differently, any number of times I was faced with the possibility of being charged with abandonment as it was not safe to bring my son home from whatever setting he…


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