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Reactive Attachment Disorder Parenting: The Toughest Reality a Parent Can Face

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

My cousin adopted a 4-year-old child years ago. Although my cousin passed away, his legacy lives on through his son Kyle*. Kyle moves, speaks, and acts so similarly to my cousin that no one would ever know he was adopted. I feel a sense of my cousin whenever I’m with Kyle—it’s heartwarming.

Kyle attached so well in his adoptive home that he assumed his adoptive father’s very essence. His is the epitome of a wonderful adoption story. Kyle was able to receive his adoptive family’s love. He has lived a good life that he likely wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Kyle’s story is what we expect in society. It is what we think we know. But adoption isn’t wonderful for everyone.

Sometimes a child experiences such severe impacts of early trauma that they can’t accept the love of a family. It is one of the most painful realities an adoptive parent can face. Although the family does everything they can to love the child, the child rejects them. This is called reactive attachment disorder, the result of early childhood trauma.

“We don’t talk about reactive attachment disorder or difficult adoptions much in society. It’s the elephant in the room,” says Amy VanTine, the president and founder of RAD Advocates. “If we want to truly support traumatized children and the families who raise them, we need to start talking openly about the heartache and difficulty involved and provide authentic support.”

It is VanTine’s own experiences as an adoptive parent that led her to start the nonprofit RAD Advocates. It is also what led to her dream of organizing the first-ever Navigating RAD2021 conference in Denver.

The reality of early trauma

Everyone experiences life on an individual basis with individual experiences. Two people standing side by side will experience a common event differently. The same is true of traumatic experiences.

The severity and duration of early trauma and the way the child is impacted is the difference between milder attachment issues and serious reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Reactive attachment disorder occurs when the trauma impact is so profound that the brain develops differently.

“Trauma can behave like a river on the brain,” says Forrest Lien, a licensed clinical social worker, trauma expert and owner of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. “When trauma washes over the brain over and over in a profound way, it leaves deep pathways behind. Even after the trauma has passed, the child’s brain is left wired in fear. They won’t authentically trust or rely on anyone, especially those who try to get the closest to them.”

The reality of permanency

Many people, clinicians included, believe that permanency is the ultimate answer for children from foster care or orphanages. They see a “forever home” as a cure-all. By the time the ink has dried on their adoption decree, everyone will have an amazing new life, they think.

It is true that “forever families” are often a catalyst to a child’s success. Many adopted children struggle with some degree of attachment issues. Yet, help from a therapist and a stable family helps them to learn to trust and accept a new family. They learn to bond and ultimately thrive.

But moderate to severe reactive attachment disorder typically presents a different scenario. Reactive attachment disorder, just like any other dire ailment, does not disappear with love or time. The child’s brain alerts them as though they will literally die if they depend on a primary caregiver.

Love and nurturing feel so scary to a child with reactive attachment disorder that they often inflict pain upon themselves or others—whether physically or emotionally—in an attempt to escape and feel safe. Everyone in the adoptive home suffers.

Adoptive parents often react to reactive attachment disorder symptoms as they would with other children who are struggling. They try to nurture the child even further. Yet, the symptoms further escalate as a result.

“The more the parent—and often their therapist—pushes attachment, the more scared the child is and the more intense their RAD behaviors become,” says Lien. “The parent is left exhausted and bewildered.”

Lien was the keynote speaker at the Navigating RAD experience and presented on “'Why Am I Feeling Crazy?': The Life of RAD Parenting.”

For families of children with reactive attachment disorder, permanency alone is far from the perfect story everyone expects. The parents often feel lonely and full of despair. Many marriages fall apart. The other children in the home feel overlooked and scared. The child with RAD is only sicker than before. In these cases, adoption is the opposite of success.

What can RAD parents do?

If this situation is familiar to you, know that there is no right answer. There's no easy fix. But there is hope in acceptance and creative ideas.

The most difficult journey toward seeking solutions for a child with reactive attachment disorder is acceptance. The love of a stable family is not what some children need at first, if ever. It is often terribly painful for parents to accept.

We at RAD Advocates firmly believe that every child deserves a family. However, we are realistic enough to know that not every child can handle a family.

If your child is getting more sick in your care, it makes sense to look elsewhere for help. You would do so for any other child ailment. This may mean that your child needs to live elsewhere temporarily or permanently.

An alternative living arrangement does not make you a failure as a parent—far from it. You are willing to put aside your wants and desires in order to provide what is best for the child. That is a success, albeit in a different form from what society depicts.

One example of a suitable placement for a child with reactive attachment disorder is in a boarding school. Sometimes a boarding school provides just the right amount of care and compassion a child needs. They can gain a feeling of calm and safety away from your nurturing.

We have seen children make such amazing strides in a boarding school environment that they eventually come home permanently. Other times the success is just as great but the child can only handle the home environment in short doses such as for holiday visits.

No matter the path you take, remind yourself that it is unique to your family’s needs. Most people won’t understand. And that's okay. Just as every person and family is different, so is every adoption. We do not all look the same.

If you’re struggling to find the right path for your family, we invite you to attend our annual Navigating RAD experience. It is a unique opportunity to find camaraderie, calm, and judgment-free support from the chaos of your situation. It is a means to consider paths unique to your family, whether within or outside of your home, with the help of clinicians and other professionals who have walked in your shoes.

“Good parents advocate for what their children realistically need, no matter how difficult,” says VanTine. “That doesn’t always match what society wants but, for parents of kids with RAD, it is the reality of trauma, loss, and the messiness of RAD parenting. These parents deserve support, not shame and blame.”

*Name changed to protect identity

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