“He’s just being a typical teenager,” they say. “He’ll outgrow it.” This single sentence exasperates most people raising teens with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Reactive attachment disorder in teens brings up different issues than for those raising “typical teens”. As a parent of a teen with RAD, you know your child has larger battles ahead than many of his peers. Typical responses about your “typical teen” probably make you feel more alone and overwhelmed.
Here’s the good news—if people say that you’re too strict with your teenager or over react in regard to parental concerns, you’re most likely on the right track in your parenting.
Many parents are able to give their children a bit more freedom as they grow from children to adolescents. Teenagers often have the capacity to make more decisions for themselves than when they were younger. For teenagers with RAD, however, this isn’t usually the case. Teens with RAD are different from their peers, even if they look the same on the surface.
Here’s why teens with reactive attachment disorder aren’t “typical teens”—
1. Early trauma changes the brain. Even though teens with RAD may look like other teens on the outside, they have much younger brains. That’s because children who were abused or neglected before the age of 5 didn’t get opportunities to experience normal early child development. Therefore, they essentially get “stuck” in the developmental stage of a toddler. They don’t “outgrow” their trauma. Teens with RAD are cognitively and emotionally less mature than their peers. Like a toddler, they will take or do what they desire in the moment without forethought.
2. Healthy attachment contributes to healthy remorse. All teens test limits from time to time. The difference between attached teens and those with RAD is how they feel about their poor choices. Attached teens have the capacity to feel guilty and correct behavior on their own accord. Teens with RAD will continue to make poor choices without empathy for others.
3. Peer influence is more powerful for teens with RAD. It’s normal for teenagers to spend more time with friends as they get older. Those influences, however, impact attached teens differently than those with RAD. Attached teens have regard for their families. Even when they spend a lot of time with peers, they may still make some time for their families. Teens with RAD have little to no attachment to their families and will follow their peers without pause.
4. Teens with RAD have abnormal social relationships. Most attached teenagers learn to successfully navigate relationships outside of their families. However, teens with RAD seek control at all costs to feel safe as a result of early abuse and neglect. This interferes will all of their relationships, including with peers. Therefore, their peer relationships are often short-lived or superficial.
5. Teens with RAD desperately want to attach to others based on their terms rather than to have reciprocal relationships. Therefore, they can develop emotionally and sexually inappropriate relationships. They can get obsessive about relationships. Sexual relationships may be the only way they feel as though another person cares for them.
To raise a teenager who has the mindset of a toddler makes puberty and peer pressure all the more stressful during the teenage years. It’s extremely difficult for parents and their teens. Here are some tips based on our practices here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development.
Tips for parents raising teens with RAD:
- Take care of yourself through empathetic parenting. We recommend the book Parenting Teens with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. Teens with RAD can benefit from empathetic parenting when they are in a good place mentally in which to do so (which is why we utilize the parenting strategy in our program). Empathetic parenting helps children with RAD to accept responsibility and become, as we say at IACD, “family kids”. While some teens with RAD aren’t at a point where they can benefit from empathetic parenting, their parents still can. Parents often feel less anxious when they can let go of power struggles with their teens and allow them to experience the consequences of their own decisions.
- Remain calm. As stated above, remaining calm will allow you greater emotional and mental health. Moreover, a calm environment will help your teen to feel safer. Teens with RAD feel less safe with parents who lose their temper. Angry parents confirm the belief that the world is scary and unreliable. Of course, keeping calm is extremely difficult to do with teens with RAD who know how to “push your buttons”. You have a greater capacity to remain calm when you don’t engage in arguments with your teen. If your child is engaging you in an argument, less is more. Be kind and empathetic but firm and to the point. Tell her that you love her too much to argue and move on.
- Keep your teen safe. Again, children with RAD have cognitive and emotional capacities of toddlers. Things that other teens “should do” don’t apply to your child. If you wouldn’t allow your 4-year-old to drive a car, stay home alone, or ride his bike to a friend’s house, we advise against letting your teen with RAD do so. She simply isn’t safe in the same environments and situations in which her peers can venture.
- Restrict electronics. Here at IACD, our teens don’t get access to electronics. Social media and the Internet provide too many opportunities for teens with RAD to establish superficial relationships, false identities, and inappropriate emotional and sexual relationships. Furthermore, teens use electronics to create further distance from their families, limiting opportunities to build healthy attachments.
- Get help from a qualified attachment therapist. You can’t do this alone. Your love is important but, unfortunately, not enough to heal your child with RAD.
It is wise and necessary for you to recognize that your teen is, in fact, different from her peers. Setting firm limits and parenting with empathy doesn’t mean that you’re limiting your teen’s joy. On the contrary, you’re helping to keep her safe and to feel safe. For fun, you can engage your child in conversation about a book you both read, play board games as a family, or watch a family-oriented movie together. Empathetic parenting isn’t about power and control—it’s about respecting and honoring your child’s needs, as well as your own.
The next time someone tells you that you’re too strict with your teen, take a breath, smile, and pat yourself on the back. They can’t understand. You know why you’re doing what you do and that’s all that matters.
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