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The Reason Behind "Strict Parenting" for Those Raising Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Updated: Sep 19, 2023


The Reason Behind "Strict Parenting" for Those Raising Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Prior to sitting down to write this blog piece, I was at my teen son’s wrestling practice. The coach’s 3-year-old child happened to attend practice that day, quietly and calmly observing his dad fully immersed in coaching. About an hour in, the kid started to get restless and began to explore. He gently rode the elliptical machine.


At no point did I, nor any other adult there, have any concern that this 3-year-old would hurt himself, break something, jump off the bleachers, run out of the wrestling room, interrupt practice, throw a fit, or in any way be unsafe towards himself or others.


For my husband and I, we’ve never had the luxury of feeling that confidence in our son Joe* at any age or stage due to his reactive attachment disorder (RAD). I wondered what that would've been like with him.



I have been told many times over the years by various people that my husband and are the most structured or strictest parents they’ve ever known. We didn’t start out, nor ever intend, to implement so much structure as parents.


But the nature of childhood trauma and reactive attachment disorder forced us to do so in order to give our children ample opportunity to feel safe and gradually heal. High structure has also been critical for the actual safety and security of our entire family.


Reactive attachment disorder is not a stage


Reactive attachment disorder is a developmental brain disorder caused by early life abuse and neglect. Both Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development and Bowlby’s attachment theories demonstrate the need for a reliable, stable, and attuned caregiver in the first years of life. Without such a caregiver, the child doesn’t develop the trust that their needs will be met.


Without trust in caregivers, a child can’t progress to feeling safe in exploring the world around them in the second year of life. On the contrary, the child is hypervigilant, anxious, and insecure. They’re stuck in survival mode, unable to rely upon adults to meet their needs. This mistrust then spills over into other relationships and can have lifelong effects.


Without any prior knowledge that reactive attachment disorder was about to enter our home (or even that RAD existed at all) and upend our lives as we began our foster/adopt journey, my husband and I had naïve and optimistic ideas about what parenting would look like.


Our foster care training did little to dispel our naivete, portraying traumatized children as only slightly more challenging to a parent than non-traumatized children. Reactive attachment disorder was never mentioned.



Because we were going from zero to three children overnight, we knew there would be chaos for a while as all five of us acclimated to our new living situation. However, my husband and I firmly believed that with time, consistency, and patience, all of our children would eventually learn to trust us and feel safe, allowing them to settle into our new family and accept us as their caregivers.


We had no idea how wrong we were.


Reactive attachment disorder is not something that goes away with time, love, or physical growth. It is a serious brain affliction that requires serious measures.


Reactive attachment disorder requires serious structure


With time, consistency, and patience, two of our boys did eventually come to trust and rely upon my husband and me. However, our middle son Joe never did. Sadly, by the time Joe came to live with us at age two, his reactive attachment disorder was so severe that he could not allow himself to trust anyone, especially me as his new primary caregiver.


Joe’s mistrust was evident from the day we met. My husband and I wrote it off as the behavior of a traumatized toddler, which it initially was. However, despite employing the same time, consistency, and patience we did with his brothers, for some reason, Joe was never able to move past that mistrust and feel safe in our family. It often felt as if he was looking for reasons not to trust us.


Our foster care training did little to dispel our naivete, portraying traumatized children as only slightly more challenging to a parent than non-traumatized children. Reactive attachment disorder was never mentioned.

During a therapy session when Joe was ten years old, the therapist asked Joe why he didn’t like me. He was finally able to put words to his feelings and blurted out, “I DON’T TRUST HER!” By then, I was just relieved he finally was able to say what I’d known all along.


Imagine you, as an adult, are surrounded by people you don’t trust. How would you behave? Are you open, happy, compliant, generous, and eager to deepen the relationship? Or are you reserved, curt, eager to get away, maybe even a little rude?



Now imagine you are a traumatized child. You are unable to put words to your feelings or even understand why you feel the way you do. You haven’t developed mature coping skills and are forced to live with people you don’t trust. How would you behave?


Out of sheer survival instinct, you would do whatever you could within your power to either get away (physically or emotionally) from the people you don’t trust or to ensure you were in control.


For kids with reactive attachment disorder, their survival instincts often drive them to:

  • Physically run away

  • Make false accusations of abuse with the intent to get removed from their family placement

  • Triangulate and manipulate adults to divide them

  • Use emotional volatility to get their way

  • Refuse to obey rules and boundaries

  • Use bodily functions as weapons

  • Lack a stable personality (i.e. act like a chameleon, changing based on their surroundings in order to maintain control)

  • Steal

  • Lack sleep

  • Point out hypocrisy in others but not themselves (reinforces mistrust)

  • Rage, particularly after feeling vulnerable

  • Adapt a keen ability to pinpoint the most effective behaviors to gain control and to get out of their particular environments


As parents, we are responsible for the physical safety of our children at the very minimum. My husband and I reinforced that with our children often. We routinely asked, “What is a parent’s number one job?” The answer we rehearsed with them was, “To keep me safe.” This role play made it very easy to explain to small children the “why” behind rules and boundaries.


But not for Joe.


Reactive attachment disorder doesn’t stop on its own


When confronted with parenting a child who was doing his best to get away from us, we had to adapt our parenting. The better Joe got at pushing us away, the more the chances, tolerance, and trust in that child disappeared over time. We needed strict structure, rules, and boundaries for his and everyone’s safety.


But to outsiders looking in without knowledge of reactive attachment disorder, we looked like highly controlling and unreasonable parents. We had to learn to be okay with it, but it’s not easy to feel judged, misunderstood, and shamed.


Sadly, by the time Joe came to live with us at age two, his reactive attachment disorder was so severe that he could not allow himself to trust anyone, especially me as his new primary caregiver.

When Joe was four-years-old, he took off while we were at the zoo. He was upset and ran off while I was distracted caring for his younger brother. I ran after him, scooped him up, and carried him back to where the family was sitting. I calmly explained why his behavior was unsafe and why it was so important he stay with us in a crowded public place. After that incident, I reinforced staying together every time we were out in public.


When Joe was five-years-old, he regularly popped out the screens on his bedroom window and ran away when he was upset. This led to us buying a house with bedrooms on the second floor.


When Joe was six-years-old, he got upset and ran away from my uncle’s funeral in a state we didn’t live in. I was in a boot after ankle surgery and could not chase him. I yelled after him that if he didn’t come back, I’d have to call the police. He kept running past a tree line where I could barely see him hiding. He finally walked back to the church after what felt like an eternity. After this, Joe was required to hold a parent’s hand at all times while in public.


Each successive year, Joe continued to put himself in danger by running away, slowly becoming more successful with each attempt. Therefore, my husband and I, despite our best efforts to help Joe feel safe in our family, were forced to accept that Joe was a runner.


The better Joe got at pushing us away, the more the chances, tolerance, and trust in that child disappeared over time. We needed strict structure, rules, and boundaries for his and everyone’s safety.

Out of necessity, safety became the only concern for Joe. Therefore, the rules and boundaries continued to restrict Joe’s freedom for his own safety until, from the advice of his therapist, we installed locks, alarms, and cameras in our home to monitor him 24/7/365. Eventually, we even added one parent sleeping in the living room by the front door as an additional security measure.


Joe’s new caseworker once asked me what she needed to know to safely transport Joe to his new placement. I said, “Wear running shoes.”


For Joe, running away was only one of several concerning behaviors that progressively became nearly impossible to establish safety for everyone in our family. If it’s one thing everyone deserves, it is to feel safe in their own home. Unfortunately, we reached a point where no one was safe in our home. We were forced to place Joe in an out-of-home placement that would be able to provide the level of care he needed.


I no longer need to stay close to a child 24/7, with the fear he may run. I can breathe, and so can the rest of my family. And I can give back to RAD Advocates now because I have the luxury of sitting still for over an hour, undisturbed, in flip-flops.



*name changed to protect identity


Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

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