We’d like to thank this brave mama, Laura Smith, for sharing her story as a member of our greater RAD community. The more we join and advocate together, the stronger we become. Thanks Laura.
I was raised by a Southern mama. She kept house like Better Homes and Garden. She hosted dinner for company like a Southern Living cover feature. She kept our manners and social behaviors in line like a recurring Dear Abby column—and we appreciated it for all the compliments we got on what well-behaved children we were.
Fast forward to my early marriage and pregnancy years. I began to develop my own idea of what kind of mama I wanted to become. I wanted all the charm and impressiveness of my mama’s talents but I wanted really good personal time with my babies too. I wanted Southern Living meets Family Fun. I wanted to be a precious mama—for my parenting to look beautiful and appealing.
Life was so simple as our first two sons were born that my vision of motherhood fell right into place. I had all the time in the world to play pat-a-cake, read books, and play puzzles. I strapped them to my chest or sang to them in the bouncer while I cooked. We took a walk every morning and every afternoon.
As they grew, they learned to play independently but we still read stories every day. They still ran up to hug my legs a few dozen times every night. Tantrums were few and misbehaviors redirected easily enough. They knew me. They trusted me. I appreciated the joy and simplicity of our family. Honestly, the compliments on how sweet our little family was weren’t bad either. We were pretty precious.
Fast forward another seven years—we’ve added a daughter through birth and a daughter and son through adoption. Our third son, from the day his foster parents said the hardest goodbye and delivered him to our home, has taken us on a traumatic and educational journey on what reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is and its effects on a family.
He has raged from day one for both security and autonomy.
Our other children have struggled from day one to understand, to not be afraid, and to not be harmed.
We have struggled from day one to know what to do to help both our son and the rest of our family cope—while friends pulled away and others offered correction.
Some days our aim was healing.
Other days it was survival, at best.
We’re just past the four-year anniversary of his gotcha-day now and we are also, just now, finally under the care of a reactive attachment disorder specialized counselor.
Finally, someone isn’t looking at us as if we need parenting classes when we describe how our son behaves and struggles to have healthy relationships at home. We’re finally talking to someone who KNOWS WHAT TO DO about what feels like unbearable damage and trauma in our own home despite the happy and precious framework from which we started. We’re finally able to have some confidence in the way we parent him.
You see, in those beginning years of being an adoptive parent, it was hard to wrap our heads around the fact that the parenting techniques we had used with our older boys weren’t helping our newest child. How could age-old wisdom fail us now? How could reverse psychology and Parent magazine expert tips not make a dent in our effort to stave off 2-hour-long screaming fits? How could a child so in need of stable and loving parenting react so violently to what he needed the most?
It hurt and bewildered us. And I’m quite sure it hurt and bewildered him.
We were so desperate for help to ease the turmoil. It was hard NOT to change our parenting techniques each time we read something new, took a new training class, or endured the disapproving glances or remarks of others. Maybe we were the problem? If we could just find the right approach—the right wording, the right balance to the power struggle—then maybe, just maybe, we could unlock his heart and his walls would break down. Maybe we could find the boy we call ‘son’.
It’s taken us four (I don’t even have an adjective here) years to let go of that notion.
Four years of enduring clichés and epitaphs and parenting book recommendations from friends and family members who can’t imagine his struggle is really as deep and ugly and hard as we say it is.
Four years of others thinking we treat our son differently because we’re angry—or worse—insensitive.
As if it’s never occurred to us that his screaming fits, refusal to accept our authority and love, and violence towards his sibling are coming from a very damaged and untrusting heart.
That maybe we forgot about (____) or haven’t heard about (____).
Four years of feeling like we were losing our minds.
Four years of being. So. Very. Alone.
It’s taken time to learn how very important it is to not be distracted by what other people think of how we parent him. It’s taken us four years to learn how long and hard a road this is going to be.
Four years to be able to tell you with confidence—
I want to cuddle with my son. Yet, he wants me to not want to. So he pushes me away with raging defiance and then, during correction, wants to snuggle in my lap.
I want him to be able to have a normal social life with activities and friends. Yet, he doesn’t make friends. He shops for new parents he thinks might make him ‘happy’.
I want a happy family life with all of our children. Yet, he wants to be in his own space and in his own world so he doesn’t have to trust or care about anyone. Because people hurt.
His siblings want to play with him. On his terms, playing means, “Make me happy or else.”
I cannot simply treat him like any other child and hope for the best.
I cannot give him all the ice cream and patience and hugs and assurance and make it all better.
I have to be firmer with him than I’ve ever had to be with the others because he is constantly expecting the structure to implode. And constantly testing to see if it will.
I have to keep him physically closer and allow less freedom because his fear and distrust gives way to erratic emotions and behaviors. The closer he is, the better I can guide him.
I have to ask you not to hug him because when he was very little and his brain was learning what ‘parents’ are, ‘parents’ didn’t equal ‘permanent’ or ‘good’ or ‘happy’. Your cheerful embrace looks ‘happy’—and he so desperately wants to be ‘happy’—so his heart wants you to be his parent. And that’s so destructive to the relationship he needs to have with us.
I have to stay focused on what my son and my family need most.
I have to parent in a way that doesn’t make sense to you in order to help him make sense of his world.
I can’t afford to be distracted.
I have a son to raise.
I’m not a jerk. But I’m not a precious mom anymore either.
I’m the mom he needs.