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What Your Child's Reactive Attachment Disorder Becomes in Adulthood

Updated: 5 days ago


Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) doesn’t magically disappear. If they haven’t done the work to heal, the label instead often changes to a personality disorder in adults.
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) doesn’t magically disappear. If they haven’t done the work to heal, the label instead often changes to a personality disorder in adults.

Updated July 2024


What happens when our children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) — a developmental trauma disorder grow up?


To answer this question, we spoke with Licensed Clinical Social Worker Margaret Meinecke, who specializes in attachment disturbances and who was one of the keynote speakers at the first-ever Navigating RAD experience. We also spoke with RAD Advocates Chief Operating Officer Heather Houze about what to do about it from a parenting perspective.



Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) doesn’t magically disappear. If they haven’t done the work to heal, the label instead often changes to a personality disorder. “An adult with a grown-up version of RAD has developed a system of dealing with relationships in particular and problems in general,” she says. "Sometimes a person who carries RAD into adulthood can be manipulative, secretive and unable to tolerate emotional intimacy.”


One of the biggest adult impacts is romantic relationships.


“These relationships are built on trust and vulnerability,” Meinecke says. “It’s really hard for folks who have not developed trust with their primary caregivers in childhood to be able to trust a life partner.”


Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) doesn’t magically disappear. If they haven’t done the work to heal, the label instead often changes to a personality disorder.

Therefore, adults with attachment disturbances often don’t feel emotionally connected to their partners and may cheat and lie, seeking something they cannot attain without that trust.


Instead, these adults may find substance use is more dependable. It will never turn them down.


Another area of life majorly impacted by adult attachment disturbances is parenting itself. At first, these adults may see their baby as a way to feel loved, needed and less lonely. But soon, that infant becomes a toddler with a mind of their own.


“Adults with developmental trauma are easily offended and take a child’s natural misdeeds very personally,” Meinecke says.


This can lead to the cycle of abuse continuing on to the next generation.


Is there hope for those with an "adult-version reactive attachment disorder"?


If their child is open to seeing it, parents can help their adult children understand that their difficulties and systems of dealing with life were developed, not inherent.


“They weren’t born with them,” Meinecke says. “They are part of a set of skills they’ve practiced to manage feelings of loneliness and issues of abandonment. Kind of like you learn a language. If you can learn it, you can learn something else. It’s a matter of knowing what you usually do and then trying to do things differently in order to be more authentic and able to tolerate vulnerability.”


That intolerance for vulnerability is one of the reasons it can be hard for young people with developmental trauma to seek and accept treatment. When they are able, part of that treatment should include reviewing the history of how those skills developed, Meinecke says. Dialectical behavior therapy can also be effective in helping them learn to tolerative discomfort and not being in total control.


How to parent an adult child with developmental trauma


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.


“It’s hard to see them deal with the consequences of poor choices,” Meinecke explains. “Loving parents often wish they could mitigate those consequences, and usually that doesn’t work very well. It’s better to support the child as they deal with the consequences.”



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 keeping boundaries with an adult child with developmental trauma:

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 developmental trauma 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 developmental trauma 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 with reactive attachment disorder, no matter the age


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.


You do not have to live in an abusive relationship. Letting a dysfunctional cycle continue will not solve the problem.

Seeking personal therapy and a support group for parents or a community of like-minded parents can help you navigate the journey. RAD Advocates also offers a membership just for those parenting adult children with developmental trauma.


If there’s any hope you will one day have a healthy relationship with your young adult (formerly a 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. In the meantime, it is vital to take care of yourself.


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.


Photo by Ali Saadat on Unsplash

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5 Comments


Thank you , as always for this article. Our daughter moved out at 17 and claimed "abandonment" then has pulled many other family away from us, siblings and extended family. The false narrative about us is used to split our family. The missing piece in the article from our situation is negotiating other family members when hard boundaries have been set. As has been mentioned in previous articles sympathy is the currency for many of these individuals. And that currency is used against us as parents. It is truly tragic for us. I am thankful to hear from the community that "gets it".

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The timing of this article as I go into the 2nd year of my young adult adopted daughter (diagnosed with RAD at 3 years old) giving me the silent treatment. We thought we’d made it. At 3 she and I (mom) flew back & forth from one state to another for therapy every 2 weeks while my birth daughter lost me for a full day. I don’t have to go into any details of what it was like raising her…you already know, but when she reached 6th grade & seemed to settle into school & life for a bit we literally breathed a sigh of relief thinking we’d made it. Sure she was kind of on a slow brood &…

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This was EXACTLY the article I needed. I'm visiting my adult daughter overseas and everything just got to be too much, so I "took a walk" and came to RAD Advocates to look for something to remind me of why I keep trying 😊Thanks for that!

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Our now 20 year old , adopted daughter is pregnant. She is very sick, has never embraced therapy, spent time at a residential school, and has had multiple hospitalizations since age 15. We think this is the worst situation ever. She refuses to consider adoption. She has lived with a boyfriend for the past 2 years, has not held a job for more than 1 month, and is easily frustrated when things do not go her way immediately. She only reaches out to us when she wants something. Does anyone on this forum have advice on how to deal with a grandchild? We really want no part of this, but have sympathy for this child who will be raised …

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Jeanine Cyrwus
Jeanine Cyrwus
Nov 17, 2022

(I think my first attempt at commenting was deleted) I'll try to recall what I typed. Saying that this article "hit home" is an understatement. It is ALL so valid and true and your advice is so valuable. Thank you. Despite my urge to mail 100 copies of the article to my ex, I reread this statement: You cannot control what other people say, think, or do. As hard as it is, learn to let it go. And so I will try to do just that.

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