Updated: Sep 1
We’d just been out to dinner with family to celebrate a birthday.
Getting there alone had been daunting with our child’s incessant questions, observations, and nonsense chatter—a part of his reactive attachment disorder. The ride to the restaurant consisted of arguing and trying to calm everyone’s anxiety.
During dinner, my uncle scolded me for not controlling my child the way he saw fit. “He just needs a good swat on the read end,” he said.
My uncle didn’t understand reactive attachment disorder. No one did. Driving home felt all the more hopeless than when we had left the house that night.
It’s a situation our family experienced and one I’ve heard hundreds of times from my clients. Others can’t comprehend what parents of children with reactive attachment disorder experience. Friends and family who once respected them turn their backs after they bring a child with a history of trauma into their homes.
Maybe this situation is familiar to you too. Here’s how it typically works:
People once saw you as a loving, skilled, and intelligent human being. You were humble and sought wisdom and counsel. When you struggled and asked for help, you examined your part in the problem, listened to the advice of others, and made changes. You did the hard work of growth. People respected you.
Then trauma entered the picture.
The child did not cause their trauma or its aftermath. They didn’t wish it on themselves. It’s absolutely not their fault.
But trauma changes people. It rewires brains. It causes children who would typically connect and attach and allow their parents to care for them to fight as if their lives depend on it.
Mom is not safe in the wounded little eyes of a traumatized child. Love is scary. Trust is almost impossible. If they let you in, they believe they will die. So they fight you on everything. But usually not in front of other people.
In front of Grandma and Grandpa (and teachers, pastors, coaches, your best friends), your child with reactive attachment disorder is often a master of charm. Everyone loves them.
Others don’t see the terror inside of your child. Only you see it, presented through lying, manipulation, cruelty, injury to self or others, destruction, rages, and refusal to do the most basic things. They aren’t living in fight or flight mode when others are around. You see it because they feel most threatened by your love.
So you do what you’ve always done. You ask for help. But this time, everyone thinks you are the problem. They don’t understand this crazy world of trauma. It doesn’t show itself to them. So you begin to wonder if they are right. Perhaps you really are the problem. Maybe you are crazy. Maybe you’re imagining all of this weird stuff you live with daily.
I know how you feel. I’ve felt it myself. But there is hope. I’ve found it in my own life and in the lives of my clients.
Here's what to know as a parent of a child with reactive attachment disorder when you feel alone:
1. Remember you are a normal (somewhat) human being living in a crazy situation. People are not going to see what they can’t see. Trauma does this to people. Remember who you are. Understand that this is the nature of the beast. Don’t lose yourself in the process. Your heart hasn’t changed.
2. Until your mom, sister, uncle, or whoever they are lives or studies reactive attachment disorder, they will not understand. I’m so sorry. That’s just how it is. It stinks. Before I lived it, I never would have believed it either. It’s so much easier to just judge the parents when their kids are either misbehaving in public or when their kids are behaving like saints in public while the parents are stressed, anxious, angry, and exhausted.
3. Realize that you are grieving. It’s so hard when those you love and have always believed in you suddenly don’t like what they’re seeing. And they blame you. You need to grieve their inability to understand. Grieve that they aren’t willing or able to go there with you. Grieve that you need to seek help outside of what you thought would be a great support system even when you’re already so taxed. Grieve that your family isn’t as open-minded as you thought they were. Grieve that they are judging you and you’ve lost the closeness you used to have (or did you?). Grieve that this is one more area that trauma has impacted.
Hang in there parents. This is a tough season you’re in. I’ve lived it. It’s heartbreaking.
Also know that, sometimes, there's a time when letting go makes more sense than hanging on. That can mean a multitude of things and depends entirely on your unique situation. I'll be chatting about this at the first-ever Navigating RAD 2021 conference next month in my presentation, "Determining What You Have Left as a Family and Ideas to Move Forward". Through this presentation and the guidance of additional experts, conference attendees will leave with a customized family plan of action to move forward.
Wherever you are along the journey, acknowledge the reality of your current experience, allow yourself to grieve it, and take care of yourself.
About the author:
Carrie O’Toole has adopted domestically and internationally. After parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder for eight years, Carrie and her husband made the heart-wrenching decision to relinquish their son to another family in 2009. Since that time, Carrie earned a master's degree in human services specializing in marriage and family therapy.
As parenting traumatized children is traumatizing, Carrie works as a coach, helping other struggling adoptive parents to heal from their own grief and trauma. She helps parents through coaching, her book, Relinquished: When Love Means Letting Go, documentary film, Forfeiting Sanity, the Relinquished Retreat for Parents, blogs, and podcasts. Meet her at the Navigating RAD 2021 conference and find her online at www.carrieotoole.com.