top of page

Reactive Attachment Disorder: All the Things a Grandma Might Not See That Her Daughter Does

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

reactive attachment disorder and relationship troubles
Micaela and her mom Dr. Hanley had always been on the same page, until reactive attachment disorder entered their lives.

Before reactive attachment disorder came into our lives, my future family would flash before my imagination like one of those Viewmaster circle slides I had as a kid—us camping, click, fun time with extended family, click, happy holidays, click. But after our family was ravaged by reactive attachment disorder, it was more like looking through a kaleidoscope—all fractures and sharp edges.

Grandma Comes to Visit

I’ve always been close with my mom, but she lives several states away. Still, we talk daily. As our tragedy unfolded after adopting two older children from foster care, I told her everything. Our son was eventually diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder—a condition caused by childhood neglect and abuse, inconsistent caregiving, or other traumatic circumstances during the first few years of life. Children with reactive attachment disorder most often target the mother or other primary caregiver, who they see as the “nurturing enemy.”

Because they learned not to trust their primary caregivers early on, they push against love, affection, and closeness. However, to those outside the immediate family, they are often charming and manipulative. Even with a Ph.D. in Psychology, my mom didn't understand her grandson's disorder the way I lived with it every day.

My mom would come to visit twice a year, but she didn’t see the same behaviors we saw.

“In retrospect, I think the severity of his attachment issues was masked by a ready smile, a willingness to give and receive hugs, and by certain thoughtful moments that would surprise you,” she now says.

When I would tell my mom what we were going through, I felt like she always was on his side, with ready excuses for his behavior. I did not feel understood or supported—a common feeling amongst parents dealing with reactive attachment disorder.

Reactive attachment disorder and relationships
Reactive attachment disorder strains relationships; Micaela and her mom Dr. Hanley didn't see things the same way.

“Because I was not there day-in-and-day-out, I didn’t realize the level of stress my daughter and son-in-law experienced,” my mom says. “I saw all the efforts they were making to help him succeed, but I did not have to deal with regular meltdowns, constant arguments, and refusals to cooperate—all of which took a huge toll on the family. I was honestly surprised when my daughter directly said to me, ‘I do not feel supported by you.’ I blamed myself and was filled with regrets. She needed me to stand with her, and I had not been there.”

For my mom, the lightbulb moment was when he went to residential treatment. Now, our son no longer lives with us. “From that moment on, I have checked in daily, listened more carefully, and am present in ways I had not been,” my mom says. “Together, we are making our way through the loss and pain, through the many faces of grief that still pop up when we least expect them.”

The Important Role of Grandparents

Of course, every family’s story is unique. When I attended the first-ever Navigating RAD conference, I sat next to Brandi Livengood and her mother Debi (I urge you to attend Navigating RAD 2022 in October!). I was impressed to see a grandma attending the conference with her daughter and wanted to learn more. I found out their story is much different than mine, as Debi took care of her adopted granddaughters daily while Brandi was at work.

Brandi’s first adoption went well. Two years later, she adopted a second daughter at age 8, and that’s when things became difficult. While the caseworker told her Livi didn’t have reactive attachment disorder, Brandi—a pediatric occupational therapist—began suspecting it soon after her adoption. Livi is now 13.

Unlike my situation, Debi began seeing the behaviors immediately and wishes she’d spoken up more before the adoption was finalized.

“I experienced it in lots of different ways,” Debi says of reactive attachment disorder. “She would go out of her way to hit me or physically hurt me. I got whiplash, I got split lips. She was always disrespectful to me.”

Brandi says, “She quickly realized she had to co-parent with me.”

​Debi’s husband has Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and her adult son is deaf and learning disabled.

“I’ve raised a disabled child, and this wasn’t something I planned on doing again at my age,” she says.

However, the two provide necessary support for one another. “If we didn’t have each other, we couldn’t have gotten this far,” Debi says. “I try and mirror what Brandi does with Livi.”

There are cameras around the house, so Brandi can see what’s going on while she’s at work.

“We communicate nonstop daily,” Brandi says. “We’ve been a united front and supported each other.”

The Difference One Unique Conference Made

Brandi heard about the Navigating RAD conference serendipitously the month prior, when a friend sent her a RAD Advocates blog post. She had never heard of the organization before.

“I called my mom and said, ‘I don’t care what we have to do, we’re going to the conference,’” she says. “Coming in to this conference, it was like I’d found my people. They were all on the same page and had the same stories. It was like coming home. It was so great to find people who got it and didn’t think I was a horrible parent.”

When I would tell my mom what we were going through, I felt like she always was on his side, with ready excuses for his behavior. I did not feel understood or supported—a common feeling amongst parents dealing with reactive attachment disorder.

They learned a lot from the speakers and connected with another family from their hometown. After the conference, Brandi was able to consult with therapist Forrest Lien and psychiatrist John Alston who presented at the event. They helped her get correct diagnoses for Livi—mixed bipolar and reactive attachment disorder—and find a local psychiatrist. Since being put on the correct medications, they’re noticing a positive difference.

“I can’t tell you what it does to me to be able to have a conversation with Livi now,” Debi says. “She seeks me out and tells me about things that happened during the day and what her friends said. She never had friends before. It’s such an amazing thing to see an improvement and be able to talk to her without her yelling at me.”

Sharing Advice

“Listen to the parents of these kids, they aren’t making this up,” Brandi says to those who know a family dealing with reactive attachment disorder. “They have a completely different child at home than you see. You need to be supportive of them even if you don’t see it yourself.”

She says of her mom, “If she hadn’t been supportive, I don’t think I could have done this.”

“I’ve seen grandparents deny reactive attachment disorder,” Debi says. “I’ll talk to anyone who will listen about reactive attachment disorder. It’s not a shameful thing. You need to help people understand.”

“I was told reactive attachment disorder is rare when I adopted her,” Brandi says. “That makes me angry. It’s not rare. It’s a spectrum.”

“It affects everyone in the family,” Debi adds.

Both Debi and Brandi want to see more awareness of reactive attachment disorder and more education for professionals, potential foster and adoptive families, and those raising children with the disorder in general. Even something as simple as sharing this blog post can help educate others and maybe even reach a family in need—as that fateful post did for Brandi back in July.

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.

3,512 views0 comments


bottom of page