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The cycle of trauma: When reactive attachment disorder in childhood grows up

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

What happens when our children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) grow up? To answer this question, we spoke with Licensed Clinical Social Worker Margaret Meinecke, who specializes in attachment disturbances and is one of the keynote speakers at the first-ever Navigating RAD2021 conference.

“An adult with a grown-up version of RAD has what looks very much like a personality disorder because they’ve 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.”

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.

As our children with reactive attachment disorder transition to adulthood, it’s important to maintain healthy boundaries. Let them be accountable for the their actions, Meinecke says.

“It’s hard to see them deal with the consequences of poor choices,” she 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.”

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 her own.

“Adults with RAD 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 older children with reactive attachment disorder? If they are open to seeing it, parents can help them 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 reactive attachment disorder to seek and accept treatment. When they are able, part of that treatment includes 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.

At the conference, Meinecke will be speaking about adults with attachment disturbance and also the struggle parents go through trying to engage with children who are not able—at least initially—to be reciprocal.

“It gets very tiring,” she says. “A lot of parents are pretty worn out.”

Along with expert Forrest Lien, they’ll speak about supports for families parenting children with reactive attachment disorder and also how the disorder impacts the entire family.

“It’s a problem to the person with reactive attachment disorder, and that spins off into adjustments for parents and siblings,” Meinecke says. “That dynamic gets to be a sticky web. If everyone knows how they’re getting tripped and triggered in that dynamic, that information can help people feel less alone and odd.”

She explains: “American society is built on the idea of a happy, cohesive family. Families that don’t have that dynamic can feel very lonely and out of step with society. I’d like to offer some support for the differently arranged family.”

About the expert: Margaret Meinecke is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), focusing on mental health, family relationship dynamics, personality disorders, drug and alcohol dependence and trauma and loss. She also holds a Colorado State Certificate (Certified Addictions Counselor, Level III) and is formally trained in Eye Movement De-Sensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

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.

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