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What Reactive Attachment Disorder Looks Like Through the Eyes of a Dad

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

Pictured above: RAD dads at the Navigating RAD 2021 conference in August 2021 (registration is now open for NavRAD22!)

In two-parent homes, where one parent stays at home and is the more primary caregiver, the other parent often sees a very different picture of reactive attachment disorder (RAD). The child may charm this parent and appear sweet and compliant, while showing his or her rage, defiance, and other behaviors to the primary caregiver.

Understanding that households come in all configurations, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll refer to the primary caregiver as Mom and the other parent as Dad.

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To survive parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder, parents must be a united front, meaning the sooner Dad sees reactive attachment disorder for what it is and supports Mom, the better the outcome. Here, we spoke with two experienced RAD dads for their advice.

Paul’s Story

Paul and Kathy Thomas adopted six children. Their middle two were adopted from the Ukraine at ages 6 and 8 and were soon diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. Kathy knew about the disorder from prior research and resources.

“Some of the things that Kathy was seeing, I wasn’t aware of or wasn’t experiencing,” Paul says of his early days parenting children with reactive attachment disorder. “As the primary breadwinner, I go to work, and she stayed with the children.”

At first, when he got home and heard about what had been going on, he would think there could be an innocent explanation. Like maybe his new daughter hadn’t broken the other child’s toy on purpose—maybe someone had accidentally stepped on it.

“At the time, questioning what she was seeing—just that little bit of doubt—whether it was a raised eyebrow or a question, was enough ammunition for a RAD kid to drive that wedge,” Paul says. “Our daughter would use her beguiling attitude with me. I should never have raised a doubt because it just adds fuel to that behavior.”

One piece of advice he has for fathers of children with reactive attachment disorder is to watch for false allegations. “For a child that wants to create turmoil and havoc, a viable option would be for them to make allegations. That puts you in a predicament,” Paul says. Click here for a handout on how to deal with such reports, which unfortunately are common for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder.

“Having been under that microscope with those false accusations was the most stressful time of my life,” he says. “I was in Afghanistan for three years, and that last year was worse than that.”

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A father’s support group was key for Paul surviving reactive attachment disorder. “The common thing we all agreed is to support your wife when your wife is texting you or emailing or calling you,” he says. “The mindset you should have is you don’t have to immediately fix it. Sometimes they just want us to listen. I got in the habit that when Kathy would text me when I’m at work, I’d send her an ear emoji to mean listen or fix? Men want to fix and move on. I learned to ask. If she said just to listen, then I’d listen all in.”

If you decide your child needs to be placed outside the home for everyone’s safety, don’t delay, Paul advises.

Ryan’s Story

Ryan Brunner holds a Ph.D. in experimental social psychology, so he’d heard about reactive attachment disorder in a couple of his classes but didn’t experience it first-hand until he and his wife adopted two children, one of whom has the disorder.

While their child targeted his wife, they were fortunate to have an informed therapist from the beginning, which helped avert triangulation.

“This helped me understand that my wife would always be at the center of our child’s attacks in ways that I never would,” Ryan says. “Learning that lesson helped me get better at stepping in and taking a more active role in working with our child. We were really blessed to have an outside source help identify what the problems were and how to work together to face them.

Without that guidance, I’m sure we would have spent much more of our time second-guessing each other’s parenting approaches and arguing about what to do.“

While his wife never had to convince him of what was going on when he wasn’t home, he didn’t realize how much the behaviors were damaging his family, especially his wife.

“Always remember that you trust your spouse more than anyone (that’s part of what brought you together in the first place),” he advises other fathers. “Children with attachment disorders not only struggle with trust themselves, but they often actively attack the trusting relationships of others. In other words, they want nothing more than to plant a seed of doubt and questioning between their parents. If you are having trouble accepting some of the behaviors your spouse describes, talk to people outside of your family who have experience with attachment disorders. They can help explain why these strange behaviors might be occurring, and most importantly, why they seem to appear so selectively in front of one parent but not the other.”

While clear-cut answers are hard to come by when it comes to reactive attachment disorder behaviors, ask your spouse what they need so you can do your best to make it happen, he says.

“The corollary to this point is to truly listen to your spouse,” Ryan says, concurring with Paul. “My wife told me for years just how overwhelmed and isolated she felt, but I wasn’t hearing that she was being traumatized by our child. I could have done more, but I just didn’t hear everything that was being said.”

Ryan has a few additional tips for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder:

1. “Don’t question your spouse’s parenting, especially in front of the child. Every time you introduce doubt into what your spouse chose to do or didn’t do, you are empowering the child’s disorder and weakening your status as an unbreakable team.”

2. “Take the idea of respite seriously. It can be tremendously difficult to find, but it can save your life and your marriage. Even short breaks from the chaos of a child with RAD in your household can give you a chance to pull back and see the situation for what it is and make more effective decisions together.” See this guide for respite providers from RAD Advocates.

3. “Don’t stop looking for resources to help you, your spouse, and your child. There are so many more resources available now than even five years ago, and you never know when you are just one contact or webpage away from the person/resource/organization that can make all the difference. Start with RAD Advocates!”

While husbands have no idea what it’s like for mothers to face constant abuse by the child they are trying to love, Ryan says it’s also hard for husbands to see this dynamic and feel helpless to stop it.

“Both husbands and wives have stressful and painful experiences when raising a child with RAD, but because the nature of those experiences are different, they often have difficulty communicating with each other about them,” he says. “If nothing else, I would want husbands and wives who are facing this difficult task to know that they aren’t alone in their struggle and that it can get better.”

Need help navigating RAD parenting? Become a RAD Advocates member.

About the author:

Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Wyoming.

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