Updated: Jan 12
From the outside, the home where reactive attachment disorder lives often looks fine. The grass is healthy. The children are well-mannered. Maybe there’s a stay-at-home mom who is homeschooling.
But inside the home, the family tackles a daily battle.
One soldier in that fight is the child with reactive attachment disorder; they battle the intense fear of attachment inside of themselves every day.
The child was not born a soldier; they learned to survive their environment early on. Perhaps one or both of their biological parents abused or neglected them physically or mentally. Maybe they were separated too early from their biological mother due to a serious illness.
Whatever the case, the child’s brain was wired early on in fear. And that fear lives within them, no matter their environment.
The role of the nurturing enemy
Even after the child has found external safety, perhaps in an adoptive home, they continue to battle any primary caregiver that comes their way.
And so a second soldier is made. It is often Mom. Because she diligently tries to get close to the child, the child considers her the "nurturing enemy," a term coined by psychotherapist Nancy Newton Verrier. The child will do whatever it takes to keep her away, from false allegations to physical and unsafe aggression.
Mom must protect everyone in the home.
She is always watching, always listening for clues of threat in her home—the rustling of a paper, a drawer opening and shutting, or complete silence. She is always on edge.
For Stacey Hansen, a mom of a child with reactive attachment disorder, it was the loss of their pizza cutter one day that set her heart pounding. “I was frantic when I realized it was missing,” she says. “Someone living in a safe home easily dismisses the loss of sharp objects but, for us, it was a sign of impending danger.”
Forrest Lien, clinical social worker and trauma expert, is familiar with distraught moms from working with children with reactive attachment disorder and their families for more than 40 years. In fact, he sees the scenario as indicative that the disorder may live within the family.
“It’s a red flag to me when a mom is especially fearful and defensive. It’s a sign to look further into the possibility of reactive attachment disorder in the family,” says Lien. “The outpouring of care that moms often give is, ironically, what makes the child so fearful of her, leading to chaos in the home. With time, Mom develops post-traumatic stress disorder. Moms often tell me they feel crazy.”
Lien was the keynote speaker at the annual Navigating RAD experience and presented “'Why Am I Feeling Crazy?': The Life of RAD Parenting.”
What reactive attachment disorder looks like from the outside
For those outside of the home, and even for Dad, this “battle” all seems rather overblown. No one else experiences the child in the same way as Mom. Others rarely see the same behaviors she does.
In fact, the child is often extremely pleasant with other people. Children with reactive attachment disorder have learned the art of manipulation as a means of safety. They are able to keep people at bay by triangulating them.
The triangulation greatly impacts marriages, friendships, family, and other relationships.
Friends and family wonder how a child, one who is so small and charming, can cause such turmoil. They begin to believe that Mom must be the problem. And in so many ways, they let her know. It is best for everyone involved, they think.
But this well-intended advice is heartbreaking for Mom. She feels more alone and misunderstood than ever before. She begins to withdraw even more, further impacting her own mental health.
There’s hope in understanding and support
Education and guidance provide pathways to family healing. Although healing looks different for every family, all families need support. And every member of the family requires attention.
“Stability and healthy attachment is what the child with reactive attachment disorder needs most and, tragically, what they work so hard against. The only way to work through it is to recognize this dynamic and strengthen the entire family,” says Lien. “If the family is stable again, the child has a secure base from which to hopefully be able to recognize their own maladaptive behaviors with professional support and to begin to heal.”
Some children with reactive attachment disorder can find a way to thrive in their homes; others need something different. Just as every family is unique, so is their path ahead. None of these paths are easy. But the only way forward is through.
About the author:
With a background in the nonprofit, education and mental health sectors, Nichole Noonan writes to raise awareness and funds for important causes. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Education. Nichole founded Pen & Stick Communications to help noble organizations and people further their reach in the world.