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The Story of a Mom who Protected her Family From a Disguised and Tricky Disorder

Updated: Jan 12


While the road toward and through reactive attachment disorder was winding and unconventional, Patrick and Amy found safety for their three children.
While the road toward and through reactive attachment disorder was winding, Patrick and Amy finally secured the safety for their three children. Amy's perseverance got them to where they are today.

When Amy got engaged to Patrick, she knew she’d soon be stepping into the role of stepmom to Natasha*, a little girl with autism. Or that’s what Amy thought at the time. She didn’t realize that her role—and Natasha’s struggles—would become far more complex.


Amy knew that Natasha had avoided eye contact and didn’t speak to anyone but her biological parents for the first five years of her life. She avoided everyone at school. Yet, she acted out in extremely aggressive ways at home.


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Natasha had received multiple diagnoses, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and autism throughout her young life. Since her symptoms most resembled autism, that's the one that stayed with her, per her doctor.


Natasha’s life became all the more complicated when she was just six years old. Her biological mom started having strange symptoms with her lungs and breathing. She was medevaced just a couple of weeks later for a double lung transplant. They didn't know if she was going to make it through the night.


Natasha lost her biological mother two days before she started first grade. Everyone was shocked by how quickly her mom's diagnosis, and subsequent death, transpired. Everyone, it seemed, but Natasha.


Natasha didn’t show emotion about her mom’s passing and never asked about her mom’s husband or other child— Natasha’s stepfather and half-brother.


Amy was taken aback when Natasha handed her a note that read, “Will you be my new mom?” just days after her biological mom’s death. Amy wasn't even her stepmom at that point. She and Patrick didn’t even live together yet.


Amy attributed Natasha’s reaction to her mom’s death to her artistic, quirky, and quiet nature. Perhaps it was the autism. Or both. Whatever the case, Amy was careful to ease into Natasha’s life slowly as she processed the loss of her mom.


After a year and a half, Amy and Patrick got married and moved in together. She officially adopted Natasha a few months later.


Even if Amy still had many questions about her daughter’s needs, she just wanted to be the best mom possible. She figured that time and love would get them through anything.


Amy had never heard of the term reactive attachment disorder (RAD).


The “love remedy” ignites disaster

Amy continued to worry about Natasha as the years passed. Autism interventions weren't helping Natasha at all.

Natasha had raging tantrums out of nowhere. And the closer Amy tried to get to Natasha, the further Natasha pushed her away. She consistently refused Amy’s affection, concern, and parenting.


Even if Amy still had many questions about her daughter’s needs, she just wanted to be the best mom possible. She figured that time and love would get them through anything. Amy had never heard of the term reactive attachment disorder (RAD).

In fact, Amy’s love seemed to lead to bigger, longer, and more frequent rages.


When Amy and Patrick found out they were pregnant with their first baby together, Natasha’s episodes concerned them all the more. They hoped to find some answers before the baby arrived.


But when the answer finally came, it only confused them more.


Answers beget more questions

A full neuropsychiatric evaluation revealed that Natasha had reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a disorder created from early trauma. Trauma impacts the brain and causes fear and rejection of attachment.


Many RAD and autism symptoms overlap, and it wasn’t autism after all. They'd been treating the wrong diagnosis all those years.


Although the reactive attachment disorder diagnosis made sense, Amy and Patrick were still puzzled. Natasha was never abused or neglected. She had loving and involved parents from birth.


Amy’s love seemed to make Natasha's raging tantrums bigger, longer, and more frequent.

Granted, Natasha’s early years weren’t necessarily stable. Natasha’s parents had divorced before she was even born. And her biological mom discovered later in life that she struggled with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and depression which made for a chaotic home environment at times.


Natasha’s parents had also passed her back and forth between their homes every 24 hours for the first several years of her life. Though Amy thinks the arrangement may have attributed to Natasha developing RAD as well, she understands the predicament. “They both loved this baby, so they both wanted to be in her life," said Amy. "What’s the better answer? How do you split custody of a newborn? It’s a mess.”


When Amy inquired further about the diagnosis, the psychologist looked at her with tears in his eyes. “You need to let go of trying to figure out how she got RAD and just accept the fact that she does,” he said. “She's going to take it out on you. This is going to be hard.”


Like autism, there is no cure or medication for reactive attachment disorder. But at least they finally had the right diagnosis.


Problems grow along with the family

The clinician was right. Things just got worse the older Natasha got, no matter what they tried to help her.


One night, when Amy was very pregnant with their second son, she was feeding their 3-year-old son dinner. She looked up to see Natasha standing over their knife block, her eyes black.”You don't know how badly I want to do it,” Natasha said to Amy.


Amy didn’t know if Natasha wanted to stab herself or someone else. She told Natasha that she’d call the police if she pulled out the knife. “She ended up walking away,” said Amy. “But, oh, we had just crossed all sorts of lines.”


“You need to let go of trying to figure out how she got RAD and just accept the fact that she does,” the psychologist said with tears in his eyes. “She's going to take it out on you. This is going to be hard.”

And Natasha’s rages were only growing in intensity and frequency.


“I remember one night I had both boys and my youngest was a month or two old, he's a tiny little guy,” said Amy. “And I put both in the one bed, and I'm staring at them. And I'm singing hymns while she is in the other room, just screaming and swearing [at her dad]. And I was like, how do I protect these two little boys?”


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Amy bought the boys headphones to protect them from the chaos. But she worried the damage had already been done. By the time her older son was six, he wouldn’t go upstairs by himself alone for fear of running into Natasha.


The breaking point

One night, Natasha’s rage escalated way past her normal incident. She was completely out of control and told Amy she wanted to hurt herself. It was beyond her normal attention-seeking behaviors. Amy and Patrick rushed Natasha to the hospital.


Amy and Patrick sat, scared and quiet, in the hospital waiting room while their daughter was on suicide watch. They didn’t know where to turn next.


Although they brought Natasha home safely that night, Amy feared for the next time something happened. She felt as though she couldn’t protect any of her children from reactive attachment disorder.


A call for hope

Amy remembered reading some articles about reactive attachment disorder online from an organization called RAD Advocates, a nonprofit founded by parents of children with reactive attachment disorder who help other parents navigate the journey.


Amy feared for the next time something happened. She felt as though she couldn’t protect any of her children from reactive attachment disorder.

With one last ray of hope, Amy contacted RAD Advocates for help.


“When we first talked to Amy VanTine [of RAD Advocates], it was like a breath of fresh air. She could almost finish my sentences because she understood what was going on,” said Amy. “The crazy stories about what was really going on in our house didn't scare her. It helped me so much to talk to someone who understood my life.”


RAD Advocates provided Amy with options for next steps, vetted resources that could help in their particular situation, and practical tips to keep their family safe. And the advocates were an understanding and knowledgeable guide throughout their decision-making process.


Amy knew enough about reactive attachment disorder to know that trauma prior to age 3 has the greatest impact on the brain. And that scared her for her younger children.


“I kept thinking we need to get our youngest child to three. Because I can’t do this a second time," said Amy. "What a messed up way to have to think.”


A path toward healing

After contact with the resources in hand, further assessments and treatment from professionals, and many long nights, Amy and Patrick came to a decision.


They chose a therapeutic boarding school for Natasha. It was their only way to keep their three children physically, emotionally, and mentally safe. Today, Natasha lives there full-time.


Other than the normal boisterous sounds of two young boys, Amy and Patrick’s home is calm now. And the boys have made great strides in therapy, unpacking the years of living in chaos and fear.


Natasha has support and goals to learn how to function to, perhaps, live at home again someday. But, for now, they are all working toward a felt sense of safety.


“When we first talked to Amy VanTine [of RAD Advocates], it was like a breath of fresh air. She could almost finish my sentences because she understood what was going on,” said Amy. “The crazy stories about what was really going on in our house didn't scare her. It helped me so much to talk to someone who understood my life.”

“The decisions RAD parents are left with are incredibly difficult,” says Amy VanTine, RAD Advocates President. “Through all of it, however, Amy kept moving forward for her family. While it may look odd to the outside world, their family is on a path toward healing because of it.”


While motherhood looks far different from Amy’s early vision of it, she ultimately kept her children physically safe. They feel safe too. Sometimes, that’s all a mom can ask for. And they keep moving forward, one day at a time.


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*name changed to protect identity



About the Author:


With a background in the nonprofit, education, and mental health sectors, Nichole Noonan founded Pen & Stick Communications to help organizations further their reach in the world via the fusion of communications strategy and copywriting. She has a particular niche in the area of reactive attachment disorder and passionately supports the RAD Advocates mission. Nichole earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Education.


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