Updated: Mar 2, 2021
As a mom of a child with reactive attachment disorder, I understand loneliness. But the path that took me to that place is more complicated than most would assume.
Many parents of children with special needs are lonely because they don't leave home much. The special equipment needed for an outing may be cumbersome and time-consuming to prepare. Sometimes the parent is just weary from the attention they get in public. The parent may want to protect the child from the stares of others.
But those weren’t my struggles when I was in the thick of raising my son.
My son has unique special needs that impacted my relationships. But my child's needs weren't what directly impacted my social life. It was my reaction to him that brought unfair attention.
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Years ago, for example, my son and I went to visit my in-laws. They, like any other grandparents, bought my son a new toy that required batteries. I told my son that we’d get batteries the next time we went out. Yet, he left the room and came back with batteries minutes later.
It was a simple moment for everyone but me.
I knew my son had shuffled through cabinets and drawers. But he wasn’t just looking for batteries. He was looking for something to steal. I promptly asked my son to show me his hands. Only batteries. I then checked his pockets— nothing.
Shocked by my reaction, my in-laws assured me it was fine. “He just really wanted to play with his toy,” they said.
But because I was the only one who knew better—because I understood my son’s disorder and, thus, sneaky ways—I looked like a monster mom.
Later at bedtime, I found coins in my son’s socks. I knew where they’d come from. But no one would’ve believed it if I’d told them. They would say the change could’ve come from anywhere. Or they’d say, “It’s just a few coins. There’s no harm. He’ll outgrow this stage.”
It is the general lack of knowledge about reactive attachment disorder that paves the way toward loneliness for parents. Because people don’t understand the disorder, they blame moms and dads for poor or irrational parenting.
Reactive attachment disorder is a serious condition. It is not a developmental stage children outgrow. But most of the behaviors, including lying and stealing, do look “typical” and age-appropriate at times from the outside. This is what makes the disorder so difficult to understand.
The differences behind the behaviors of a neurotypical child and a child with reactive attachment disorder go deeper than what friends, family and professionals can see.
"It is the intent behind the behaviors of children with RAD that is troubling. It is the frequency of such behaviors that is far different from that of other children," said Forrest Lien, Owner of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. "It is the lack of remorse for the behaviors that set children with the disorder apart from others."
Children with reactive attachment disorder control their surroundings in ways others can't fathom due to their early trauma—constantly.
To make matters more confusing, a child with reactive attachment disorder behaves much differently with his or her primary caregiver than with others. It is a complicated survival mechanism used to push away the adult who most closely nurtures and cares for the child.
So many people told me that my son was charming and well-behaved with them. They’d say it must be us, the parents, that were the problem. We just needed to show more love and attention. After all, they’d say, he had such a rough beginning.
“They” included nearly everyone in our lives—neighbors, friends, family, teachers and even clinicians. They didn’t know what it was like to live with reactive attachment disorder though.
At first, I tried to explain myself. But after a while, I just stopped. I was exhausted from raising my son. I didn’t have the energy.
I found I had nothing to talk about anymore. Our lives were so vastly different from those I knew. And when I described my life, no one believed me anyway.
I withdrew. I quit calling friends. And the more I pulled away, the more skeptical and judgmental people became.
“Raising a child with reactive attachment disorder is like drowning in front of a bunch of people that don’t know how to swim,” said Autumn J, a mother of a child with reactive attachment disorder.
At some point, we just drown in it—the judgment, the hurt and the isolation that inherently comes with raising a child with reactive attachment disorder.
If you are that person, don’t go it alone. Take a moment to reach out to a reactive attachment disorder support group on social media. You can also invite RAD Advocates to walk along the journey with you. We will understand.
If you know someone raising a child with reactive attachment disorder, take a moment out of your day to check-in with that person. As parents of children with reactive attachment disorder, we don’t expect you to solve our problems. Sometimes all we need to know is that someone is thinking of us.
When we lift up drowning parents in our families and in our communities, we lift up their children too.
You can start with just a simple phone call.