Imagine a soldier comes home from war. But when he returns, there aren’t “Welcome home hero” signs. No warm embraces. The people he loves might be there—maybe his wife and parents—but only to tell him that the war was his fault. That if he had just tried harder, he could’ve stopped the war all on his own.
This is the sort of message relayed to those raising society’s toughest children—those with reactive attachment disorder (RAD also known as developmental trauma disorder). RAD is a disorder that develops in kids who are unable to attach normally to their caregivers, often due to the effects of early abuse and neglect. Whether an adoptive or foster parent or stepparent, they don’t receive support. Instead, friends, family, and professionals who don’t understand RAD tell them to just love more or parent better. And just like soldiers, these isolated parents often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It’s hard for most people to imagine how parenting can end in PTSD. After all, they’re “just kids”. But children with RAD aren’t like other kids. So raising them isn’t like raising other kids either.
What it’s like to raise children struggling from the effects of early trauma
To raise a child with RAD is very different from raising other children. Traditional parenting and discipline simply don’t work due to the nature of the disorder. The lack of trust and attachment changes everything in the parent-child dynamic. And the closer a parent tries to get to a child with RAD emotionally, the further away the child pushes.
The tricky part is that raising children with RAD can look similar to raising other children to outsiders. Just like all children, kids with RAD lie to their parents, steal things from others, argue with their parents, and throw tantrums when they don’t get their way. Unlike all children, however, kids with RAD take these troublesome behaviors to a whole new level. The behaviors are constant, not occasional. The tantrums turn into dangerous situations. The lying is completely irrational to the point that parents begin to question their own sanity. The arguing is incessant and exhausting. At the same time, parents of kids with RAD get a lot of unsolicited advice from others who think they understand the situation. All of these misunderstandings lead parents to feel more alone and confused.
On top of these “normal-looking behaviors”, kids with RAD also do plenty of things other children do not. Because they don’t trust adults to care for them, they attempt to control their environments and the people in them. For kids with RAD, these innate behaviors are a survival mechanism. Thus, they carry them out extremely well. Children with RAD can easily charm and manipulate adults in subtle ways. For example, they often push away their mothers by lying about them to others—whether family members, teachers, or even the police. Yet, others do not see such behaviors.
As these behaviors continue day after day, life falls apart behind closed doors. The primary caregivers feel as though they aren’t doing enough when they’re actually giving everything they can. They don’t often leave the house due to their children’s behaviors. Other children in the family feel the effects of it all. Over the years, the primary caregivers—often the mothers—lose all hope. She loses herself.
How raising a child struggling from early trauma is traumatic
Parents—typically mothers—often look frantically for help with their children with RAD. Yet, their spouses and extended family members don’t understand the situation and blame them. Even most mental health professionals either don’t understand the realities of RAD or don’t know how to help. As a result, parents begin to feel isolated. Many mothers of children with RAD say they feel as though they’re “going crazy”. Ironically, many parents who work relentlessly to help their children overcome past trauma experience PTSD of their own. If you or someone you know raises a child with RAD, please look for the following signs of PTSD.
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What to do
When children and their primary caregivers simultaneously suffer the effects of trauma without help, families fall apart. The divorce rate is high for those raising children with RAD. Also, many adoptive families face the risk of adoption disruption. They need outside help. Sadly, parents who struggle with PTSD typically don’t find that help. They often don’t have the resources to do so and can’t find qualified attachment professionals. Many times, they hide their issues from friends and family who have blamed them for “poor parenting” for years.
If you are a parent with PTSD or want to help a loved one, consider the following:
- Sign-up for our newsletters to learn more and advocate on behalf of children with RAD and their families.
- Learn about our unique therapeutic treatment model for children with RAD.
- Share our videos about reactive attachment disorder with others.
- Attend one of our workshops or arrange for our Executive Director Forrest Lien to travel to your area to give one.
- Take (or give parents) respite time away from a child with RAD to rejuvenate.
- Find a qualified attachment specialist.
- Consider a visit with a physician for evaluation and treatment for depression.
Here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, we’re working to educate the greater public and advocate on behalf of those raising children with RAD. A loving family environment is the best chance kids from hard places have to heal. But that healing doesn’t come easy. While family is a crucial start, kids with RAD don’t heal from love alone. And time doesn’t take it away.
Those raising kids with RAD need far more than warm beds and big hearts to help their children heal. They need extensive training about parenting a child with RAD, help from attachment professionals, support from loved ones, financial resources, respite care and, sometimes, specialized inpatient treatment for their kids with RAD. Sadly, they rarely get any of it. Families fall apart, adoptions disrupt, and the cycle starts all over with kids cycling in and out of foster and adoptive homes.
Please join us in our fight for greater education and action about the realities of RAD. Together, we can support these parents, help children overcome the effects of trauma, keep families together, and build healthier communities.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June of 2015 and was updated in July of 2018.