Updated: Jan 12
Like many parents dealing with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), I’m a member of a number of Facebook support groups. Every few months, someone posts, “Is there any hope? Are there any success stories?”
Reactive attachment disorder is caused by breaks in attachment, abuse, or neglect in the first three years of life. As a result, the child learns not to trust caregivers. It’s complicated and difficult to treat—especially the more severe cases. Success is not cut and dried, and it’s not one-size-fits-all. But there are success stories, and there is hope—especially as organizations like RAD Advocates spread awareness, support, and education.
RAD Advocates Chief Operating Officer Heather Houze originally reached out to the organization as she dealt with reactive attachment disorder in her adopted son, Legend. President Amy VanTine connected Heather with her own child’s counselor Forrest Lien, who at the time worked at a treatment center specializing in reactive attachment disorder (which is no longer in operation). At 15, Legend was admitted to the facility. That decision changed their family in profound ways.
“There was really no feeling,” Legend says of what it felt to have reactive attachment disorder before treatment. “I kept hiding all the feelings I had and pushing them away. It was more of a survival mode—fight, flight or freeze type of thing.”
In treatment, Legend lived in a family home with trained therapeutic foster parents. There, they parented him according to his developmental age, which is often younger than the chronological age in children with a trauma history. Legend needed to ask permission to do various things, had chores to help around the house and wasn’t allowed to do things a typical teenager does, such as use social media.
“They were trying to start from the beginning and make those baby steps," he remembers. "I was very frustrated. In my head, I was like, ‘I’m not a 5-year-old and shouldn’t be treated like this’—even though I was mentally that age.”
At first, he was angry and unresponsive in therapy. “I was in one of the sessions, and the therapist said, ‘I can go ahead and send you somewhere else because you’re being non-responsive…or you can do the work,’” Legend says. “I thought he was going to send me to another family. In the past, I’d been sent around in foster care and home to home. I didn’t want to have to go through that again and go into the system again.”
Lien said his famous words to Legend: “You’ve got to make the choice to make the change.”
“From that point forward, it clicked,” Legend says. “What he said has really changed my life. I started doing better in therapy sessions.”
In addition to therapy and the therapeutic parenting, Legend also journalized as part of the program. “Journaling was a great way to express anything that was wrong or anything I felt because I couldn’t really express myself to other people,” he says. He would then share what he wrote with Lien.
When Legend was ready, his family members started participating in therapy with him. At first, they were unsure, but then they began to see the changes in him for themselves. After six months, he was able to return home.
“Before it was very hard for family members to be around me,” Legend says. “They did all they could to try and help me. I just wouldn’t be responsive or listen to what they were saying. I was struggling.”
He describes it as a wall he couldn’t get around. Prior to treatment, he didn’t think he could change or get better. It was hard work, but worth it.
“Going through treatment and everything now up to this point, I’m like a whole new person,” he says. “All my family members and me are now getting along. I never would have thought I’d see this day come where we’re laughing about my actions in the past. We’re all making jokes. I was really blessed to be able to go through this. We’ve been through so much. I’m just glad they stuck with me for as long as they did and still to this day. I’m glad they kept pushing and pushing.”
Legend is now 18. He graduated high school, got a job and a driver’s license, and is working and living on his own.
“Those are big steps for someone with a previous reactive attachment disorder,” he says. “Those are big steps for someone at the age of 18.”
Legend’s advice to parents dealing with reactive attachment disorder is to be patient but also know your child must make the choice to make the change.
“My therapist told me, ‘I can tell you how to do everything, but if you’re not going to make the choice to make the change, you’re not going to get better.’ If the child wants to make the change, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Look at me.”
To children with reactive attachment disorder, he says, “Kids with our diagnosis, it’s hard. I felt like I can’t get better and this would be my life. But you have to keep pushing. You can’t give up. Do the work. You’ll feel better about it. You have to make the choice to make the change. I know I say that a lot, but it’s what it’s about.”
Success in Many Forms
Legend’s mom Heather and her 22-year-old biological son Landon say: “Success in our family doesn’t look the same for each member. Allowing each person to heal through their developmental milestones—regardless of their chronological age; including trials and tribulations and celebrating each little success not just waiting for, or focusing on, THE BIG success. Because each small success is the building block for bigger successes.”
Legend and Heather presented at Navigating RAD 21, the first conference RAD Advocates has held, this past summer. During their talk, Heather would rub his back when he got emotional, and he would accept the caring touch. Legend also shares his feelings now and uses coping mechanisms such as asking for a break when frustrated.
RAD is complicated and difficult to treat—especially the more severe cases. Success is not cut and dried, and it’s not one size-fits-all. But there are success stories, and there is hope—especially as organizations like RAD Advocates spread awareness, support and education.
You can listen to two podcasts Legend participated in on RAD Talk with Tracey. If you’re interested in reading another success story, check out the book “Detached: Surviving Reactive Attachment Disorder” by Jessie Hogsett.
Of course, success for each family looks different. Not all parents can expect an outcome similar to Legend. Lien, now the owner of Lifespan Trauma Consulting, says success varies based on the individual, including how much the child is willing to work on change, the severity of their disorder and many other variables.
Some children cannot get to the place where their family no longer triggers them. For those families, it may mean the child doesn’t live at home—and that’s how everyone can be safe or find their own road to healing.
“I’ve had the honor of seeing so many children and families heal in my lifetime,” Lien says. “But I’ve also seen many parents find relief in realizing that success for their child will look very different from what they envisioned. While it’s not easy to get to that point, there’s peace in acceptance.”
No matter what success looks like for an individual child and family, no one should try to take the path alone. Every RAD parent, no matter their journey, needs support. To find authentic support and peace within is the best chance of success for everyone.
To learn about resources and get help for your family, support RAD Advocates and become a member today.
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.