Parenting in general isn’t easy. And it’s all the more difficult to raise children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). But because children with RAD look like “any other” children and often act differently outside of their own homes, it’s hard for others to see and understand the difficulties of parenting them.
Children with RAD—like toddlers—often take things that don’t belong to them, lie, act selfishly, and throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their way. This stems, in many ways, from how their brains developed. Children that have adequate parenting in their first three years of life build a foundation of trust to move successfully through their stages of development. When they experience early abuse and neglect, however, they miss that chance. Their brains therefore get “stuck” in a way during toddlerhood.
Unlike toddlers, kids with RAD don’t just “outgrow” their troublesome behaviors. For them, it’s not a typical developmental stage—it’s a disorder. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a renowned trauma expert, identifies their early trauma as a developmental trauma disorder. These children battle fear of attachment and trust, disrupted brain development, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people think that “good” parenting and love are all these children need to overcome their difficulties. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Just like children with RAD are different from their peers, parenting them is unique too.
Traditional parenting and sticker charts just don’t work. These kiddos have special needs. But it’s far from easy for parents to meet those needs. For them, figuring out how to “teach” empathy and trust—things that many children learn inherently—combined with responsibility, is an ongoing puzzle.
Here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, therapeutic treatment parenting is one vital piece of our comprehensive model. In our therapeutic treatment homes and while in therapy, kids learn responsibility, trust, and empathy; the importance of relationships; and how to communicate their feelings with parent-figures.
Many people wonder why the children’s own parents can’t do what our therapeutic treatment parents can.
There are good reasons parents of children with RAD can’t reach the point our treatment parents do with kids. We’ll get to it. But first, a glimpse into a therapeutic treatment home at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development…
Over Christmas, our therapeutic treatment parents Tina and Ken had the kids in their home participate in Operation Christmas Child at church. Each one of the children chose an age group and decided whether they’d like to buy items for a boy or girl. They picked 10 items from the dollar store. As they went through the store, they learned that toys were nice but that toothpaste, deodorant, and hairbrushes were needed just the same. They also purchased a card and wrote a note to the children to whom they chose to give.
That weekend, the Van Dyne home had a leak in the water tank. It was also right in the midst of Ken, Tina, and the kids watching a season of The Little House on the Prairie. Perfect timing, Tina thought, with the Christmas project. The kids had to use bottled water to brush their teeth and flush the toilet for one bedtime routine. “It was a good lesson to show them what we take for granted—things that weren’t available back in the days of Laura Ingalls but also of which aren’t available to many of the kids to whom we sent Christmas boxes.”
In addition to lessons on empathy, Tina and Ken also teach responsibility through life skills. The kids do chores around the house and learn to cook, budget, and other tasks. “All of these scenarios allow the children to work on relationship building, trust, and an awareness of how their behaviors and attitudes affect their lives and those around them,” said Tina.
In Ken and Tina’s home, children experience critical life lessons they missed during their early years. They learn how to follow directions and develop confidence and self-esteem with their “practice parents”. The children learn that their needs will get met, to trust caregivers, to develop cause and effect thinking in regard to achieving the “wants” in their lives, and to accept responsibility for poor choices.
Seem obvious? Or easy? Far from it.
To get kids involved in charity projects and learn life skills may seem like things most parents can do to help any kids learn empathy and responsibility. While these are activities in which other families may easily partake, it actually takes a village for those raising kids with RAD. Although parents of kids with RAD are vital to their children’s healing, they simply cannot do it without help.
5 ways parenting is different for parents of kids with RAD vs therapeutic treatment parents:
1. The emotional investment is different. Children with RAD push away the person who tries to get the closest to them—often their mothers—as a form of self-protection. They do so in emotional and exhausting ways. The children don’t have that same relationship with therapeutic treatment parents. Although our treatment parents care for the children, they just aren’t their actual parents. The kids don’t feel as emotionally threatened. For the same reasons, our treatment parents don’t get burnt out emotionally like the children’s own parents often do. Therefore, they can reserve their energy and emotional stamina for calm, therapeutic parenting.
The therapeutic treatment parents do get close enough emotionally to make a difference, however. Unlike rotating staff at residential treatment centers, hospitals, etc., therapeutic treatment parents really get to know the children. They are able to get past the children’s emotional defenses to help them heal.
2. A team of attachment specialists support the children while they live in the treatment homes. Many of the children’s own parents don’t have access to effective interventions for their children due to lack of specialists in their area. Yet, the children living with our therapeutic treatment parents have access to attachment specialists and a team surrounding them. For this reason, they’re getting the therapy and other interventions they need while simultaneously gaining the benefits of a positive family environment.
3. Therapeutic treatment parents have the background, respite, training, and support they need for the job. Most parents of kids with RAD have been isolated from their support systems. Furthermore, they lack the training and education required to parent children with RAD. Our treatment parents get the training, emotional support, and respite most parents lack. Furthermore, many of our therapeutic treatment parents have already raised their own children with RAD and understand the realities and hardships involved. They’re well-prepared.
4. The children cannot control the environment and get in the way of their own healing. Children with RAD attempt to manage their environments and the people in them to feel safe. Once familiar in their environments, they quickly learn how to change the dynamics. They’re good at disassembling groups of adults trying to help them. At IACD, the close team of adults working together combined with a new and unfamiliar environment prevents children from doing so.
5. Therapeutic treatment parents have time that the children’s own parents do not. Children with RAD require constant supervision to stay safe and to model healthy adults. Their own parents often do not have the means to provide such close proximity and guidance at all times. They have busy schedules with jobs and the added responsibility of other children. However, therapeutic treatment parents provide such an environment as their full-time careers and have the team support to do so.
Children with RAD have the chance to calm, get the therapies they need, and learn how to be “family kids” living with therapeutic treatment parents—all while connecting with their own parents through frequent family therapy sessions.
Given all that children with RAD need to heal, one can see how their own parents often struggle. Sadly, many people don’t understand. Friends, family, and other support systems often expect parents of children with RAD to meet a nearly impossible standard. They assume the parents alone can provide everything their children need to heal. This judgement and misunderstanding is extremely isolating for parents. Children from hard places require more than a “good family”, warm bed, and love. Such things provide a great start for children surviving the effects of abuse and neglect. However, it is only the very beginning. Kids with RAD need far more help. And so do their parents.
We’re always looking for therapeutic treatment parent candidates. Learn about a “day in the life” of an IACD parent.