Updated: Apr 30, 2021
The chaos our son Wesley brought to the home had only escalated.
After dozens of unhelpful psychological evaluations and clinical interventions to help Wesley, we continued to spin in circles. Living with reactive attachment disorder was wearing greatly on our family. But we didn't even have a name for it yet.
Eventually, however, we found a therapist who gave us that invaluable gift—Wesley's diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder.
It was an assessment that finally made sense. Although the therapist couldn't treat the disorder herself, I'm still grateful to her for the accurate diagnosis. We could at least look for a solution for the true problem at hand.
As I searched for the best way to help Wesley, I found several “underground” reactive attachment disorder groups on social media—parents who privately support one another virtually, judgment-free. I quickly joined them and, for the first time, did not feel crazy.
Like me, these parents of children with reactive attachment disorder felt blamed and shamed by everyone—from their own parents to their children's teachers. I learned it is a common problem, sadly.
Reactive attachment disorder is considered rare and is wildly misunderstood. Parents of children with the disorder typically feel alone and can't find effective help for their families.
The parents online led me toward resources and more information. I learned that I was the "nurturing enemy" to my son—a term that only a parent of a child with the disorder could fully understand.
It made perfect sense as I reflected on the last few years. Essentially, a child who has experienced early trauma pushes away the caregiver who attempts to get closest to him or her emotionally.
I realized that nothing good was to come from Wesley being with me, his “nurturing enemy” all day, every day.
Welsey returned to public school after months of homeschooling. This time, I was armed with the knowledge of his disorder and how it looked so different in public than it did at home. I educated his teachers and the school administration about how we could all work together for Wesley's success. They were receptive.
For the first time in years, Wesley began working at grade-level.
Just as my husband and I felt as though we were starting to "get it", however, our daughter Waverly began having grand meltdowns. Screaming fits lasting hours. Waverly scratched, punched and slapped me—no one else.
Because Waverly and Wesley are biological siblings, I wasn't completely shocked by her behaviors. After all, it surely wasn't new to me. But I was devastated to begin reliving the last 15 years of the same things I had dealt with in Wesley. I was starting over, again.
And just as the summer before 8th grade ended, Wesley began to relapse as well. Our older son Walden returned from college to the room he shared with Wesley only to find that Wesley had been urinating under the bed. He had also stolen or destroyed many of Walden’s personal belongings that were stored in the closet.
Suddenly, the family was again in complete crisis.
And then we uncovered Wesley's pornography addiction and inappropriate social media behavior. Eighth-grade proved to be much of the same—theft, defiance and destruction.
This is the point that my husband Parker really started to see the big picture. He realized that my inability to sleep at night for fear of attack from our son may be founded after all.
We installed cameras and door alarms inside and outside of the house. We called the social worker again. No one would help. By the end of 8th grade, Wesley had been arrested for theft and served 12 weeks of community service.
Feeling hopeless and helpless, Parker suggested relinquishing our parental rights. At least Wesley could get mental health care from the state and we'd protect our family.
I turned to the social media groups for help. They directed me to RAD Advocates, a non-profit group founded by mothers of children with reactive attachment disorder who help other parents.
The guidance from RAD Advocates changed my course dramatically. Armed with confidence and concrete information, I called the social worker again.
The social worker suggested placing Wesley in a group home. I knew this would not help his actual issues and may indeed make it worse. Through RAD Advocates' guidance, I found an alternative therapeutic residential program that could work specifically for Wesley.
It took a great bit of push and persistence, but I prevailed with the guidance of RAD Advocates. The social worker agreed to help get Wesley into the program.
The day came when Wesley left home to begin the program. The clinicians projected he'd return home in 12-18 months. I wasn’t sure that'd be long enough.
Meanwhile, I began searching for therapists who specialize in reactive attachment disorder for Wesley's return home. After lots of research and many phone calls, I finally found one.
I met with the therapist and explained all that had happened with Wesley and Waverly. I felt particularly confused about Waverly’s behaviors as they were so similar to Wesley's behaviors. Yet, she was most definitely attached to our family which was so different from Wesley. After several sessions, the new therapist diagnosed Waverly with complex trauma.
During that time, more pieces of the puzzle were coming together from Wesley. A part of his therapy in the program was to make amends with his family. He apologized for specific situations and things that he had done. He even admitted trying to drown me that day at the pool and that he had been mean to Waverly.
We learned that Wesley had unknowingly repeated his cycle of abuse onto Waverly. He had spent the greater part of Waverly’s life mentally, psychologically and emotionally abusing her. He had trained her to cause chaos and abuse in our home.
While everyone agreed Wesley was making great progress, I was devastated and bewildered at his admissions. I shared with the therapists that I did not feel as though Wesley should return home. I didn't feel ready. And I didn't feel as though I could keep Waverly safe.
For many months, our family worked on healing and learning more about the disorder. We focused on changing our mindset and redirecting our anger from Wesley to the disorder itself. Wesley also agreed to help the family “fix” what he had done to Waverly.
Seven months after leaving home, Wesley returned from the program.
From there, we continued to work intensively with our hometown therapist at least once a week. Wesley was finally revealing the hurt and sorrow underneath his behaviors all those years. And I saw the adorable brown-eyed, curly-headed little boy that had come to live with us so long ago.
Wesley has been back home for nearly a year now. Our lives are drastically different from how we had been living over the past decade.
Wesley has a part-time job and is completing high school. He is calm and engaged with our family in a healthy way. Of course, he still has a teenager's attitude from time to time. But it is nothing compared to what it used to be.
Waverly is thriving. She continues to learn how her brother’s “sick brain” taught her the wrong things. She is learning how his “well brain” is helping her too. Waverly had a great kindergarten year.
Wesley and I have a safe and joyful relationship now. We share looks and giggles over inside jokes. He is even able to poke fun at himself about his past behaviors. Laughter and fun fill our house.
I am incredibly grateful for my family. But I would not wish the last 10 years of our lives on anyone. And that is why I am now a part of RAD Advocates myself.
I hope our experiences can lead at least one family to the training, education and resources we found. But I hope they get it at least 10 years earlier in their journey than we did. I can only imagine the pain and damage our family could have avoided if we had help sooner.
If I could share only one piece of knowledge about living with reactive attachment disorder, it is this—love and time are simply not enough. But there is hope to be found.