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Why a parent of a child with reactive attachment disorder is one of the loneliest kind of caregiver

Updated: Aug 7

When we told our family and friends we were adopting, they were by and large supportive.

On our home study, we had to explain our support network. I wrote that even though my parents were in another state, they are psychologists, and my mom would be out to help in the summers and on breaks. I wrote that we had two good couple friends in town. I wrote about how we already had a therapist picked out for our future kids as well as a great charter school near our work.

But you don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t realize why home studies want to make sure you have a good support network. And I didn’t know what constituted a good support network.

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Soon we were parenting a 9.5 and 13.5 year old sibling pair with a history of severe childhood trauma that resulted in reactive attachment disorder (RAD).

We were thrown into the deep end with no real-life experience, and the support network we thought we had wasn’t at all what we truly needed. We didn’t have anyone who would be available at a moment’s notice to take the kids and give us a break. The social workers had not set us up with respite, and we barely knew what that was.

Wrong Respite for RAD

Children with reactive attachment disorder are threatened by intimate caregivers because these are the relationships where they were originally hurt. They learned early in their lives that they could not trust their primary caregivers and because of that, push against us to keep us at a distance. For this reason, other adults are often able to care for the children without encountering the problems we do as parents. In fact, children with RAD are often quite charming to adults outside the home and are experts at triangulation. But this creates its own problems in which others do not believe us when we say our children have special needs.

Because children with RAD look like any other children in public, they’re typically treated as such. They do not get the special accommodations they need, including with regard to respite care. Among other things, children with RAD need highly-structured respite care environments rather than choice-based activities that work for other children.

Respite that is not structured and is more fun for the child than being at home is actually the opposite of helpful. Though we want breaks, we also want our kids to be happy to see us and to want to be in our homes.

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When respite is all fun and games, the child with RAD will want to be with these other adults instead of their parents, hampering bonding. In addition, their behaviors are often worse when they return home from such breaks because beneficial structure was lacking.

For example, we found out our town had a crisis center we could send our son to when things got out of hand. At first, it was highly structured. They did writing exercises and therapeutic work on their issues plus lots of chores. No TV or anything like that. It worked great. Our son would turn things around and want to come home as soon as he could. Then the two experienced crisis center directors retired, and a new director was hired. Things became a free-for-all. Our son began to like it there. He looked forward to acting out with the other troubled kids at the center. Our only emergency support was gone, and this played a fatal role in our family’s demise.

What We Need

Friends, family and coworkers are quick to tell parents what “saints” or “angels” we are for raising troubled children. But they aren’t so quick to make the commitment to help in a way our families truly need.

Studies have shown that having a strong support network is beneficial to families. Having extra caring adults and mentors helps children. No one needs a village more than families raising kids with special needs, such as reactive attachment disorder.

But I believe we are among the least likely to get this support because RAD is not well understood, and we RAD parents often appear unstable and unreasonable. Because our friends and family may not understand what we’re going through or see the behaviors we see, they don’t understand why we would want them to be structured. They can’t fathom why we might ask them to create a rather boring environment when they take our kids. If they do see the behaviors we see, they often won’t want to be around them. It’s complicated, isolating and lonely.

November is National Family Caregivers Month. As caregivers of children with RAD, we need friends, families, and communities to be brave enough to step into the ring with us. To raise their hands and volunteer to learn how to provide respite in ways that will help our families first survive and eventually heal. A few hours a week, a night a month, a small commitment compared to the burdens we bear can make a huge difference.

If you’re willing to help a RAD family, or you’re a parent looking for a resource to share with those willing to help, check out this respite guide.

Our kids need more than love, and we need a village of support to find healing.

Find your path and your village. Attend NavRAD this October.

About the author:

Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Wyoming.

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