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Why parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder isn't the same as parenting other kids

Updated: May 1



Early in our childrearing lives, I became a stay-at-home mom. My husband Jon supported our family financially while I handled most of the “kid things”—from school matters to doctor and dentist records and visits. We regularly talked about parenting decisions together. Jon just didn’t need to physically do the tasks.


This arrangement worked well for us. That is until we adopted a child with reactive attachment disorder.

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Before we adopted, I didn’t really question how my kids knew that they should obey me. They just did. I recently asked one of my adult sons about it. He said he trusted Jon and me to make good decisions for him. And he respected us and didn’t want to disappoint us.


It’s such a simple concept that most parents don’t even give it a second thought.


When we adopted our son Wesley, we just naturally expected that he’d trust and respect us. But it doesn’t work that way for a child with reactive attachment disorder. Wesley had never learned to trust or depend on anyone before us. We took that basic right for granted.

So we took parenting Wesley for granted too. We simply loved and treated him like our other kids.


But several years into the adoption, I felt attacked and disrespected by Wesley. I couldn’t understand why or what was going wrong. When I shared these feelings with Jon, he did what he knew how to do then as a dad and husband. If he kept Wesley busy with consequences of his own, he thought, I’d get some relief and feel supported. Meanwhile, Wesley would learn some things and shape up.

Jon began to give Wesley chores to do on our farm. But after he’d leave for work, I’d see Wesley doing absolutely nothing from the kitchen window. He spent most of his days staring at our home, taunting and jeering at me as he leaned on a shovel or against the barn.


I’d go outside and tell Wesley to work, he’d do so for a few minutes, and then he’d stop. We repeated this routine, over and over. I tried to enforce Jon’s consequences to teach Wesley to respect his dad. But I became the warden.


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Both Jon and I became frustrated. This went on for years and only got worse.

The more Wesley acted out, the more I tried to protect Jon from the inconveniences of parenting. I felt it was my job to painfully enforce Jon’s consequences, field all the calls from school, and have the hard conversations with Wesley’s therapist. The worse matters became with Wesely, the less I shared with Jon. It seemed easier for everyone at the time.

In our efforts to support one another, Jon and I were ironically at odds all the more. We didn’t know that the nature of reactive attachment disorder is to divide others and conquer. And when reactive attachment disorder conquers, the child and family lose.


Looking back, I should have let the cards fall as they may. In my efforts to smooth the rough edges of our family, I prolonged the confusion and frustration between Jon and I. Jon may have felt irritated if the school interrupted his workday. He’d be unsettled to see the true magnitude of our son’s behaviors. But he would’ve realized the reality of the situation far sooner. We could’ve come together more quickly.


Jon and I may not have known what to do for Wesley at the time (we didn’t even know reactive attachment disorder existed then), but at least we’d have each other.


I understand now, after years of therapy for our family, that Jon and I parented Wesley all wrong. We treated Wesley like a neurotypical child. In our efforts to treat Wesley like our other kids, we didn’t meet his unique needs.


To raise a child with reactive attachment disorder in traditional ways is like treating a diabetic child with chemotherapy. Through no fault of our own, we simply had the wrong prescription.

We couldn’t expect Wesley to just trust us. And he wasn't able to naturally receive love and give it back. We couldn't teach Wesley to simply respect us.

We couldn’t just pick up from where someone else left off. We needed to first build the foundation of trust Wesley had never gotten as a young child. Start from scratch. And Jon and I couldn’t do that without the right help or without each other, insanely united.


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