Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Maybe you adopted a child. Or you stepped in for a child who was abused or neglected by someone in your family. Perhaps you are a stepmother of a child whose biological mother isn't emotionally available. Whatever the case, it’s not your fault that your child has reactive attachment disorder.
I know you feel like you have failed in some way—maybe in every way. Yet, your child’s struggles aren't your fault.
Reactive attachment disorder stems from early childhood trauma that occurred by three-years-old. When a child experiences trauma during this particularly vulnerable timeframe, the brain becomes hardwired not to trust anyone. These children only rely on themselves. Their ability to form connections with trusted caregivers has been crippled. When someone steps in to provide love and nurturing care, the child cannot accept it.
As heart wrenching as it is, your love and care feels suffocating and life threatening to your child.
Children with reactive attachment disorder live in a state of hyper-vigilance and will do whatever they can to survive. You feel so scary that your child will do whatever is necessary to get away. This means your child will seek refuge from you—the very person who cares most—no matter the cost.
The more intensely you try to connect and care for your child, the more intensely your child will try to push you away. Your child may try to push you away with overt behaviors. Yet, most often, the behaviors are subtle. My daughter stopped eating to the point of hospitalization—over and over. She felt safer at institutions than near me.
Some children with reactive attachment disorder verbally or physically abuse other children or pets in the home to repel a caregiver. Others will reject nurturing in the form of food, medical care or other life necessities when presented by a caregiver. Many will falsely accuse their caregivers of abuse or neglect.
You may be the only person who notices your child’s concerning behaviors.
You know the child best and the behaviors are directed toward you. No one else sees what you do. This is why primary caregivers of children with reactive attachment disorder often report “feeling crazy” and get little support from others.
Many well-meaning outsiders and even professionals may give advice to “love harder” and spend more time with the child. Yet, to push attachment before the child is ready only makes matters worse for everyone—you, the child and the rest of the family. The more you try to connect, the more chaos your child will try to cause.
“Attachment is not the means to healing from early trauma. Rather, healing from trauma can eventually lead to attachment with the right help,” says renowned trauma expert Forrest Lien, LCSW, Owner and Founder of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. “Attachment is the hopeful end result, not the starting point.”
Be kind to yourself.
Success for your child may look very different from the bar set by society. You’ll also need to parent in a way that looks completely different from most parent-child relationships. You’ll likely feel judged for being the parent your child needs. Know, however, that you are doing the best you can for your child.
You are not a failure. On the contrary, you are an advocate—a strong, resilient fighter. You’re doing the best you can to navigate a journey you likely never realized you’d face. You are raising a child who has reactive attachment disorder. And I think you’re phenomenal.