Lying, stealing, and physical and verbal assaults—this is just the beginning of the behaviors parents of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) face on a regular basis. Most parents have tried everything to get their kids on the right track and have nothing left to give. Well-meaning friends and family (and even clinicians) often have the answer for these exhausted parents—sticker charts (or some other form of positive behavior intervention). Yet, they don’t understand the realities of raising children with RAD.
Parents of children with RAD often try desperately to explain themselves to the people who tell them that they should “just try” this or that. Most parents are doing everything they can. When parents hear that they should “just try” sticker charts, etc., they hear:
- “You’re an incompetent parent.”
- “You’re not trying hard enough.”
- “I know more about your child than you do.”
In other words, many therapists, educators, and friends and family suggest that the parents themselves are the problem. However, the behaviors of children with RAD do not stem from poor parenting skills. Rather, their behaviors occur as a result of altered brain development due to early abuse and neglect.
Why sticker charts don’t work for kids with RAD
All the stickers and rewards in the world won’t do kids with RAD any good. In fact, they make everything worse.
Because sticker charts miss the mark altogether. To offer stickers and rewards to get a child with RAD to behave is like putting band-aids on the forehead of a child with chronic migraines. The parents may spend a lot of money on band-aids, but they’re not healing what’s going on inside.
Children with RAD don’t need to learn how to behave. Their behaviors are merely symptoms of the battles they fight everyday inside. What they need to learn is how to feel safe, let their healthy parents into their hearts, and build authentic relationships. When that happens, positive behaviors can follow.
Why sticker charts work for other kids
Children without RAD see sticker charts as a means to make their parents happy and earn little rewards along the way. Kids who have healthy attachments with their parents want to put a smile on their parents’ faces. Positive reinforcements like sticker charts, etc. give them a little extra incentive to do what they already know they can do—to do a job well and make their parents proud. This is a completely opposite perspective from what kids with RAD see.
Because their brains are in constant survival mode (fight, flight, or freeze), children with RAD don’t react to things the way other kids do. The sole focus at all times for children with RAD is to control their environments. They battle inner shame, lack confidence, and reject caregivers. When they see a sticker chart, they see another way to push their parents away. They will argue relentlessly over the way the chart was created, the specifics of the chore, etc. Their goal isn’t the stickers. It is to exhaust their parents—one more reason for the parents to give up on them. For them, that is safe and far more important than the sticker chart rewards.
The anti-sticker chart approach
One of the first things we tell parents here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development is to not work harder than their children. The anti-sticker chart approach is to let natural consequences—whether positive or negative—guide kids with RAD (see Love and Logic parenting).
While we believe natural consequences offer an effective parenting approach for all children, it’s especially important for children with RAD. To allow natural consequences lets parents remove themselves from the equation in a sense. Yet, they continue to show love and empathy for their children.
Here’s the catch…
Parents of children with RAD typically know more about RAD than their therapists, research thoroughly, and love relentlessly. They are often amazing and resourceful parents. If natural consequences alone were the answer to parenting children with RAD, every parent of children with RAD would already know about it. In fact, many of them already do.
Parenting can challenge everyone at times, with or without reactive attachment disorder. But parents of children with RAD are in relationships designed to break them down, wear them out, and push them away. It’s just not like “all other parent-child relationships”, as many people tell them. Furthermore, the outbursts of children with RAD typically pose serious danger for parents and other children in the family. Often, parents develop post-traumatic stress disorder, marriages dissolve, and other children in the home also suffer. All of these issues must be addressed.
A Love and Logic-based parenting strategy is only one piece of a very large puzzle while parenting children with RAD. Parents of children with RAD also need an overwhelming amount of authentic support and understanding from those around them. Sadly, they often don’t get it.
The most important piece parents of children with RAD need are highly-qualified attachment specialists. Unfortunately, such clinicians aren’t easy to find. However, they do exist. A good therapist will know how to help calm their children’s survival-based brains, establish trust between the parents and children, and provide support to parents and the family as a whole. Once that happens, the safety and security piece can follow. From there, children can learn how great they feel when they do a good job and see their parents happy with them. That is worth more than all the stickers in the world, for both a child and his parents—but it does take time and a highly comprehensive and strategic approach.