When people think about reactive attachment disorder, they typically picture a defiant, destructive, yet superficially charming child. It’s the child we get the most calls about. It’s the one who ends up in our office most here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. However, children respond to trauma in different ways and can alter those adaptive ways in various environments. As a professional or parent of children with reactive attachment disorder, it’s helpful to know the differences.
Here are 4 ways children can present reactive attachment disorder:
Avoidant—seeks isolation, avoids closeness, seldom seeks comfort, avoids relationships, passive-aggressive, avoids feelings, intense sadness and loneliness, believes rejection by birth mother was justified
Anxious—tells ridiculous and obvious lies, fakes emotions, lacks emotion, chameleon, often fools therapists to think they are normal and parents are not. Less common sub-type.
Disorganized—displays odd and bizarre behaviors, has unpredictable moods, excessively excitable, frequent sensory or neurological problems, difficult to manage, lower cognitive abilities. Often seen from dysfunctional orphanages and typically has other mental health issues.
Ambivalent—openly angry, defiant, destructive, dangerous, superficially charming, lacks empathy, delinquent acts. Most prevalent sub-type in mental health systems.
When sub-types are important
No matter the sub-type displayed, we treat reactive attachment disorder in the same ways. However, it’s helpful to know the differences as a parent or professional to recognize the possibilities of trauma issues with multiple children. No two children are the same and can change with their environments.
The most common situation in which it’s helpful to know these sub-type differences is with an angry/withdrawn sibling combination. We often see older siblings first with an ambivalent sub-type when siblings from childhood trauma live together. When that child enters our program, however, some parents recognize that their younger “quiet” child from a trauma background starts acting up. That’s when parents get really confused.
To shed some light—it’s not that the younger child suddenly has reactive attachment disorder too. Oftentimes, RAD has been there the whole time. The older child often takes center stage in the home and the younger sibling is avoidant as a result. Younger children often display avoidant behaviors because they don’t have to “protect” themselves from attachment as much. Their older siblings often play that role and get all of their parent’s attention. Parents often recognize the older child’s aggressive behaviors but not the younger sibling’s withdrawn symptoms. When the older child leaves the home, the younger child often feels more vulnerable when parents turn their attention toward them. As a result, they begin to display ambivalent behaviors as a survival mechanism.
How you can learn more about subtypes of RAD
The more you learn about the nuances of reactive attachment disorder, the better equipped you are to make a difference. A part of our mission is to educate and advocate on behalf of those struggling to raise children from trauma backgrounds. If you’re interested in getting an intake/assessment at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, we can help determine the severity of your child’s attachment disorder as well as his subtype. If you have questions, please include your own in the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer them or create a blog post.