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Why Feeling Bad for Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder Doesn't Help Them

Updated: Jan 11


To truly help families of children with reactive attachment disorder, look through a lens of education and empathy rather than sympathy.
To truly care for children with reactive attachment disorder, develop a lens trhough education and empathy rather than sympathy.

To be who you needed when you were a child is a nice sentiment as a parent. And it’s a common one I hear from parenting experts, family advocates, and mental health practitioners. For most kids, having parents motivated by doing better than their own parents establishes a safe childhood where they can thrive.


But when it comes to reactive attachment disorder (RAD) — the serious brain impacts left by early childhood trauma — this sympathetic statement and lens are often detrimental to children with the disorder and the families who raise them.



Reactive attachment disorder is, unfortunately, a largely unknown and misunderstood affliction for most parents and professionals who work with children. Many professionals and parents mistakenly believe that it is rare. Aspiring therapists and other professionals rarely receive adequate training on the disorder in higher education settings. Some professionals even deny that reactive attachment disorder exists at all. It was never mentioned in the foster care training my husband and I attended. 


Because so few understand the realities of reactive attachment disorder, they often apply what they know from past experiences or how they feel. Most of the time, they feel sympathy for the children who had a rough start in life. It is human nature to feel sad given the terrible experiences children with reactive attachment disorder have often had. But how a professional or parent feels doesn’t often match what the child with reactive attachment disorder needs for appropriate placement, diagnosis, treatment, and parenting.


The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy


People often use sympathy and empathy interchangeably. Both are bred from compassion but aren’t the same. They are, in fact, very different things that lead to very different outcomes.


My 15-year-old simply defined the two as, “Sympathy is feeling bad for someone. Empathy is knowing how they feel.”  He’s not wrong. As defined by the Oxford Language Dictionary:


Sympathy (noun):  Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortunes.

Empathy (noun):  The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.


Sympathy is a self-centered state born from self-compassion. Sympathy is putting ourselves in another’s shoes. For example, a sympathetic person might say, “I wouldn’t like that if it happened to me. I feel sorry for them because it happened to them.” It is judging someone else’s circumstances from one’s own perspective as undesirable, deemed for pity. 


How a professional or parent feels doesn’t often match what the child with reactive attachment disorder needs for appropriate placement, diagnosis, treatment and parenting.

Sympathy sets up a power hierarchy where the sympathizer has judged themselves above, or in a more desirable situation, than the other person. It also does not require the sympathizer to take the other’s feelings about the situation into account. Therefore, any action taken from a place of sympathy is merely to soothe the sympathizer's uncomfortable feelings and has little to do with the other person’s needs or desires. 

 

To be who you needed when you were a child is a sympathetic sentiment. It is about an individual’s unmet needs as a young person. It is all about the type of parent that person needed, not the type of parent their child needs. The sentiment has absolutely nothing to do with the child in front of that parent.



Empathy, on the other hand, requires the ability to consider the other person’s perspective. Empathy is a skill and a learned skill, at that. The key to empathy is understanding. Empathy requires knowledge. Empathy requires education. Empathy requires the ability to entertain perspectives different from our own.  


Empathy leads us to connection. It enhances the other person’s autonomy to change their circumstances or heal. Empathy enhances effective parenting techniques, treatments, supports, and resources.


Empathy requires us to set aside our own experiences and perspectives about a situation in an attempt to see it from the other’s point of view. And while we can never truly understand another’s experience if we haven’t experienced something similar, empathy is an attempt to walk a mile in the other’s shoes. Empathy requires parents to question what their children need from them. Children with reactive attachment disorder need our empathy, not our sympathy.


The Use of Sympathy as a Recruitment Tool for Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder


My husband and I entered our parenting journey with sympathetic hearts. While I knew from a young age that I would become a foster and adoptive parent one day, it was a specific child that motivated us to start the journey.


I was volunteering for a youth running program to help elementary school girls build self-confidence. The culmination of the months-long program was a 5k race. There was a girl who was in foster care in the program. Her foster parents were not allowing her to attend the final race because they were going camping. 


The key to empathy is understanding. Empathy requires knowledge. Empathy requires education. Empathy requires parents to question what their children need from them. Children with reactive attachment disorder need our empathy, not our sympathy.

I came home fired up and full of judgment at the injustice of denying this girl the chance to participate in an event she had trained so hard for. I knew I could do better than her foster parents.That night, my husband and I contacted the foster agency in our area and began our journey. I was determined to be who I needed when I was younger for kids like that girl.


Anyone who has participated in foster care training knows that the training is well-suited for the sympathetic hearts and righteous indignation of prospective parents. Some of the stories told in our foster classes were the human equivalent of the animal rescue commercials with Sarah McLaughlin singing “Arms Of An Angel” in the background. They are effective tools in getting people to commit to traumatized children whom they know nothing about. 


Our foster care training reinforced the fallacy that time, consistency and love are all children need and we were the ones to provide it. We were given little information about the realities of parenting traumatized children. We certainly didn’t learn about reactive attachment disorder. 


The only difference between parenting traumatized children and non-traumatized children, they said, is the paperwork. The entire process made us feel good about becoming the parents we needed when we were children. But we were far from prepared about the reality ahead of us. 


Diagnosis and Treatment for Reactive Attachment Disorder Through a Sympatheic Lens


Because reactive attachment disorder is formed through an inconsistent and often neglectful or abusive relationship with an adult in the first three years of life, children with the disorder have learned that adults cannot be trusted to meet their needs. They are hyper-vigilant, hyper-independent, and strive to maintain as much control and emotional distance from caregivers as possible. 


Uneducated and inexperienced in reactive attachment disorder, parents and professionals often attribute acting out behaviors to trauma alone. They feel bad for them. This often leads to misdiagnosis.


Our foster care training reinforced the fallacy that time, consistency and love are all children need and we were the ones to provide it. We were given little information about the realities of parenting traumatized children.

Through a lens of trauma alone, rather than the more serious impacts of reactive attachment disorder, clinicians often attribute a child’s behaviors to disorders that include dysregulated emotional symptoms such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 


Prevailing treatments diagnoses such as PTSD and ADHD are medications, coping skills and therapeutic parenting. While such medications or interventions may seem to work in the beginning, they often end up making matters worse. To give any person the wrong medications and treatments for an affliction does not set a person up for success. It is no different with reactive attachment disorder.


Parenting and Treatment for a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder Through a Sympathetic Lens


Going into parenting traumatized children with a sympathetic attitude and little information about the realities of doing so turned out to be a recipe for disaster from the start.


During the early years of our parenting journey. I was committed to emotional validation, presence, consistency, reliability and safety for my children — all components of therapeutic parenting, as supported by professionals, friends, and family. It made sense to all of us from a sympathetic lens.


What I didn’t know was that we would end up parenting a child severely triggered by an emotionally validating, present, consistent, reliable and safe parent. We parented a child with severe reactive attachment disorder who challenged everything I believed to be true. All “normal” parenting rules went out the window.


Uneducated and inexperienced in reactive attachment disorder, parents and professionals often attribute acting out behaviors to trauma alone. They feel bad for them. This often leads to misdiagnosis.

To parent a child with empathy lends the capacity to force parents out of their comfort zones to show up in ways that provide opportunities for true safety, connection, and growth in the child they have, not the child they were or the child they want.


Early in our parenting journey, my husband and I very much believed that all children would thrive in a safe home with safe adults.  We excused many concerning behaviors of our son Joe’s as the effects of “merely” trauma. After all, we had never heard of reactive attachment disorder and fully believed he would settle into our family given enough time, love and consistency.  


My husband and I used therapeutic parenting techniques. We were consistent to a fault. We were patient. We were regulated. We were understanding. And yet, Joe’s behaviors continued to worsen. We were very sympathetic to the trauma he had endured early in his life, while still believing if we were who we needed when we were children, he would eventually calm down.


The common sentiment from professionals at that time was that we were doing everything right. They didn’t know what else to tell us. They were sympathetic, but not privy to the realities of reactive attachment disorder. 


What Joe and my family needed were professionals who could empathize with us. We needed an educated team around us who understood reactive attachment disorder, the implications of the disorder for Joe and our family, and resources to could access appropriate supports and services. But first, my husband and I needed to understand Joe’s motivation behind his behaviors.


My understanding of Joe’s behaviors became clear when he was about 7-years-old. At the time, I simply could not understand why he hadn’t settled into our family and adamantly rejected me after years of patience, love, and nurturing.


The common sentiment from professionals at that time was that we were doing everything right. They didn’t know what else to tell us. They were sympathetic, but not privy to the realities of reactive attachment disorder. 

One night, I woke to hear Joe crying in the middle of the night. I found him on the toilet, suffering from gas pains and constipation. I sat with him and rubbed his back. I got him some prune juice.  I sang songs about pooping that made him laugh. We hung out in that bathroom for a long time until he finally went to the bathroom. Afterward, I tucked him back into bed. It was a tender moment that I very rarely encountered with him.


The next morning, Joe came down to breakfast and excitedly told me the story of how he was up all night with gas pains trying to go to the bathroom. I told him I knew already because I was with him. He adamantly denied that I was there. He was convinced he was alone the entire time.


In that moment, I realized that Joe was so afraid of trusting me or having intimate moments with me that his brain literally could not even record the memory of my nurturing presence during a time of distress. He sadly had had no one during his infancy to comfort him and the idea of having it now was so distressing that his brain literally eliminated my presence from the entire memory.


It became clear to me why Joe rejected me as his mom. If he always felt alone while in distress, of course he couldn’t allow me to parent him. If I was telling him one thing and his body was telling him another, of course he believed I was untrustworthy. And if no caregiver had ever comforted him before, of course it was so terrifying for him to experience it now that his brain literally wouldn’t let him remember it. 

  

No matter how hard I tried, I could not parent a child whose brain did not even record my existence. 


When I Turned From Sympathy to Empathy for My Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder...Too Late


Although I still didn’t know about reactive attachment disorder, I eventually began to understand my child from his perspective. I realized I would have to parent Joe very differently than how I had wanted to parent. I could no longer be who I needed when I was a child. I needed to be who Joe needed. 


Joe needed a mother who didn’t expect emotional reciprocity. He needed a mother who didn’t judge her worth on his outcomes. He needed a mother who understood that mothering was intensely triggering for him. Joe needed a mother who was willing to use nonconventional parenting techniques for his well-being and the safety of the entire family.


“Parents, often time especially the mothers I’ve worked with, have an idea of the kind of parent they want to be. But the child’s disorder is so intense that they are forced to become the type of parent they never wanted to be trying to keep the family safe,” says Forrest Lien, therapist, early childhood trauma expert, and NavRAD keynote speaker.    


As Joe aged, and despite our new understanding of reactive attachment disorder, our efforts as Joe’s parents were too little too late. Joe’s behaviors continued to escalate until an out-of-home placement was necessary both for his well-being and our family’s safety. By then, understanding that Joe was triggered by intimacy and nurturing, the most loving and empathetic thing we could do for him was let him go. Of course, we didn’t intend for that happen. It’s never what we dreamt of when expanding our family


Although I still didn’t know about reactive attachment disorder, I eventually began to understand my child from his perspective. I realized I would have to parent Joe very differently than how I had wanted to parent.

I often imagine what would’ve happened if things were different and we understood the reality of reactive attachment disorder before Joe even entered our home. I wonder what would’ve happened if everyone in Joe’s life, including us, had led with empathy from the beginning. Maybe we wouldn’t have needed to make such an overwhelming difficult, yet still empathetic, decision in the end. 



*name changed to protect identity



About the Author:


After parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), the author is passionate about furthering advocacy and education for RAD families. She hopes that, one day, other families will receive more support, understanding and empathy than hers did. For now, she chooses to remain anonymous until that time comes. But she continues to volunteer for RAD Advocates in their mission to educate and advocate to equip families, communities, and professionals to effectively support children with reactive attachment disorder.

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It is sad that children impacted by RAD are not seen as being any different from any other child. This insistence by therapists and others leads to much more damage than an understanding from the beginning. I can identify with the being there for my son, literally by his side and comforting him, yet he will say I was never there. Wasted so much of my life trying to convince him I cared and trying to correct his lies to others as well. Out of home placements had to be the norm as it was too dangerous to have him in he home. Correct understanding from the beginning may have allowed for a better outcome.

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Great article for sure. Many folks reference an out of home placement like it’s an easy thing. But for us it has been impossible and we need advice. The help we get is not helping. I wish we could access the paid radvocates support for real help.

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