This true story is one of a series written on behalf of a mom who placed her children at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development several years ago. She writes from a place of love as a woman who has endured the feelings of love and loss after adopting children with reactive attachment disorder. Her boys are now grown men. These are her reflections and memories, from life experiences and the wisdom that time bestows. And from a place of frailty that only a parent can know.
(The author uses pseudonyms for the protection and privacy of her children.)
He pulled the book out of my hand as I began to read to him and his younger brother. It was the first time my husband and I met with the two little boys whom we would later adopt. To share a colorful picture book seemed like a simple way to connect. “I can read it to him,” he insisted. I was startled by his adult-like confidence. It took me a minute to get my bearings. He was a three-year-old and I was the adult. I retrieved the book and my role as the storyteller.
It was not until many years later that I realized the significance of this first interaction. My oldest son, Billy, filled the role of parent. When I met him, Billy was three-years-old and his brother Todd just 13 months younger. Yet, even as a toddler, he supervised, instructed, and admonished his baby brother. As teenagers, Billy repeatedly sacrificed his own wellbeing to protect Todd (or what he thought was protection). They regularly conspired against us.
In return Todd, the younger, would take his cues from the “parent,” Billy. Todd followed him everywhere. Together, they seemed to form their separate family unit. My husband and I were limited in our impact as parents. We were emotionally shut out.
It took awhile. Yet, we began to learn.
We learned that neglected babies learn to care for one another to survive. They learn where to hide from danger and how to forage for food. It’s as though they become parent, child, and siblings—all in one—to each other. Attached children often take on similar roles in a family as well. Yet, children who bond to each other in an environment of neglect and abuse develop a trauma-bond. In that bond, they pit their contrived and separate family against the adoptive or foster families who attempt to welcome them.
By their early adolescence, my boys clearly had no regard for our parental authority. True, most teenagers naturally push the limits. Our boys, however, defied authority in self-destructive and dangerous ways. They stayed out all night, were truant from school, and were in trouble with the law. I now know that their inabilities to accept our parenting boundaries paralleled their defiance toward any form of authority.
Our family’s treatment at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development helped us to piece these experiences together. They gave us a chance to navigate some turbulent waters. My husband and I found solace in understanding the reasons behind our boys’ behaviors. In the case of our sons, I came to accept the limits of the parent-child relationship—our relationship was never going to replicate the type of family experience I knew as an attached child.
My children, by no fault of their own, were limited in how connected they could feel toward me. They were limited by what they could reciprocate. We could change some of our parenting strategies. Yet, we faced the realization that our sons’ struggles were set long before that first afternoon we read a storybook together.
To learn more about reactive attachment disorder and hear from families at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, please see our Videos & More page.
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