top of page

What Reactive Attachment Disorder Looks Like Through the Eyes of These Dads

Updated: 4 days ago


Reactive attachment disorder often looks different through the eyes of dads

Pictured above: RAD dads at the Navigating RAD 2021 conference in August 2021 (registration is nearly open for NavRAD23!)


This post was updated on May 23, 2023.


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.


To survive parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder, parents must be a united front, meaning the sooner both parents see reactive attachment disorder for what it is and the primary caregiver feels supported, the better the outcome.


Attend NavRAD, the experience for caregivers to connect, learn and pave a path through reactive attachment disorder.


In honor of Father’s Day and this year’s upcoming Navigating RAD—the third-annual event created for and by RAD parents to navigate their family through the disorder, we spoke with three RAD dads about their parenting experiences.


Although anyone and any gender—whether a grandmother or a father—can be the primary caregiver, these fathers share their own experiences in which they are not the primary caregivers.


Paul’s take on reactive attachment disorder


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.


To survive parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder, parents must be a united front, meaning the sooner both parents see reactive attachment disorder for what it is and the primary caregiver feels supported, the better the outcome.

“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 parents 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.”


Sign-up to get our posts delivered straight to your inbox.​


A father’s support group was key for Paul surviving reactive attachment disorder. “The common thing we all agreed is to support our spouses when they are 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 often 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 take on reactive attachment disorder


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.


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

“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.


Need help navigating reactive attachment disorder parenting? Become a RAD Advocates member.


“Always remember that you trust your partner more than anyone (that’s part of what brought you together in the first place),” he advises other fathers who are not the primary caregivers. “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 the other parent 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 partner,” 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.”


David's take on reactive attachment disorder


When David’s wife suggested that they attend the Navigating RAD experience, he was skeptical. The primary reason he agreed to attend in 2022 was to support her. He hadn't looked forward to it.


David was tired of listening to the parenting advice they’d received in the past. From podcasts to professionals, the suggestions they gave to just love their children more and understand them better had failed. Their home had become unsafe to everyone in and around it. And the chaos was taking a toll on their marriage.


“We had spent tens of thousands on counselors, testing, and medications. If anything, it only seemed to make their condition worse,” David says. “I did not want to pay money to go to an event and be lectured yet again about how my children's struggle with their mental illness was my fault.’"


"If you are having trouble accepting some of the behaviors the other parent describes, talk to people outside of your family who have experience with attachment disorders," Ryan says. "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.”

But the NavRAD experience was very different from what David had envisioned and the catalyst they needed to move their family forward.


"It was a very welcoming, supportive environment from the beginning," he says. "There were no accusations, but instead practical tools and strategies were offered. Counselor Forrest Lien's talk was very enlightening. We arranged to have him assess our children before the session ended. We also enjoyed the talks by Carrie O'Toole and found her journey very much mirrored ours.” 


While Lien confirmed what they had suspected—that their children were at the severe end of the RAD spectrum—David and his wife had finally found support which is, sadly, rare to find while raising children with RAD. “NavRAD helped my wife and I get on the same page,” David says. “It was the first step in helping us unite in the way we wanted to pursue our children's future treatment.”


Ultimately, David and his wife became RAD Advocate members. “Their input and advocacy to the agencies working with our children were invaluable to getting their situations resolved,” David says. “I am happy to report that we did get a resolution for our children and now that the chaos is gone, our marriage is once again as strong as it has ever been.”


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


1. “Don’t question your partner'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 relationship as a couple. 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 partner, 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 one parent has no idea what it’s like for the primary caregiver to face constant abuse by the child they are trying to love, Ryan says it’s also hard for that parent to see the dynamic. They feel helpless to stop it.


“Both parents 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 couples who are facing this difficult task to know that they aren’t alone in their struggle and that it can get better.”

Sign-up to get our posts delivered straight to your inbox.​


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.

4,627 views2 comments