When our children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) – a developmental trauma disorder – grow up, RAD doesn’t magically disappear. If they haven’t done the work to heal, the label instead often changes to a personality disorder.
As when all children reach adulthood, our relationships with them must also change. We are no longer their caretakers and must work to establish healthy boundaries and avoid enabling.
In addition to my own experience raising kids with reactive attachment disorder, I sat down with Heather Houze, chief operating officer and advocate for RAD Advocates, for her perspective after a decade of raising kids with RAD and helping other parents navigate the disorder.
5 tips for parenting a young adult with reactive attachment disorder:
1. Stop feeling bad. Start setting firm boundaries.
Simply put, a boundary is drawing a line in the sand and saying “this is what I will or won’t do,” or “this is what I will or will not put up with to keep myself safe/healthy/sane.”
Our young adults with reactive attachment disorder will try and make us feel like the bad guy for establishing boundaries, but this is a manipulation tactic. The alternative to healthy boundaries is enabling: To behave in a manner that facilitates or supports another's abusive, addictive, or self-destructive behavior.
In the long run, boundaries are good for everyone, including your adult child.
“They can’t feel the success if they don’t get there themselves,” Houze says. “I want to give my son the chance to feel successful because he worked through something. Adversity breeds really incredible people if you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and become successful. You feel way more accomplished with a greater sense of self than if someone gives you something.”
Our young adults with reactive attachment disorder will try and make us feel like the bad guy for establishing boundaries, but this is a manipulation tactic.
To help avoid enabling and set a healthy boundary, she will often tell her adult son, “I want you to feel the success” rather than bailing him out of a tough spot.
Similarly, our therapist would tell us to genuinely empathize with our kids but let them solve the problem. Say, “That must really suck. I’m sure that’s very hard. I know you’ll figure it out. I believe in you.”
2. Get on the same page as the other parent.
As with all aspects of reactive attachment disorder, it helps if both parents (if there are two) are on the same page. This way you can hold the same line and help each other maintain the boundaries. Oftentimes this is hard because the primary caregiver bears the brunt of the behavior – a RAD dynamic often called the "nurturing enemy". If the other parent works outside the home, they may not “get it.”
Houze says the solution is often to involve the other parent more. If the child is still in school, have the school call the other parent. Let the other parent arrange therapy and deal with consequences. Have the other parent learn about reactive attachment disorder on their own. For example, she says they've advised some of their members to send just one parent to the annual Navigating RAD experience depending on their situation.
As with all aspects of reactive attachment disorder, it helps if both parents (if there are two) are on the same page. This way you can hold the same line and help each other maintain the boundaries.
"Although it's ideal to come to an understanding together about reactive attachment disorder as a couple, it's not always feasible," Houze says. "If only one person can invest the time into researching and learning, it can work better to have the parent who isn't the nurturing enemy to do so. Once that person understands the disorder, it can change everything for the whole family."
3. Learn to keep your mouth shut.
One of the hardest things for me is not sharing my opinion. When my adult adopted daughter would tell me about her problems – and to me the solutions were so clear – I couldn’t help myself. I’d suggest what she should do to solve her problems even if she hadn’t asked for my help or my opinion.
This led to a cycle of frustration for both of us. She wanted to feel like the victim, and I was frustrated she wasn’t listening to my advice. I needed to take a cue from the boundaries section above and let her learn from her own mistakes and feel her own success.
Houze agrees and has learned not to offer her advice unless directly asked to do so. If her adult son texts her a problem but doesn’t ask for help, she may just respond with an emoji.
4. Let the gossip die.
Another issue Houze, myself, and other RAD parents deal with is the lies and gossip that are often spread about us verbally and on social media by angry adult children.
At first, I retaliated. I also felt the urge to contact these folks and explain “the truth.” However, Houze offers the best advice: Do not give the weed water or light. Let it die.
Getting worked up over these lies and gossip is giving away your time, power, and energy. You cannot control what other people say, think, or do. As hard as it is, learn to let it go.
5. Let them find their way (out of your home).
Boundaries are much harder when the young adult lives in your home. If they do not follow house rules, you have to be the bad guy and enforce the consequence. For example, “If you do not pick up after yourself and maintain a job or go to school, you cannot live here.” Next thing you know, they’re telling everyone in town you kicked them out and they’re now homeless. Other times they may strike out on their own, fail because of their bad choices/actions and want to move back in and be rescued.
It's all about boundaries.
Rescuing is enabling. Let them learn their own life lessons. As hard as it is: Maintain your boundaries.
You do not have to live in an abusive relationship. Letting a dysfunctional cycle continue will not solve the problem. As Houze wisely states: Sometimes they have to reach rock bottom to turn things around.
If there’s any hope you will one day have a healthy relationship with your young adult (formerly child with reactive attachment disorder), it will most likely come about when they are living on their own and have dealt with their own issues.
You do not have to live in an abusive relationship. Letting a dysfunctional cycle continue will not solve the problem.
In the meantime, seeking personal therapy and a reactive disorder support group for parents or a community of like-minded parents can help you navigate the journey.
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. She was a member and is a supporter of RAD Advocates. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Colorado.