The Process of a Heart Breaking, by a Sister of a Brother with Reactive Attachment Disorder



Step 1: A Full Heart


My brother Jake* was nearly five-years-old when he joined our family through adoption. I was just a few weeks older than him but took the big sister role to heart. Jake had a hard time with a lot of things, like reading, tying his shoes or coming up with ideas. I didn’t mind though. I liked to help him.


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Jake and I played Legos together, even if I had to whisper to him what to make his characters say because he couldn’t think of it. We played school and I made up little worksheets to help him learn when he struggled. I made him obstacle courses to go through and tents for us to play in.


Sure, Jake wasn’t a perfect kid. He didn’t always listen. But he was my friend.


Step 2: A Confused Heart


After a few years, Jake began taking food and hiding it under his bed. It wasn’t just a bag of chips or some candy. He took massive amounts of food that he ate in the middle of the night. I didn’t understand. He was allowed to have as much food as the rest of us (besides being allergic to dairy) but somehow he needed more. I’m not exaggerating when I say he could eat a bathtub full of food. He’d even put things like milk under his bed. It didn’t matter if the milk spoiled. He’d still drink it.


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Naturally, my parents were concerned. They limited Jake’s access to the kitchen. The next morning he was gone, and so was his bike. Maybe Jake forgot about the big plans we had for that day. Our fort was going to be the best yet.


The police finally found Jake after he had stolen from both of the grocery stores in town.


Step 3: A Torn Heart

Jake kept getting worse over the years. Anytime he got into trouble, he would lash out and do more bad stuff. But he was still my little brother. I worried about where he went when he ran away.


I believed Jake when he thanked me for being a great sister. I forgave him when he apologized if he had ever hurt me. But, again and again, he’d turn around and steal more money from Mom and Dad. He’d tell the police about the horrible people in his family.


Jake has always been known to lie, no matter how small of a thing it was about. It’s practically instinctual. I just couldn’t understand how he’d do so about the family who tried so hard to help him.


Step 4: A Startled Heart


You know that feeling of fear? It’s when your heart just freezes for a moment…and then It drops. It then begins to beat and pound three times faster than it should and adrenaline kicks in. It’s a feeling I’ve had over a dozen times. I’ve torn through the house, unsure where Jake is, what he’s doing, who he’s stealing from, or if he’s even alive.


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Jake tried to poison my other brother once. I’ve often wondered if he’d try to do the same thing to me. Every night that I go to bed, I wonder how I’m gonna wake up. Will he be there with a knife over my face? He’s just that unpredictable.


Step 5: A Tired Heart


Jake used to be cheerful and polite, at least to the outside world. Now, the only time he speaks to people is to complain to whoever will listen. He tells them that he feels unloved. Yet, he stares with hateful glares at everyone in the family as we desperately try to help him.


My parents have taken Jake to several doctors to fix the parasites, illnesses and other problems that result from binge eating, eating what he is allergic to, and eating from the trash. We’ve all tried to rein him in, to keep him safe from himself.


Step 6: An Isolated Heart


All of the awful things that happened to Jake when he was very little changed the way Jake’s brain works. My brother is hardly a child anymore. Yet, his brain reacts the same way as a small child’s does. It’s a very real and serious thing called reactive attachment disorder or RAD (it took my parents a long time to figure out that his struggles had a name because several doctors didn’t recognize it).


My brother is unconventional. You’d think that’s all the more reason to care for him in unconventional ways. People who don’t understand his disorder don’t grasp how Jake is a child trapped in a man’s body.

Jake has always been known to lie, no matter how small of a thing it was about. It’s practically instinctual. I just couldn’t understand how he’d do so about the family who tried so hard to help him.

A child needs help making decisions and must be under the guidance and protection of his parents. But adults who live outside of our home think Jake needs all the same privileges as an average adult to be happy. They are more concerned with Jake’s fleeting and irrational feelings than his safety and well-being. Jake steals from others, lives in garages and hurts himself and others. He claims that’s what he needs and what makes him “happy”. A child doesn’t know what’s best.


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We have family members who think it’s unfair that Jake isn’t allowed to drive. My brother can’t even feel he’s full after eating three dozen cookies let alone operate a vehicle. Jake wants to run away, he says. But he can’t even remember to look both ways before crossing the street. He’ll go out in winter without so much as a coat. Without the extreme measures my parents have had to take, Jake would surely be dead by now.


My brother is hardly a child anymore. Yet, his brain reacts the same way as a small child’s does. It’s a very real and serious thing called reactive attachment disorder or RAD (it took my parents a long time to figure out that his struggles had a name because several doctors didn’t recognize it).

Jake and other people in our lives have decided that our family is the problem. They blame us for his struggles, although we had nothing to do with the early trauma that changed his brain. Rather than get support as a family in support of Jake, we get judged. We’ve lost family members and friends who were once a big part of our lives as a result.


Step 7. A Broken Heart


Jake could be happy. He was happy. He was once a seven-year-old kid, playing Legos with his sister. We were happy. But then his brokenness got the better of him. He doesn’t want relationships. He doesn’t care about me, my parents or anyone else. His heart is broken. And now mine is too.


Epilogue by RAD Advocates


We’d like to thank this brave young woman for explaining what many siblings of children with reactive attachment disorder experience. Many people, including clinicians, do not understand that the whole family needs support for this disorder. It’s a scenario licensed clinical social worker Forrest Lien knows all too well from working with children with RAD and their families for more than 40 years.

“The RAD diagnosis really impacts the whole family because the RAD dynamics play out in intimate, close relationships,” he explains. “Others don’t often see the same dynamics outside the family because of that.”


Jake and other people in our lives have decided that our family is the problem. They blame us for his struggles, although we had nothing to do with the early trauma that changed his brain.

Lien is the keynote speaker at the Navigating RAD 2022 conference, to be held Oct. 7-9, 2022, outside of Atlanta. There, Lien will present on “'Why Am I Feeling Crazy?': The Life of RAD Parenting.” In addition to his keynote address, the conference features many other experts that will cover a range of reactive attachment disorder topics and options. To learn more about the Navigating RAD2022 conference or to register, click here.


It is only through strengthening families that we can begin to give children a solid foundation from which to find resources and healing for their early trauma. This author is a RAD advocate in her own rite, drawing from her pain to educate and advocate on behalf of families everywhere. There is hope in sharing our stories.


*Name changed to protect identity


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Photo by Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash


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