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When a parent needs to call the police on her child with reactive attachment disorder

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

“What do you want me to do for you?” the police officer said. I will never forget the perplexed look on the young officer’s face when I asked him to arrest my teenage son Wesley*.

I tried to explain reactive attachment disorder—the result of early childhood trauma that changes the brain and inhibits trust and authentic relationships. But my explanation only confused him more.

The officer thought I was crazy, along with everyone else. Most people have never even heard of the term reactive attachment disorder. And even those who have often have a hard time understanding it, unless they've lived with the disorder themselves.

We lived in a safe and stable community with caring first responders. It wasn’t common to arrest 14-year-old kids for “petty theft,” per their parents’ request, in our neighborhood.

Frankly, I still felt a bit confused myself. As the officer stared at me, I asked myself, “How did I get here?”

I still remember the rush of relief when a therapist diagnosed our child with reactive attachment disorder. Although I knew very little about the disorder back then, I felt like we finally had something concrete from which to work. Our family had been drowning from Wesley’s physical aggression, lies, and manipulation.

So when we finally had an official diagnosis that explained Wesley’s behaviors, I naively assumed everything would be okay.

The first time we sought help from the police was in response to our son’s new pornography habit.

Although we knew Wesley couldn’t handle a cellphone or similar electronic device, we bought him a Kindle Reader for Christmas. We didn’t see any harm in it.

Within hours of receiving the Kindle, however, Wesley had downloaded inappropriate books from the Kindle website. We did what we thought was best and took away the Kindle for a while. We had a talk with him. We hoped the pornography habit would stop.

But then Wesley started to access inappropriate websites on his friend’s old cellphone. That’s when, per my friend’s suggestion, I reached out to youth services at the local police department. We had tried everything else up to that point, including lots of therapy and various parenting techniques.

The officer I spoke with seemed to understand. It was, to my surprise, a pleasant experience. He even sent an officer to my house to write a citation for our son to appear before youth services. The experience really seemed to shake Wesley.

A youth services officer sentenced Wesley to 12 weeks of community service. He cleaned trash every Saturday and Sunday for three months. I thought I found the solution.

But Wesley began to urinate under the bed in retaliation. And every time I picked him up from community service, he’d gush about the great “friends” he met. Most of the kids had criminal records.

Months after Wesely's community service commitment ended, I realized I was missing several hundred dollars. I confronted Wesley when he got home from school. He admitted, eventually, that he had stolen the money over the course of many weeks from my wallet.

I called the youth services department, again looking for help. The youth services specialist told me they had nothing left to offer us. Due to Wesley’s idolization of the kids in the group, community service no longer a good option for him.

She said I’d need to have Wesley arrested in order to get additional help. I was baffled. I could not believe that, as a society, we had to wait to react to a bad situation instead of proactively avoiding one.

That is how I came to be the mom who stood on the front porch in my quiet suburban neighborhood asking the police to arrest my son.

Traumatized myself, I couldn't effectively explain reactive attachment disorder to the officer. I struggled to help him understand what I needed from him. He even called for backup to help him figure out what to do.

Thankfully, my husband came home from work and backed my story and wishes that our son get arrested. We invited the officer into our home to speak with Wesley.

Shortly after our son admitted to stealing the money, I heard the clink of handcuffs. It is a sound I never want to hear again. A sound I will never forget. A sound of which the mere thought turns my stomach.

The day felt extremely slow but, in reality, ended rather quickly. The officer booked Wesley into the city jail and then called for us to pick him up a bit later. The whole ordeal lasted about six hours from start to finish.

The juvenile justice officers gave us all they could within their guidelines. They at least helped me to provide Wesley with logical consequences—an important parenting task especially for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder.

In an effort to learn more from our experiences and share knowledge with other parents, I recently interviewed a police officer. I asked him what he would’ve wanted to know coming into the situation at our home that day.

As a seasoned police officer and a seasoned mom of a child with reactive attachment disorder, we've put together the following tips for parents.

The 4 best ways to get the police to understand your child with reactive attachment disorder—

1. Remain calm.

Remember the primary task of first responders, per their title, is to assess for and diffuse immediate danger. It is only from there that they can start to gather information.

The officer I spoke with said that, when a parent is calm, he or she immediately relays stability and the potential to provide solid information. The calmer you appear, the more quickly and effectively you can get through to an officer.

2. Be honest.

Tell the officer everything you can to help. If you feel embarrassed or hesitant, remember that officers encounter situations such as yours more often than you might know.

We all do things out of fear or protection at times. But remember that transparency helps the officer do his or her job, which leads to the next tip…

3. Let the officer do his or her job.

Remember first responders need to follow specific procedures. Help the officer to follow protocol so you can get the right help as soon as possible. For example, an officer may need to arrest your child in order to transport and admit him or her to the proper psychiatric hospital. Or the officer may just need you to provide permission to take the child in. It all depends on the situation and where you live. Whatever the case, cooperate.

I gladly agreed to press charges against my son because I knew it was necessary, unfortunately, to get help. Only someone who has raised a child with reactive attachment disorder can fathom doing so, I know. But I needed to do what was right for Wesely.

To keep Wesely from consequences would only aid his illness and prevent his growth as a person. And I knew that, as a minor, the charges wouldn’t follow him into adulthood. It was a small and helpful price to pay in the grand scheme of his life.

4. Prepare and practice.

No concrete formula exists for exactly what to say when you call the police. Yet, you should prepare for your specific circumstances and child. As you do, come up with a short, concise explanation of reactive attachment disorder that feels comfortable to share when the officer arrives.

Here at RAD Advocates, we advise parents to include the following points when communicating with police officers:

  • My child is dysregulated and is at risk of self-harm or harming others

  • My child has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. It is a complex mental illness in which he or she may rapidly change behaviors, especially when in front of strangers. Therefore, you may not witness the behaviors that I’m reporting.

  • The best way to support my child is for you to trust my report so we can unite in the best interest of him or her. I can provide you with the names and phone numbers of the mental health care providers with whom we work.

After you prepare, practice, practice, practice. Rehearse it in your head and out loud. Even the most eloquent speakers get befuddled and tongue-tied in the middle of a crisis.

Education about reactive attachment disorder is scarce.

Although it may feel daunting, remember above all that you are an educator in reactive attachment disorder. My interview shed further light on that fact. The officer said he didn’t know anything about the disorder before we spoke. In fact, he had to research it online in preparation.

Like many other professionals, including therapists and educators, very few police officers receive training on reactive attachment disorder. It is up to parents, unfortunately, to fill that gap.

Armed with new-found knowledge about reactive attachment disorder, the officer reflected upon past situations with clarity. Some of his experiences had ended well, thankfully. Others could've turned out much better had he been trained on the disorder.

I’ll leave you with the following anecdote the officer shared with me. This one ended well.

A father, a former police officer himself, called 911 numerous times over the course of a week. Each time, he reported that his son had abused him. And each time the officer arrived at the scene, the son admitted to a physical altercation with his father. Yet, the father felt reluctant to press charges or allow his son to leave with the officer.

By the fifth call of that week, the officer told the father that he couldn’t visit the home again and not do anything. He deemed the situation a domestic violence case and needed to act. He arrested the young man.

The father contacted the officer several months later and thanked him. As a result of the arrest, the son received proper psychiatric treatment and medications. He had never been healthier, said the father. Their home life was much better.

To call the police on a child is never a fairytale. It is often the first step and far from the last.

Whether it is the first incident or one of many, it is not helpful to minimize the harmful behaviors of a child with reactive attachment disorder.

My son is doing well these days. Because of the many hoops we had to jump through, he got the help he needed. I don’t regret the decisions that I had to make but I sure wouldn’t want to do it again.

“Sometimes the hard thing and the right thing are the same,” said musician Issac Slade. As a parent of a child with reactive attachment disorder, this is a mantra by which to live. It is not easy. There is no clear path. And it certainly isn’t the path that most people tread. Parents need to lead their own way with the confidence that, for themselves and their children, it is right.

*name changed to protect the child's identity


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