Susan Green keeps track each time she gets a call from her 10-year-old son’s school. Some days they call because he ran out of the building or instigated a fight with another student. Other times are due to his stealing or crude language.
After five calls, Susan treats herself to a pedicure. And she gets a lot of pedicures—at least twice a month. “Instead of stressing when the school calls repeatedly, I look forward to that fifth time now,” said Susan.
Susan’s son Matt* has reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a serious brain condition that results from childhood trauma. A child with RAD expresses the impact of their trauma in disturbing and even dangerous ways at times, especially if their disorder leans toward the moderate to severe range of the spectrum.
Along with the pedicures, Susan finds peace through her faith and playing musical instruments. She also exercises to raise money for RAD Advocates in the I Move for Change fundraising campaign.
Living with reactive attachment disorder
When Matt entered their family at age 4 from the foster care system, Susan knew right away that something was wrong. He had frequent and extreme tantrums. During these episodes, he’d throw and break things, kick, scream and roll on the floor—for hours.
Susan thought that Matt would eventually learn that tantrums didn’t get him what he wanted. And that he’d learn to feel safe in their home. The behaviors would decrease, she assumed.
But as Matt grew, so did his tantrums. The tantrums have become rages that pose a danger to himself and others over the years. Along with his troubles at school, Matt runs away from home, breaks windows and doors, and stands outside of their home screaming. And that is only the beginning.
Not all children with RAD act out publicly. In fact, many are quite the opposite. They often act out solely with their primary caregiver, the person who feels the most emotionally threatening to them. They typically charm other adults in their lives with nice manners and behaviors, leaving others confused and prone to blame the struggling parent—a common dynamic of RAD which makes parenting all the more difficult.
Whether subtle or overt, RAD behaviors can put a great amount of stress on the family. In fact, Susan is raising Matt and her other two biological children on her own. She and her significant other separated under the pressure of it all.
Seeking support for reactive attachment disorder
Susan has tried to get help over the years. They’ve visited numerous doctors, psychiatrists, and counselors. She called their adoption agency, begging for help. They’ve tried various medications. Nothing has helped.
There is no cure for RAD. But getting plenty of support from those who truly understand the disorder can make a significant difference. Finding those people, however, is incredibly difficult. Few people, including clinicians, truly understand the complex dynamics of reactive attachment disorder and how it impacts the whole family.
“I focus more on getting help for myself and my other children through respite, counseling, and self-care now,” said Susan. “I will give Matt as many resources as I can. But I no longer drown myself trying to save him."
Susan felt isolated for years until she learned about the nonprofit RAD Advocates, an organization founded by other RAD parents. RAD Advocates guides parents and advocates for systemic change with how RAD is understood and families get support.
Susan joined the RAD Advocates email list and started reading about how they help parents, how they advocate for systemic change, and stories from other parents just like her. And she attended their Navigating RAD 2021 event, a first-ever conference especially for parents of children with RAD.
“[RAD Advocates] gave me hope and validation, a connection to community,” said Susan. “I know I don’t have to go through whatever is next alone and that’s huge for me.”
Moving for RAD change
Life is still difficult for Susan and her family. But she knows that she’s no longer alone. And she feels empowered that she can make a difference.
Susan has joined I Move for Change, a peer-to-peer fundraiser that supports RAD Advocates. She runs a mile for every five dollars raised. And she’s gone nearly 60 miles thus far, moving for the physical and mental health and safety of her family and others like hers.
“It was very easy for me to jump in to raise whatever funds I can, even if [RAD Advocates] never has to advocate for me personally,” said Susan. “I now know there’s actually an organization that’s pulling for us.”
*pseudonym used to protect identity
About the author:
With a background in the nonprofit, education, and mental health sectors, Nichole Noonan writes to raise awareness and funds for important causes. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Education. Nichole founded Pen & Stick Communications to help noble organizations and people further their reach in the world.