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Why parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder requires far more than coffee with a friend

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

I’ve always known it’s a good idea to have a little time away from my kids. And it’s great to go on dates with my husband from time to time. It’s important for parents to take care of themselves and their relationships. But I didn’t consider breaks as critical for our survival as a family. That is until we adopted our daughter Carly* at age 10.

Before we knew to call it “reactive attachment disorder”, we could tell Carly was different from other kids early on. But what started out as quirkiness and defiance quickly developed into aggressive and outright dangerous behaviors in our family.

It was the simplest requests that set Carly off. If I asked her to pick up her shoes or get ready for school, for example, she’d lose control. She’d rage for hours, punching holes in the wall, screaming obscenities, and throwing whatever she could find at all of us.

On a few occasions, Carly climbed out of her second-story window and out onto the roof. She threw things and yelled at her brothers as they played in the yard. The more we tried to talk her down or get close to her, the further up she’d climb.

After a few hours, my husband and I could eventually calm Carly down from her episodes. But it’d start all over again anytime we needed to parent her or tell her no. This occurred many times, day in and out.

No matter the therapeutic interventions or parenting techniques we tried, nothing helped. And everyone in the family felt scared and exhausted by Carly's behaviors.

When we adopted Carly, we knew that the early trauma she endured continued to impact her. But we most certainly didn’t understand the extent of it. Reactive attachment disorder—the result of early childhood trauma that changes the brain and inhibits trust and authentic relationships—doesn’t just go away with love or time as we had hoped.

In fact, love and emotional connection are the very things kids with reactive attachment disorder fear most. The child’s behaviors become more worrisome the closer a person, particularly a primary caregiver, tries to get to the child.

The more I tried to connect with Carly, the more she tried to push me away with outlandish behaviors. And the more chaotic our home life became for everyone. I desperately needed relief. But parenting Carly required far more than coffee with a friend or dinner out with my husband.

We needed respite care. According to Oxford Languages, the definition of respite is a short period of time away from something difficult or unpleasant. And our family life definitely surpassed “difficult” or “unpleasant”. We lived in crisis.

So when a friend of mine offered to take care of Carly for a few hours a month, I took it. Because children with reactive attachment disorder primarily act out only with their own families, my friend could safely take her. I could run some errands alone. And my kids, husband, and pets had a calm house for a while.

But here’s where it became particularly tricky—

My friend’s house became Carly’s way out of the family. It was her escape from our love and nurture. And it was fun there. My friend did her hair and took her to puppet shows, barbeques, and street fairs.

Carly knew that the worse she behaved, the more we’d need a break. So every time she came home from my friend’s house, the chaos escalated. And the sooner she’d go back to my friend’s house. It was a no-win cycle for everyone.

I wish I knew the secret to seeking worthwhile respite care for a child with reactive attachment disorder early on. That is, a very specific kind of respite care is necessary.

Unfortunately, not just any respite care will do.

My friend and I didn’t know that our arrangement was making matters worse. A child with reactive attachment disorder seeks goods and services and rejects authentic human relationships. It’s not a healthy way to go through life. But this is the exact opportunity we gave her. We were inadvertently helping to fuel her disorder.

Although I didn’t understand why visits with my friend made matters worse back then, I did realize they weren't helping. That’s when I found a true respite care provider who understood my daughter’s needs.

Lori* was a fellow foster parent who agreed to keep our daughter overnight occasionally. She made sure Carly’s basic needs were met but didn’t entertain her. And, just like at home, Lori expected Carly to help out around the house and get to bed on time.

Carly wasn’t thrilled to return home from Lori’s house. But she didn’t escalate her behaviors back at home to return either. She was ambivalent. And our family finally had an occasional break from Carly’s behaviors without subsequent consequences. Her overnight visits slowly progressed to whole weekends at Lori’s house.

Carly’s visits with Lori certainly didn’t “cure” the reactive attachment disorder. But it didn’t make it far worse either.

And it didn’t solve our family crisis. But it helped my husband and I and our other kids to at least spend some calm time alone and together. And to catch our breath.

It’s hard to find quality respite care. The goal is for the child to behave at home and therefore gain the privilege to go to someone else’s home for a short while. Not the other way around. That's hard to establish but worth the trouble.

Below are some things to consider when finding a respite provider. Ensure that the person:

  • Is willing to learn about reactive attachment disorder before the child enters his or her home

  • Believes you even though he or she may never see the behaviors/symptoms you describe about your child while at home

  • Holds your child accountable for his or her behaviors

  • Consistently communicates to your child that you, the parent, define the rules and expectations for your child even when spending time with the respite care provider (this prevents triangulation, a symptom of reactive attachment disorder)

  • Sets up safety measures in the home such as an alarm on the door where the child will sleep

  • Ensures that the stay is boring or slightly uncomfortable so your child wants to return home

  • Provides tight structure and rules

  • Allows your child to feel disappointed or angry when told no. He or she doesn't attempt to rescue your child from such emotions

  • Communicates with you frequently and consistently

To parent a child with special needs is difficult in itself. But when the special need is a lack of attachment, the whole family is particularly impacted.

Breaks are essential for everyone. The family needs relief from the chronic stress the disorder brings into the home. Without breaks from reactive attachment disorder, families fall apart.

It takes time and energy, two resources you’re likely already short on, to find an effective respite care provider. But respite care supports the mental health and safety of your family as a whole, including your child with the disorder. And that’s definitely worth it.

*Names changed to protect identities.


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