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The Hard Reality of What Adoption and Reactive Attachment Disorder Looked Like For Us

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

The Hard Reality of What Adoption and Reactive Attachment Disorder Looked Like For Us

Over a decade ago, my husband and I fostered and then adopted a sibling group of three children. At the time, I had no idea what our lives would eventually become. We didn’t know that an affliction called reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a complex brain disorder that develops from early trauma, was about to enter our home.

Our middle son Joe* was diagnosed with severe reactive attachment disorder when he was age 6 (years after we began searching for help). This meant that, out of an innate RAD survival mechanism, he pushed our family away however possible. This included outlashes in big and frightening ways.

We had holes in our walls and doors, cameras in most rooms for 24-hour supervision, locks on every door except Joe’s and the bathroom, and slept with our doors locked. Joe had punched a hole through the adjoining wall to his brother’s bedroom. Therefore, our other sons roomed together across the hall from Joe’s room. We drew up plans to create a doorway between that bedroom and the master so our other sons could reach a bathroom at night without having to pass Joe’s room.

To avoid altercations between Joe and our other children, we had to take two vehicles everywhere we went. By the end, Joe had escalated from homicidal threats to homicidal actions toward me. I no longer felt safe being alone with Joe or being the only adult home with my children. There was a stretch of time when my husband and Joe lived separately from me and our other boys but that was unsustainable. We had multiple interactions with law enforcement due to Joe’s unsafe behaviors.

Our family was in perpetual crisis.

By the time Joe was 10 years old, he had stayed in the hospital several times and spent his school days in a self-contained classroom. We had in-home services, post-adoption services and multiple therapists and therapies. No medications or therapy or parenting techniques made any discernible difference in Joe’s behavior. He only grew more unsafe with time.

Our other children were afraid of Joe and our extended family, who didn’t understand reactive attachment disorder, turned their backs on us. I was unable to work due to the demands of caring for Joe.

We had to find an alternative for the mental and physical safety and stability of our family.

The decision we had to make in our own adoption and reactive attachment disorder journey is easy for others to judge. And incredibly hard to live through.

My husband and I were ultimately faced with only one unfathomable "option"—to abandon our son. We’d need to drop Joe off at the hospital and refuse to pick him up. We had to sign away our parental rights and pay thousands of dollars of “services rendered” to get Joe out-of-home care and keep our family safe. It was the only way, per the division of child welfare, that our son could access services otherwise unavailable to us. So that is what we did

I was angry and heartbroken in the aftermath of having to make such incredibly difficult decisions, only to be further judged by everyone around us. Then and now I do not know what is worse; the abyss of despair wrought when trying to care for a child who went to unimaginable lengths to remove us from his life or the blind policy following and spitefulness of the people who are supposed to help.

Child welfare services are designed for kids with parents who have issues, not parents who have kids with issues. The people who were in a position to help us could only see us as the problem. They could not see us as a potential solution—a family in need of support to keep a severely ill child in our home. The system is broken.

I can never go back to the blissful ignorance of the effects of trauma.

Just like other trauma experiences, the aftermath of our adoption and reactive attachment journey didn't simply move out of our family.

After our son was out of our home and I knew he would not come back, I felt like a physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial tornado had touched down in the middle of my family. I assessed the aftermath. I didn’t know if we’d ever recover from the damages left behind from what we had all lived through.

But just like after any major storm, you start by picking up one piece at a time. You make piles. You sort through what is salvageable and you discard the rest.

I knew that if I was going to come out of this stronger, my self-care would need to be far deeper than getting my nails done and having coffee with friends. A decade of living with a child with severe reactive attachment disorder and subsequent abuses by the system had left me with my own post-traumatic stress disorder, dysregulated nervous system, and incredibly heavy emotions.

I started with therapy unique to our situation. The rest of my family had been in therapy already. And I had a trauma therapist I’d been working with for years. But I desperately needed someone who could help me unpack the impact of relinquishing a child.

I found Carrie O’Toole Ministries which exists to help parents process their own grief and trauma from raising traumatized children. Carrie is a speaker at the Navigating RAD 2023 experience, to be held Oct. 13-15, 2023, in Kansas City. There, she’ll help families determine where they are in their own reactive attachment disorder parenting journey. It is unique and highly personal for everyone.

O’Toole and her colleagues understand the heartache of raising children with reactive attachment disorder from their own first-hand perspectives. I participated in individual sessions with them and my husband accompanied me to the parents’ retreat where I learned about the manifestations of grief and practical tools for letting go.

The people who were in a position to help us could only see us as the problem. They could not see us as a potential solution—a family in need of support to keep a severely ill child in our home. The system is broken.

Through my own self-care and healing, I learned that the years of parenting Joe and dealing with people who shamed rather than supported me put me in freeze of the fight/flight/freeze response. I had spent most of a decade suppressing all reactions and emotions to avoid my son’s rages and chaos.

I knew I was going to have to thaw, which meant diligently participating in things proven to help regulate the nervous system like breath work, exercise, going outside, sleeping, and more. I leaned on my professional education, resources, and colleagues, as well as doing deep dives into trauma-informed physical therapies.

I put everything I had into feeling more than anger and to learn to remember, without reliving, the traumatic events. I had to feel and release the sadness, the betrayal, the fear, the grief. It was not pretty. This work is not for the faint of heart. It will be a necessary part of my self-care routine for the rest of my life. But it is so worth it.

I started an intentional gratitude practice. Gratitude has been shown to be the most powerful and effective state when it comes to maintaining mental health. For so long, I could not feel grateful. All I saw was chaos, uncertainty, and danger everywhere I looked.

I came very close to being swallowed by the abyss of despair. I will not go back. At first, I solely focused on things that we were able to do again like go on vacations or light candles in our home. I intentionally documented things like removing cameras and locks. Now, years later, my mind is better at finding the good, hopeful, and safe in all situations instead of hypervigilantly scanning for lurking danger.

My other children are slowly healing too.

Just before I sat down to write this article, my oldest 15-year-old son and I chatted about how he’s doing these days. We talked about how things had changed in the years since his brother had lived in our home. He admitted to not remembering much. I don’t know if that’s an effect of his age at the time, traumatic amnesia, or just time.

We talked about how he no longer has nightmares or anxiety-induced asthma attacks. He is calmer, can think more clearly, is doing well in school, and has friends (I learned the parents of a neighbor boy had banned their son from befriending my children because of Joe). I told my son that I believed he would not be doing as well if Joe still lived in our home. He agreed.

On some level, I wish I could forget all the details myself. I think it would be easier. But I force myself to remember. Because then I am so much more grateful for where we are today.

Why I tell our imperfect adoption story

My final piece of the grieving process is to give back to those who helped us navigate our journey. I write these blog articles for RAD Advocates. It took a few years until I felt grounded enough to put my experience into words for a large audience. But if my words help others currently raising a child with reactive attachment disorder or are going through the heart-wrenching experience of relinquishment, then my experience wasn’t in vain.

I have written six drafts of this article. Some were too detailed. Some weren’t detailed enough. One was a how-to on grieving an “imperfect adoption”. But an effect of my experience is that I don’t want the responsibility of giving a how-to on grieving. What works for me may not work for others. And I feel like a complete and honest answer would result in a book. Furthermore, while it’s been years since I last saw my son, it’s still too soon to give such advice. I’m far from done with my own grieving process.

A decade of living with a child with severe reactive attachment disorder and subsequent abuses by the system had left me with my own post-traumatic stress disorder, dysregulated nervous system and incredibly heavy emotions.

I’ve been told by other parents that our story is one of the most disturbing stories of reactive attachment disorder they’ve ever heard. But my family and I are still here.

There is a way through and healing does happen on the other side. The process may look differently, however, than the world would prefer. But I’m learning to feel okay with the world’s misunderstanding. Even though I know it's unfair, I also know that some people don't know any better. I hope to help change that narrative of blaming and shaming, rather than supporting, families.

My family and I are all safe now, Joe included. And that is the very best we could do with what we had. Maybe, through our sharing, other families can get the support they need earlier to experience a different and more socially acceptable story of adoption and reactive attachment disorder. How I would've loved to tell that version instead.

*name changed to protect identity

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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Thanks for this article. It is healing to know that my wife and I are not alone in the journey we have been on in the last 9 years with our adopted great niece. When she entered puberty, her behavior went to levels we had never imagined. In the end, she ran away from home 3 times and had us investigated by DCS 3 times and all in 4 months time. She cut her face and told a teacher my wife had punched her, told DCS my wife had tried to slash her throat, threatened to shoot her and tried to pop her eyes out. . .and they believed her! We spent thousands of dollars on a lawyer, hundr…


Lilly Scott
Lilly Scott
Jul 06, 2023

Thank you, Anonymous, for this - RADadvocates' best written mini-memoire on parenting a RAD child. I hear you, I feel you. This line "Child welfare services are designed for kids with parents who have issues, not parents who have kids with issues." packs a gut punch of truth. My similar sentiment is "RAD is domestic violence against the parent - even when that child is 6."

Our society - our world - is struggling to protect children from predatory adults, and that should always be a priority. Is there room in the collective consciousness for the reverse? Do we continue to struggle finding seemingly nonexistent solutions, cures, for the broken attachment of a grieving, angry soul? Or do we go…

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