Updated: Nov 2, 2021
My mom and I have an inside joke—don’t touch the pizza cutter.
Back when my adopted daughter with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) struggled intensely, my mom did all she could to help us. That meant, to her, pitching in with household chores. She had the best intentions.
But it took me days to find our pizza cutter after my mom unloaded our dishwasher once. And a lost item—particularly a sharp one—added one more element of chaos to our home.
My daughter required 24/7 supervision because she posed a threat to herself and others. Vigilance equaled safety for my family.
I am now fine with wherever my mom decides to put the pizza cutter. My daughter has gotten the help she needs. Our lives no longer revolve around sharp words and objects. But I sure do remember those times and live with post-traumatic stress disorder to this day.
It’s hard to know how to support a family living with RAD. And rightly so. Reactive attachment disorder—the result of early childhood trauma that changes the brain and inhibits trust and authentic relationships—is a little-known and widely misunderstood affliction.
In our family, pizza cutter is now a metaphor for, “It’s only helpful if it’s helpful.” Good-natured advice and deeds can inadvertently cause more chaos when you can’t possibly understand the problem. And that’s hard on everyone.
But don’t give up. Those raising children with RAD need all the support they can get.
Here are 3 ways you can give more calm than chaos to those raising a child with RAD:
1. Give presence, even from afar.
To raise a child with RAD is lonely and isolating. It's nothing like raising neurotypical kids, as many assume. Friends and family don’t understand the disorder. And many people, including professionals, unfairly place blame on parents for their child’s struggles.
Those raising a child with RAD need to know you’re thinking about them often. Send regular texts, even if takes them a week to reply. Invite them to the cookie exchange, movie night, or the park on a random Tuesday afternoon.
But when the parents turn down your invitation, understand that it’s not a rejection or an excuse.
To leave a child with RAD at home or with a caregiver costs more than money. These kiddos often “punish” a caregiver with even more challenging behaviors when they return. Your loved ones quite possibly do not have the energy left to handle the backlash on the other side of “girls night out”.
But keep asking. The gift alone—to know they are loved and remembered—is comforting to parents of children with RAD. Just don’t make them feel guilty about declining.
2. Give peace, if only for a moment.
Peace does not typically thrive inside the four walls housing a child with RAD. The child creates chaos to match how he or she feels inside. So the entire family lives in the child's constant turmoil. It echoes through every crevice, no nook or cranny left unscathed.
You can’t take away the family’s chaos. But you can give the parents a moment of peace each time you believe that their chaos exists. Given the tricky and manipulative nature of reactive attachment disorder, you probably can’t see the difficulties they describe. And this only adds to their isolation.
We’ve all believed in something we can’t see—whether it be God, the tooth fairy, or love. And parents of children with RAD need you to believe what you cannot see in their lives. Believe them when they share their struggles, the challenges of their everyday moments, and their child’s outlandish, subtle, and subversive behaviors.
No one, including my mom, could understand our fears with our daughter. Children with RAD act very differently with people outside their households—sometimes even amongst the people within their homes.
My mom didn’t share our experiences. But when I called her in a complete panic about the pizza cutter, she didn’t tell me I was overreacting. And that alone offered me some peace.
3. Give a normal perspective.
It has been three years since we have been safe within our home again. But back then, I forgot there was a world in which a lost pizza cutter didn’t cause panic. My heart longed for a sense of normalcy.
Those raising a child with RAD need your perspective about life. They need to know when your child breaks his arm, when you get a new car, or when you got a sale on your favorite ice cream at the store. They need your perspective of joy, grief, love, childhood, the carpool line, family vacations, and Christmas.
Parents of a child with RAD need to know that outside of their traumatized “normal”, there’s a world next door or across the street that doesn’t have to hide their pizza cutters.
They aren’t jealous of your thriving. They long for it and need your perspective to remember that it exists. So rather than hide it, share your happiness and normalcy.
You will make mistakes. Learn from them and don’t give up.
Those raising a child with RAD need you to learn from your own “pizza cutters”. But they still need you.
Your steadfast presence, the peace you give to their hearts and the inspiration of your perspective mean more than you probably know. Understand that you are one of the few people in the world who can give them those gifts. Because you truly care. Keep it up.
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Stacey Hansen (RYT-500 and E-RYT200) is trained in Power Vinyasa and is a certified Trauma-Informed Yoga specialist. Stacey actively works with foster families, adoptive families, veterans, and first responders teaching yoga workshops focused on releasing trauma from the body through the synergy of breath and movement.