What PTSD looks like in kids with siblings with reactive attachment disorder

Updated: Apr 1

Hannah* had locked herself in the bathroom again. She screamed obscenities and refused to come out. These reactive attachment disorder behaviors—the result of her early trauma—helped to give her control in any given situation.

When Hannah felt in control, she felt safe. But everyone else’s world stopped.

“I’m fine,” Becky, Hannah’s sister, said. Yet, how could she be? Sitting there, waiting with her jersey and cleats on; she had missed her last soccer game ever.

Once the soccer game had begun and there was no way to make it in time, Hannah unlocked the door and came out calmly. No apology, no remorse—just a smile.

This wasn’t the first time Hannah had caused Becky to miss something important to her. In fact, Becky understood that her sister was the one who determined the family schedule. Hannah controlled when and where everyone could or could not go.

RAD Advocates guides parents who have a child with reactive attachment disorder. Learn more.

Becky didn’t want to talk about it. She tucked her feelings away. After all, this was hardly the worst thing Hannah had done. And, in Becky’s mind, keeping quiet helped to maintain any peace that still remained at home.

As Becky’s mom, I felt helpless in these moments.

I tried to de-escalate Hannah each time we experienced such episodes. But all the while, I watched time slip away and the excitement drain from my other daughter’s eyes.

Once things were calm again, I asked Becky how she felt. I knew she wasn’t fine. But I wanted so badly to believe it. So, for a while, I did.

After years on the reactive attachment disorder front line, Becky grew tired of Hannah’s destructive behaviors that constantly threatened our family. She was frustrated with her role as the peacemaking, responsible, calm kid—always happy on the outside.

On the inside, Becky just wanted the pain to end.

Spotting the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in siblings

Becky is not alone. Siblings of children with reactive attachment disorder are hurting. They’re often the quiet, unnoticed victims.

While everyone is caught up in the needs of the child with reactive attachment disorder, the siblings cope with the chaos. They try to meet their own needs.

As parents and caregivers, we often think healthy children can provide an example; that they can somehow help the child with reactive attachment disorder. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

“Reactive attachment disorder doesn’t disappear by osmosis,” says Amy VanTine, President of RAD Advocates. “Just like any other serious disorder, to put a child in a stable home with healthy people doesn’t make their condition magically go away. The whole family requires plenty of support and professional intervention.”

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Many families with children with reactive attachment disorder go too long without effective support. This is either because they don’t realize they need help early on or they can’t secure the right help in time.

As a result, healthy children often become a byproduct of their sibling’s trauma—they also become traumatized. They, along with their parents, may show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Signs and symptoms of PTSD in siblings of children with reactive attachment disorder include:

  • Avoidance of thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma, including activities, individuals, and places

  • Denial of harmful events that have occurred and/or feeling numb

  • Loss of interest in things once enjoyed and significant events

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Feelings of irritability and frustration over trivial events that did not bother them in the past

  • Possible heightened alertness or easily startled

  • Insomnia or oversleeping

  • Detaching from loved ones

  • Intense distress when certain cues or “triggers” set off memories of the traumatic events

It may take time to recognize the impact a child with reactive attachment disorder has on other children in the home. If you suspect you or your child may have post-traumatic stress disorder, contact a medical professional. Try to find a clinician who has experience working with parents and siblings of children with reactive attachment disorder.

Moving toward hope

Fortunately, my family’s story didn’t lead to complete despair.

In a desperate effort to help Hannah, my husband and I reached out to professionals and others who had raised children with reactive attachment disorder. They helped us to see that Becky was struggling under the surface too.

It wasn’t just our child with reactive attachment disorder that needed help, but our neurotypical child as well. Our eyes were opened to how far Hannah’s early trauma reached throughout our family.

With prayer, therapy, and a desire to heal, Becky learned techniques to communicate her thoughts and feelings. She has moved beyond the “I’m fine facade” and can now describe her feelings accurately in the moment.

RAD Advocates guides parents who have a child with reactive attachment disorder. Learn more.

Through professional help, Becky learned a simple formula: “I’m feeling [emotion] about [event] because [reason],” If she had support early on, she may have said, “I’m feeling sad about missing my last soccer game because my sister was in a rage.”

But the simple formula didn’t come simply. Becky has worked hard.

I suppose the positive lining is who Becky has become through hardship. She has grown in unexpected ways and is incredibly empathetic. She is now also capable of recognizing potentially negative relationships in her life and establish healthy boundaries.

Siblings like Becky need support through community, validation, and awareness. That’s why I created RAD Sibs, a nonprofit that supports families of children with reactive attachment disorder.

We’re also speaking on this important topic to RAD parents at the first-ever Navigating RAD 2021 (#NavRAD21) conference. Through our presentation and the guidance of additional experts, conference attendees will leave with a customized family plan of action to move forward.

I’m proud of Becky. But I sure wish I would’ve known then what I know now. I may have helped to prevent some pain for her or at least have known how to support her through it. My greatest hope is to offer that solace and guidance to other families.

*Name changed to protect identity

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About the author:

Monica Badgley is on a mission to create a community of support for siblings of those with reactive attachment disorder. After several years of focusing on reactive attachment disorder, Monica’s eyes were opened to the traumatic impact it was having on her child without reactive attachment disorder. To bring a platform to these often overlooked children, Monica founded RAD Sibs, an organization supporting siblings of people with reactive attachment disorder, helping them to feel less isolated and no longer seen through like “glass children.” RAD Sibs offers community and validation through Sib Shops, videos, interviews, and encouraging mail. Find them online at www.radsibs.org.

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