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What it Feels Like to be a Nurturing Enemy to a Child with Developmental Trauma (a.k.a. reactive attachment disorder)

Updated: May 6

Nurturing enemy to a child with reactive attachment disorder

As the mother and primary caregiver to my adopted child, I was his "nurturing enemy" — a term specific to those parenting children with developmental trauma (a.k.a. reactive attachment disorder). 

Although I accepted the assignment to write about how it feels to be a nurturing enemy, I resisted writing this piece for as long as I possibly could. To revisit the most heartbreaking, helpless, and hopeless years of my life meant feeling it all again.

I really, really, really didn’t want to do that.  

I feel great compassion for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder who are still in the thick of things. I think about all of those who are still riding the roller coaster of behaviors, therapies, interventions, medications, parenting techniques, and hospitals.

I distinctly remember feeling hopeful with each improvement my son seemed to make and then devastated when it didn’t last. I understand the confusion around what is happening in one’s own family, the loss of trust in anyone or anything, the uncertainty of where to turn, and the rapid unraveling of mind, body, and finances.

To publicly share how far into the abyss of despair I personally fell and how close I came to losing my mind, my marriage, my faith, and my life feels incredibly vulnerable. It’s not comfortable to bring to a wide audience with unknown intentions.

While it is healthy to have boundaries around intimate and vulnerable details of one’s life, my fear of and lack of trust is one of the many side effects of filling the nurturing enemy role for nearly a decade.

So, as difficult as it is, I'm hoping that writing this will end up being therapeutic in the long run.

What is a Nurturing Enemy?

The term nurturing enemy is originally attributed to Nancy Verrier from her book The Primal Wound. Verrier refers to the nurturing enemy as the primary caregiver of a child with complex developmental trauma, otherwise known as reactive attachment disorder. These are children who experienced trauma during critical stages of early development and struggle with the impacts left on the brain. Although often the mother figure, any primary caregiver can become the nurturing enemy.

A child with reactive attachment disorder has an intense fear of abandonment and a negative projection of hostility, anger, and rejection onto the nurturing enemy. The sheer volume and intensity of RAD behaviors often lead to the primary caregiver’s own post-traumatic stress disorder.

This dynamic sets the stage for a roller-coaster relationship in which both the child and primary caregiver gradually become confused, exhausted, angry, and unwilling to trust each other without proper intervention (Verrier, 2009).

How I Became a Nurturing Enemy

My husband and I were not informed about reactive attachment disorder during our foster care training. They presented parenting traumatized children as slightly harder than parenting biological children, just with more paperwork. So they ultimately placed a child with incredibly high needs into the unknowing arms of uneducated and unprepared parents. They exacerbated the disorder.

Because we were unaware and uneducated, we were easily manipulated by our son's disorder. Our lack of understanding about our son’s resistance to our care led to unnecessary frustration. We didn’t understand that the disorder, not the child, was running the show.

A frog dropped into boiling water will jump out of the pot. But a frog will stay in room temperature water, even as it’s slowly getting hot. By the time the water is boiling, that frog is cooked through. That’s how I became the nurturing enemy. I failed to see that I was slowly slipping deeper and deeper into hopelessness. Like that frog, I didn’t know I was boiling until it was too late for all of us.

Because our son didn’t receive the proper reactive attachment disorder diagnosis until years into our journey, we struggled to find the right support. And because I didn’t know I was his nurturing enemy for years, my son’s disorder worsened. This put our entire family in harm’s way.

What a Nurturing Enemy Feels Like

Before I knew about the term nurturing enemy, I was solely focused on finding “the thing” to help my son long-term. But the thing I needed to know first and foremost was that I was the nurturing enemy. Not knowing made everything worse.

Nothing we did helped. Most professionals who worked with our son were well-meaning but ineffective at best. Many unknowingly enabled my son’s disorder.

Medications seemed ineffective. Because of the demands of my son's needs at both school and home, I was no longer able to work. My marriage was strained. Our family was in perpetual crisis. My default response was to try harder, love harder, advocate harder, and therapy harder. Finally, utterly exhausted, resentful, and angry at who I had become, I dreaded waking up in the morning.

One day, as my son was raging, his then 8-year-old younger brother ran down the stairs. He got between me and his brother in his martial arts stance and said, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll protect you.“ My heart stopped. I was supposed to protect my children, not the other way around. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized we were in boiling water.

I later told a therapist about the incident between my two sons, through tears of regret and guilt. With her mouth agape, her response was, “This is why moms drive their minivans off bridges.” I quietly replied, “I know.”

To be a nurturing enemy feels hopeless, like an endless dark maze with no way out.

A Clearer But Still Painful Path

When I finally learned the term nurturing enemy, it hit me right in the heart. No two words better described how I felt. When I discovered that there was language to describe the role I’d been playing in my son’s life, it brought relief and helped define the path forward. But it didn’t make it easy.

I came to the heartbreaking conclusion that I was no longer capable of helping my son heal. And that my son may never have been capable of allowing me to do so. I realized that I’d have to love him the way he needed, not the way I wanted.

Before I knew about the term nurturing enemy, I was solely focused on finding “the thing” to help my son long-term. But the thing I needed to know first and foremost was that I was the nurturing enemy.

If love, nurture, and potentially my existence were my son’s triggers, then it was my job to remove those triggers. It was the most logical, yet most painful, way for me to love him. Out of a desire to help him feel safe, I needed to remove expectations of emotional reciprocity.

Out of a desire to ease my son's suffering, I needed to shift the focus from the nurturing and love of a parent to the managerial tasks of a caseworker. And in our severe case, out of a desire to do what was best for him, I ended up needing to remove myself altogether.

I wouldn’t wish being a nurturing enemy on my worst enemy.

The nurturing enemy is a devastating dynamic for everyone involved. It hurts the child with the disorder and everyone in the family. Reactive attachment disorder touches everyone in its path.

If you're a nurturing enemy to a child with reactive attachment disorder, reach out. Find support. There is hope. You don't need to do this alone.

1. Verrier, N. (2009). The Primal Wound: Understanding The Adopted Child. Louisville: Gateway Press.

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