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Why our family isn't like the others: The reality of reactive attachment disorder vs. trauma issues



From the moment I realized my family was falling apart, I was on a mission to save us.


I was desperate but hopeful. I finally understood the root of the problem—my adopted daughter’s reactive attachment disorder, the result of her early trauma, impacted the whole family. I just needed to find the solution.


Easy enough, I thought. I’ll start with a therapist who specializes in early trauma. But I quickly learned it was far from easy.

While I met several well-intended clinicians along the journey, no one helped. Our home life actually grew more chaotic from their guidance. They tried to teach us to attach to our daughter. But the harder we tried to do so, the more extreme her behaviors became.


We had holes in our walls, knife stab marks in the mattress of our bed, and three other traumatized children as a result.


We were forced to make our own path, completely alone. Even our friends and family didn’t understand. We felt judged and blamed by nearly everyone in our lives.


Register for Navigating RAD 2021, a unique conference for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder.

By the time our family made it through, but without our daughter living in our home, I had learned a lot the hard way. I had a mental list of all the things I wish we did and did not do. I had resources I wish I knew about earlier.


Despite how depleted we were as a family, however, I realized that I had a lot to give—the gift of experience and knowledge.


That’s when I started RAD Advocates, a nonprofit organization that educates about reactive attachment disorder and advocates for those raising kids with the disorder. I hoped to help families navigate reactive attachment disorder with less pain and more success than we had.

About that time, I had the opportunity to attend a conference focused on attachment and trauma in children. I was eager to acquire new knowledge and resources to share with other families.


The first day of the conference started off well enough. The keynote speaker seemed to understand trauma. He described trauma behaviors and how to break through to healing. It all made sense, except that it didn’t quite match my experiences or the families we serve at RAD Advocates.


I knew the behaviors the speaker described, but to a far greater extent. And the techniques he explained were the same ineffective ones therapists had tried with my daughter. Maybe we missed a step along the way, I thought. I remained positive that there’d be more to learn.


Sadly, I was wrong. Every other session I attended included basically the same information I’d heard in the past—all about trauma and attachment, yet oddly so far removed from the reality my family faced.


And that’s when it hit me. Families like mine don't have kids with just trauma and attachment issues, they have severe reactive attachment disorder. I had taken for granted that most clinicians understand the difference.

It’s a difference licensed clinical social worker Forrest Lien does understand from working with children with RAD and their families for more than 40 years.


“Attachment problems are on a continuum of severity from attachment issues to mild, moderate and severe reactive attachment disorder,” he explains.


The clinicians at the conference were trauma-informed, yes. But they weren’t informed about the severity of the issues families like mine experience.


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“Many therapists start by trying to establish a trusting relationship with the child. Then they attempt to teach parents to connect with the child,” Lien says. “Neither is possible for children with moderate to severe RAD. They don’t have a foundation to trust anyone. They’re terrified of authentic relationships and will do anything to avoid it, including manipulation and triangulation, often at the cost of the family in which they live. Most people outside the family don't see it.”

Our families need something different—not ineffective therapies, typical residential treatment centers or mismanaged medication plans—all of which we typically receive.


I left the conference frustrated, but did walk away with an idea.


I decided that, one day, we’d host our own conference as RAD Advocates. We’d talk about the reality of raising kids with moderate to severe reactive attachment disorder. We’d guide parents to realistic solutions. We’d surround parents with camaraderie, support and professionals who actually understand and believe them.


And after years of dreaming and planning (and a hiatus year through a pandemic), I’m thrilled to share that our conference is finally coming to fruition this August in Denver.


Through the guidance of RAD Advocates and trusted clinicians, including Lien, parents will leave with their very own family plan for moving forward. They will leave with new friends—parents who can support one another.


And I hope they leave, above all, with the simple yet amazing relief of feeling understood, finally.


Register for Navigating RAD 2021, a unique conference for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder.


About the author:


Amy VanTine founded RAD Advocates after facing the challenges of parenting a child with RAD. She understands the needs of RAD Advocates clients first-hand, as well as how to effectively and efficiently bring a family plan to fruition. Amy’s experiences, combined with her empathy, resourcefulness, and professionalism have made RAD Advocates a front-runner in bringing awareness and change regarding the disorder. Amy’s long-term goal is to create a nationwide shift in helping families of children with RAD.

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