It’s hard for outsiders to understand when an out-of-home placement may be the best option for a child with moderate to severe reactive attachment disorder. The reasons are complicated and vary.
Many children with reactive attachment disorder experienced abusive, neglectful, or inconsistent caregiving in their early years. Others may have undergone medical complications or other situations that disrupted healthy bonding with a parent figure.
Because of this, they developed a lack of trust in primary caregivers, a need to always be in control, and an unconscious fear of intimacy and closeness (because they were distressed during these early relationships). When their current primary caregivers — adoptive parents, for example — try to bond with them and act as parents, it can be an all-out war, complete with subterfuge, sabotage, or violence.
Not understanding the disorder — or even knowing our child has it — we parents don’t know our love and caring parenting is the trigger. We try harder and harder, and things get worse and worse. Experts don’t see what we’re seeing and have very little training in reactive attachment disorder. No one is supporting us, there’s no help in sight, and the entire family deteriorates, with parents and siblings often developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If things have devolved badly enough, we parents may be so traumatized and exhausted that even if appropriate help is found, we are not in a place to parent therapeutically or the child is not ready for it (see “Why Therapeutic Parenting is the Last Thing You Should Do With a Child With Severe RAD”). Because of this or basic safety for family members, it may reach a point — often in adolescence — where an out-of-home placement is the best option for everyone.
Not understanding the disorder — or even knowing our child has it — we parents don’t know our love and caring parenting is the trigger. We try harder and harder, and things get worse and worse.
There are many types of out-of-home placements, such as boarding schools, residential treatment, wilderness programs, or even placement with another family. Depending on the option, it may be short-term, long term or permanent. But all of these options leave us needing to explain to others where our child is.
What to Say to Adults When They Wonder Where Your Child Went
Of course, what you say will depend on which option you’ve chosen and who you are speaking to.
Heather Houze, advocate and chief operating officer of RAD Advocates, became involved in the organization after adopting two children with reactive attachment disorder.
She says those close to us will likely already know what we’ve been struggling with and will more readily understand the need for an out-of-home placement. But those we are less close with will require a short explanation.
“When we place our child outside of the home, we know all of the background,” she says. “Most of the people asking us don’t know.”
As parents of children with reactive attachment disorder, we are used to being judged and misunderstood, so we often share too much in a bid to make others understand. However, no one can really understand unless they’ve lived it. Providing too much information often backfires. Instead, keep it short and sweet. Wherever your child is, they are attending school of some sort, which gives you some leeway in what you tell people, still allowing you to be honest.
If things have devolved badly enough, we parents may be so traumatized and exhausted that even if appropriate help is found, we are not in a place to parent therapeutically or the child is not ready for it.
Houze suggests something along these lines:
“They were given a wonderful opportunity to attend a specialized boarding school.”
“Because of their early childhood trauma, we were not able to meet their needs. They were given the opportunity to live with a family who could better meet their needs.”
“He’s living in (name of state or town) and going to school.”
“Our family has been given a wonderful opportunity to allow our child access to the care he/she needs.”
Emphasize the positive opportunity and the fact the child is in a placement that can better meet his or her needs.
“Wrap it in a bow,” Houze says. “People want to think it worked out for the best. So tell them you’re getting your child the treatment they need to overcome their trauma.”
What to Say to Your Other Children When Your Child With Reactive Attachment Disorder Moves Out
Of course, if you have other children in the home, they will likely repeat whatever they’ve heard and also tell their friends their sibling is no longer living at home. Houze says to keep it age-appropriate. For example, say they needed to spend time seeing doctors who can help them or going to a school that can better meet their needs or living with another family who can better meet their needs.
Whenever talking to siblings, Houze emphasizes not villainizing the child with reactive attachment disorder. If talking about certain behaviors, blame “the disorder,” not the child.
“If they needed to go for treatment, it’s just like someone with cancer goes for treatment,” she says. “You don’t blame the person.”
Additional Resources for the Tough Reactive Attachment Disorder Situations
Placing the child we committed to love and nurture outside our home is extremely difficult. It wasn’t what we planned in the beginning. But sometimes it really is the best option for all involved. However, it will come with questions.
RAD Advocates offers many resources on its website, including blogs, infographics, links to podcasts, and access to trained advocates. Their NavRAD experience in October is also an excellent opportunity to determine what your family needs and come up with a plan forward. If you have friends, family members, colleagues, or adults who were part of your child’s life, and you feel they require a more in-depth explanation of the disorder to understand why you chose an out-of-home placement, please utilize these materials.
Finally, give yourself and your family grace. You’ve been through a lot. You, your spouse, and your other children may benefit from therapy or other healing modalities, as well as finding community with families who understand what you’ve been through.