Kim Larson ran away from her foster care home at age 16 and was pregnant by the age of 19. But that’s not where her story ends.
When obstacles get in Kim’s way, she moves them. While pregnant, 19-year-old Kim earned a GED. After she had her baby boy, she started college and studied social work. Next, she became a foster mom at age 24 and later adopted the little girl in her care.
Kim is a social worker and mother of two today. And she’s not done moving obstacles. It’s now Kim’s time to make way for the little girl who follows in her footsteps. Miley, once in foster care and now Kim’s adopted daughter, struggles with reactive attachment disorder due to early trauma.
Kim decided to send Miley for treatment here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, no matter what. Miley has been in our program for two months now and will most likely stay through the summer before returning home. “I made the determination that I will do whatever I have to do to fund this treatment,” said Kim.
Kim has made a way for Miley with gusto. She started advocating for foster care, adoption, and her daughter, of course, on the Today show. Next, she started a Go Fund Me account. Later, Kim applied for matching donation funds through the Lend a Hand organization. “It was a shot-in-the-dark,” said Kim. She was delighted to hear that the program accepted her proposal. The program will give 100% of funds raised directly to Miley’s treatment and will match up to $5,000 on donations. The chili kick-off and silent auction dedicated just for Miley is Saturday, February 17. Kim was also featured recently on media outlets to highlight the event.
In typical Kim-fashion, this is the first time that the Lend a Hand organization has ever raised money for a mental or behavioral disorder. “A lot of people don’t understand mental illness and how these kids with trauma are so severely impacted,” said Kim. “While she might not have a disorder that will result in death, it’s an incapacitating illness. Thankfully, through the matching funds that Lend a Hand is able to provide, it’ll end in life and that’s amazing.” Amazing, indeed. Just like Miley and her mama.
Dean and Dianna Morgan knew a lot about parenting when they brought their 2-year-old adopted daughter Caylee home. After all, they had three biological sons of their own already. They assumed they’d parent her in the same way they had their boys and she’d easily settle into their family. “We figured we would just love her and everything would be fine,” said Dianna. By the time Caylee had reached 8th grade, however, her parents realized that she hadn’t outgrown attention-seeking and socially inappropriate behaviors that had seemed rather normal as a toddler. It was then that Dean and Dianna realized that they’d need much more than love to parent Caylee. They began the long journey to find the help they needed.
Just like Dean and Dianna, many adoptive and foster parents learn that parenting children with traumatic early histories is very different than raising children with healthy early developmental experiences (to learn more about their story, please go here). Yes, love is important while raising children with RAD. In fact, healthy, stable, loving parents create the most important foundation piece from which children with RAD can begin to heal. Those parents need a lot of good help along the way, however.
Here’s what loving, healthy parents need to help their children with RAD heal:
The first step to get children with RAD the help they need is to attain accurate diagnoses. Therapists often misdiagnose children with RAD for having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, etc. While many children with RAD often have co-morbid disorders, RAD is typically misdiagnosed or overlooked altogether. Click here for a guide to help parents find qualified attachment therapists.
It’s vital that parents find therapists who specialize in reactive attachment disorder. To work with ineffective therapists often creates further issues within families. Children with RAD understand the power dynamics of relationships and often manipulate therapists. Traditional therapists often miss opportunities to truly understand family situations. The children also often create triangulation with their therapists and parents. While the process to find a qualified therapist takes time and considerable research, it’s energy well spent to avoid further complications (see guide above).
The most common financial means adoptive parents rely upon for treatment of RAD include Medicaid, adoption subsidies, or private insurance. These resources do not effectively cover the high costs to effectively treat RAD, however. Even parents who are financially secure quickly end up in debt due to the costs of medications, various therapies, and residential treatment centers (which are often ineffective anyhow) while raising children with RAD.
In the case of adoption, the best time to request sufficient funds is before adoptions are final. We recommend that parents consistently fight, whether before or after they finalize adoptions, to attain the funds they need in whatever means possible—through adoption subsidies, insurance, etc. The entire system needs a paradigm-shift and it starts with individual parents demanding the resources they need.
Raising children with RAD exhausts entire families. Parents raising children with RAD often develop PTSD themselves. Marriages often fall apart. Other children in the family feel the effects as well. It’s vital for everyone to receive family therapy to keep the family intact.
To raise children with RAD is emotionally exhausting. Parents need all of the support they can possibly get from those who care about them. However, children with RAD typically lie, manipulate others to gain control, and are superficially charming. Many friends and family members fall into triangulation and believe that the children’s parents are unreasonable or dishonest themselves. As a result, parents of children with RAD feel isolated from their support systems rather quickly. We recommend that parents educate friends and family members about RAD to see through children’s manipulative behaviors. If their efforts fail, they need to seek their own alternative support systems in any ways possible.
Therapeutic parenting is different than more traditional parenting models and doesn’t usually happen intuitively for parents. A qualified attachment therapist is essential to help parents of children with RAD work through their own triggers, remain calm in the face of disturbing behaviors, set clear and consistent limits, allow their children natural consequences, and focus on attachment and relationship.
All parents need a break to take care of themselves, tend to relationships with other adults and each other, and rest. Finding those breaks, however, is not easy for parents of kids with RAD. The job is simply too much for typical caretakers, friends, and family to fulfill. They either don’t have the capacity to handle extreme behaviors or risk further manipulation and triangulation within the parent support systems. Whenever possible, we recommend that parents find professional respite care or create babysitting co-operative situations with other parents of children with RAD.
Too many parents learn the hard way that love and good healthy parenting simply aren’t enough to help their children with RAD heal. While they definitely lay the foundation for opportunities to attach, so much more is necessary. Loving, healthy parents require plenty of professional assistance, support, education, and self-care for that healing to actually begin.
Temper tantrums, the physical need for daily naps, or thumb sucking—these are things that children usually outgrow with time. However, there are certain things that don’t dissipate without plenty of the right help, including the effects of early traumatic experiences. Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) doesn’t just disappear with time, contrary to what some people believe. Children who aren’t effectively treated for RAD most often grow into adults with personality disorders.
Reactive attachment disorder is a brain disorder
Even though other people can’t see the differences on the outside, the brains of children with RAD look different from the brains of children who didn’t experience trauma. Reactive attachment disorder is a brain injury that typically occurs as a result of early abuse and neglect. Just as a person can’t simply “outgrow” the brain disorder of bipolar disorder, neither can a person simply outgrow RAD.
When people experience traumatic events, the stress hormone cortisol gets released in the brain. This biochemical reaction to chronic and extreme stress changes the formation of the brain. Consider this analogy—think of the human brain like the earth and water like trauma. Over time, the release of water over the earth begins to erode the soil into pathways. As pathways form, the water rushes down those pathways again and again until they become canyons. Like the earth, the brain begins to look physically different than it once did. Therefore, the brain reacts differently as a result. When the brain experiences a trauma trigger, fear becomes an overwhelming irrational emotion. The brain automatically goes into survival mode and the person fights, flees, or freezes in his own way. Such triggers only make the erosion and canyons deeper with time. It is not something people can just forget, outgrow, or “get over”.
RAD may look like just another developmental phase, but it’s not
For those who don’t understand RAD or haven’t raised a child with RAD, the disorder can look like just another developmental phase. 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. Their behaviors can look similar to that of a younger child. They steal, lie, argue, throw temper tantrums, blame others for their mistakes, and have trouble regulating their emotions, for example. Yet, children who were abused or neglected during their youngest years don’t continue to develop normally and “outgrow” it like other children. Their brains are hard-wired to stay put.
The assumption on behalf of the general public that children with RAD might just be a bit behind developmentally makes sense. They believe that the children will just catch up eventually. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
When children who aren’t treated effectively for RAD grow up
When children don’t get the help they need for RAD, their distorted thinking patterns only get more solidified. They often grow up to essentially have “adult RAD”—know as cluster B and C personality disorders. They include borderline, histrionic, antisocial, narcissistic, dependent, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorders. Each disorder is different from the other. Yet, all adults that suffer from these various personality disorders have difficulties with attachment and relationships.
Individuals battling personality disorders aren’t the only ones who suffer. Society as a whole pays the price for untreated trauma as well. According to stress expert and psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert Bessel van der Kolk:
Toxic stress in childhood from abandonment or chronic violence has pervasive effects on the capacity to pay attention, to learn, to see where other people are coming from, and it really creates havoc with the whole social environment. And it leads to criminality, and drug addiction, and chronic illness, and people going to prison, and repetition of the trauma on the next generation. (see reference)
We are all affected by early trauma as a society. It is all of our responsibility.
Ways to overcome early trauma
Childhood provides the best time frame to decrease the lifelong effects of trauma. The older we get, the harder it becomes to battle it. It is possible to battle personality disorders. However, adults must desire to work extremely hard to overcome those beliefs and behaviors that have been ingrained over their lifetimes. The best chances to overcome trauma is to begin the work as soon as possible.
We can all do something to overcome the effects of early trauma in our society. As parents, we can recognize and fight for the right help our children need. As friends and family members, we can educate ourselves and support parents raising children with RAD. As professionals, we can continue to learn about what works for kids with RAD as well as what does not. As citizens, we can advocate for sufficient funding and education to support parents raising children with RAD. There is not one easy solution but we each have a voice.
For parents, professionals, family members, citizens—everyone:
Even though we can’t see it from the outside, trauma is very real in the everyday lives of those battling it. Unfortunately, to hope it away or wait until adulthood will only exacerbate the problem. It is certainly not an easy road but there is hope. We’ve seen many children get the help they need and grow into adults capable of leading happy lives.
In the 1993 comedy movie Groundhog Day, actor Bill Murray plays a man stuck in one day of his life. “I’m reliving the same day, over and over,” he says in the movie. Although our take on Groundhog Day 2017 here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development isn’t at all funny like the movie, we understand the sentiment.
While we’ve seen progress in regard to advocacy and education about reactive attachment disorder, there’s a long way to go. It still can feel as though we’re reliving the same day in a world that lacks knowledge about how to help children suffering from the effects of early trauma. This insufficiency prevents children from moving forward toward healing.
4 problems that leave kids with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) stuck:
1. Children with RAD have opportunities to manipulate teachers, police officers, their extended family members, clinicians, and other adults. Children with RAD have a knack for manipulating others. That’s simply a part of the disorder. They do so in order to feel less vulnerable and in control of their surroundings. This manipulation includes lying about their adoptive or foster parents and breaking down relationships.
When children with RAD have the capacity to gain control over healthy adults, the following often occurs:
2. There’s a lack of education in regard to RAD across many systems. Friends and family of adoptive parents, police officers, caseworkers, clinicians, teachers, and parents themselves lack sufficient information, education, and support to effectively recognize, understand, raise, and work with children with RAD.
When parents can’t find the education, support, and services they need to raise children with RAD, the following often occurs:
3. Parents can’t get the funding they need to provide effective help for their children. The most common financial means adoptive parents rely upon for treatment of RAD include Medicaid, adoption subsidies, or private insurance. These resources do not effectively cover the high costs to effectively treat RAD, however. Even parents who are financially secure quickly end up in debt due to the costs of medications, various therapies, and residential treatment centers (which are often ineffective anyhow).
When parents cannot afford the support and expertise they need to help their children with RAD heal, the following often occurs:
4. The foster care/adoption systems use “revolving door” policies in which children move to and from various homes too often. Our legal system requires efforts to reunify children with their abusive and neglectful parents. The reunification fails if the emotional problems leading to abuse are not clinically addressed. Meanwhile, children often move from foster home to foster home during the reunification process because they are emotionally and behaviorally acting out. The moves can contribute to the attachment problems in the child.
When children are moved multiple times, the following often occurs:
The impact of broken systems in regard to reactive attachment disorder
Children who were abused and neglected early in their lives already have battles within them to fight. Our obligation as a society is to protect our children from further harm and support them as they work to overcome the effects of early trauma. We fail to do so when we neglect to educate and support the healthy adults who work with and raise them. We fail to support children when they lack the financial resources they need to get the professional help they deserve. We fail to protect them when we remove them from stable and healthy families. Ultimately, the children, their foster and adoptive parents, and society at large pay the price for these recurring problems. As mentioned prior, children with RAD who aren’t treated effectively often grow into adults with addictions, who are frequently incarcerated, and who pass the cycle of abuse and neglect onto their own children.
The two things we can all do (with you) to break this harmful cycle
The good news is that we’ve seen progress over time. More people are paying attention to reactive attachment disorder. It’s our time as advocates to educate, educate, educate. We’re on a mission here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development to diminish the negative effects of neglect and abuse on our children and in our communities worldwide through quality treatment for and awareness of reactive attachment disorder. Just like parents can’t raise kids with RAD without support, we as an organization can’t advocate alone.
We invite you to join us in our mission to educate, advocate, and create paradigm shifts in our nation. No matter what you do, where you live, or who you are, the two things you can always do are to learn more about RAD and to educate others. Be the squeaky wheel. The more we are united, the greater difference we can make.
By the way, Bill Murray figures out at the end of Groundhog Day how to learn from his mistakes. He changed his words and behaviors and changed his day for the better. Can we do that too as a nation for the sake of our children? It starts with you. You have a voice.
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