A hidden aftermath: When a child's trauma traumatizes the family

Updated: Jun 17

Most people can’t fathom how a young child can seriously hurt others, especially their own family members. But it’s a tragic and under-reported reality for families everywhere. Many parents of kids with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) feel shamed and blamed by other adults and, thus, remain silent.

Simply because a perpetrator is a child does not diminish the effects of abuse. Child-on-family abuse is not readily recognized. Nor is the extreme traumatic effects of this abuse. Those who fail to acknowledge the child as an abuser also fail to properly treat the child.

So I share my story this Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Because the more we share our stories as parents, the sooner children and families can get the help they so desperately require.

How violence continues

Years ago, I had come to terms with the fact that our 7-year-old daughter Ella* was dangerous.

Abused and neglected as a young child, Ella had developed severe reactive attachment disorder (RAD)—an affliction that changed the way her brain developed. Out of an innate need to survive her own early abuse, Ella had become abusive herself—a way to escape others who may hurt her again.

RAD Advocates advocates for and alongside parents of kids with RAD. Become a member.

Ella came into our home from the foster care system with this serious disorder for which we lacked substantial knowledge and education. Her case manager didn’t fully disclose Ella’s history or the reality of living with severe RAD.

My husband and I made the innocent and naive assumption (as many others do) that all Ella needed was love and time in our stable home. But reactive attachment disorder is a cruel affliction that love can’t cure. Our healthy family terrified Ella, in fact. The more we tried to nurture her, the more intensely she tried to push us away.

The dangerous situations that no one else saw (or wanted to believe)

Most people would not believe, nor want to believe, that a small child with a beautiful smile and infectious laugh could do the things Ella did.

Even my husband and I couldn’t quite believe it. So we tried to keep living normal lives. But our sad reality sunk in after several frightening events.

There was the ice skating day.

My husband Joe took Ella and our 5-year-old daughter Laila to an ice skating rink. On their drive home, Ella hit Laila over the head with an ice skate. She told Laila she planned to slice her into pieces. Joe came home stunned. As a pediatric nurse, I quickly tended to Laila’s gash and rushed Ella to the emergency room for a psychiatric evaluation.

Ella had only been out of psychiatric inpatient care less than two weeks when this happened. She was then readmitted for another three-week stay. She was later released back to us just the same as she was before, if not worse.

And the fire-setting attempt.

Ella attempted to set our house on fire in the middle of the night. She tried to light several papers on a coal that was still hot from the fireplace. Thankfully, she couldn’t catch anything else on fire. When we brought up the evidence we found the next morning, she didn’t have much to say about it. Much later, Ella casually brought up the event during a residential hospital stay. She told the staff that she tried to kill us one night by burning the house down. “It didn’t work though,” she said, disappointed. “My plan now is to choke them.” And then she was released back to us.

Or the fireplace incident.

Laila was standing in front of the fireplace one winter day after playing in the snow. I was in the kitchen making hot cocoa for everyone. Suddenly, I heard Ella screeching. I ran out to see Ella racing straight toward Laila, arms fully extended and palms facing out. I dove over the side of the sofa and threw myself in between the two of them, pushing Laila into a bean bag on the floor just before she fell into the fireplace. My face hit the brick hearth.

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Ella screamed, “Why would you do that?” I said, in my own shock and disbelief, “You were trying to push Laila into the fireplace. I can’t let you hurt her.” My words were slow and tense but quiet. I still couldn’t believe they were even coming from my mouth. “But I wasn’t doing anything to you at all,” she said. “I was just attacking Laila. You should be letting me do whatever I want to her.” I was frozen. I had no thoughts, no answers for this type of thinking. This wasn’t part of any parenting class I had ever taken. And we continued with the day.

And the pool scare.

Joe was in the pool with both Ella and Laila one day. He had gone over to the side of the pool to clean out the filter while the girls were on the pool steps. While Ella was a very good swimmer, Laila was still just getting used to the water. When Joe turned around, he saw Ella holding Laila under the water completely submerged. Even with Laila thrashing around and Joe yelling for Ella to stop, she continued. He swam as fast as he could and pulled Laila up from the water, choking and sobbing.

These moments barely scratch the surface of how we lived on a regular basis. Over the course of time, some of our animals did not survive. Others were terribly injured. Our children were suffering severely. Our grandchildren stopped coming over as a safety precaution. My husband and I were hit, bit, and beaten with anything within reach.

An overall lack of help

Over the years with Ella in our home, we had done everything we could to find help. We implemented every tool and therapy suggested to us by teams of therapists and psychiatrists to no avail.

We had alarms and security cameras everywhere in our home and walked on eggshells in anticipation of Ella’s next rage—the next round of screaming and punches in the wall, at the very least.

I always dreaded the look in my then 11-year-old son’s eyes when I told him to get himself and Laila to safety. I saw the sadness, the conflict. He wanted to stay and keep me safe. But that was not his job.

I now realize it wasn’t my job either.

I am a mom and a pediatric nurse. I am not trained to prevent or deescalate highly dangerous situations. Even if I were, there wasn’t enough of me to go around. My husband and I had two other kids and jobs. We couldn’t possibly watch Ella at all times.

Yet, due to lack of other resources, that is what was expected of us.

The more adamantly we asked for help from the mental health and social services professionals, the further we were pushed aside. Everywhere we turned, it seemed the answer was “no”. There were no open beds in the residential treatment center. Or there was no more help social services could offer.

There was no concern for our family as a whole whatsoever.

Attend #NavRAD22 with a loved one, leave with a plan for the whole family.

I knew we were truly sunk in a sad, scary, disconnected-from-reality system when staff from various entities—community-based programs, psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment centers, and social services—bristled when I said my daughter was manipulative. They were far more concerned with correcting our language about Ella’s disorder than with her fixation on physically harming our family, her little sister in particular.

My family lived in an abusive situation and we deserved protection.

As parents, we cannot water the garden while simultaneously put out raging fires. The fires demand full attention. Every other need of our children—aside from their basic safety—went by the wayside.

In nearly every other institution, we as a society teach our children to speak up. To not accept abuse from anyone. Yet, we accept and teach our children that abuse is acceptable from family—especially from other children. We make exceptions. They don’t mean to hurt us, they love us, we say.

This mentality sets a very dangerous precedent.

When parents are left without support

We were finally left with only one choice—to relinquish our rights as adoptive parents for the safety of our other children. Many parents have only this one heartbreaking decision left to protect everyone involved, including the child with RAD.

I do not believe the answer is to keep moving children into other placements. On the contrary, the best place for any child is in a safe and stable home. But traumatized children need far more to heal. Families can't do it alone.

A successful placement requires a full history disclosure to the parents and effective help for the abused child, ideally before entering a home. After the child enters the home, the whole family requires extensive support.

Because if a child abuses a family and moves onto another home—as children with reactive attachment disorder often do—the abuse follows there, into their adulthood, and onto future generations.

[INFOGRAPHIC]: Download "8 Steps to Take When Reactive Attachment Disorder Poses a Safety Concern in Your Home"

“Silence does not serve the child with RAD, the families trying to safely raise them, our communities, or our future,” says RAD Advocates President Amy VanTine. “We need to keep speaking up as parents, no matter how difficult, for the sake of everyone.”

I pray that the system will finally step up and do right by these children—children that have been repeatedly failed since birth. It is an immense, ever-present tragedy in our world that few know of.

Will the system do the right thing eventually?

Or will they continue to blame and ostracize the parents, next of kin, or other caregivers? Will they keep denying effective resources and training to the families who need it most? Will they continue to perpetuate the cycle of abuse, neglect, and violence in our world?

Only time will tell. But change is possible.

“RAD Advocates exists to build a future where families are effectively supported to raise children with RAD while preserving the healthy and safety of their families as a whole,” says VanTine.

Attend #NavRAD22 with a loved one, leave with a safe plan for the whole family.

*pseudonym to protect identity

Cheryl Ruzzo is a registered nurse with a certification as a pediatric clinical specialist. She has worked with families of many backgrounds and with various needs, including safety planning for medically at-risk clients. Most recently, Cheryl has spent a number of years as a stay-at-home parent and full-time advocate for her children’s needs and to educate about reactive attachment disorder. She and her husband Joe have three grown biological daughters, a biological 14-year-old son, six grandchildren, and have adopted two children.

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