Shelli Myles (IACD Neurotherapist) and her father were at odds about her adopted daughters for years. According to him, Shelli was too hard on the girls, didn’t feed them enough food (although they always had a well-stocked fridge), or whatever else he thought she was doing wrong at the moment. The girls had a hard life and just needed more love, he told her.
The arguments Shelli had with her family, particularly with her father, left her feeling overwhelmed and isolated during the times in her life when she needed the most support.
Shelli’s experience with her father, unfortunately, is typical for those raising kids with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Others simply can’t understand what it’s like to parent children with RAD when they aren’t the primary caregivers. Even the most caring and supportive family members and friends can misunderstand. This is, in reality, not their fault. There are several reasons friends and family misunderstand those raising kids with RAD.
4 reasons people misunderstand parents raising kids with reactive attachment disorder:
1. Many people assume traditional ways of parenting work for kids with RAD. However, parenting kids with RAD requires a different approach. Children with RAD need highly structured environments, firm limits, and empathetic parenting. Due to their early trauma histories, they are “stuck” in toddler stages developmentally. Therefore, it’s not always appropriate for them to partake in activities well-suited for peers of their same chronological ages. Behavior modification strategies do not work for children with RAD either. Children who were abused and neglected at early ages seek control of their environments at all costs as a survival mechanism. This instinct overrides their drive for rewards or their response to typical disciplinary methods. For these reasons, friends and family often believe that parents are either too lenient or too hard on their children with RAD depending on the moment.
2. Kids with RAD are great manipulators. Due to their instinctual need for control, children with RAD typically triangulate relationships, may make false allegations against their parents, and often superficially charm adults. All of these control tactics quickly break down family relationships and communication between parents, grandparents, etc. Their manipulation also gets in the way of therapy.
3. People often believe that love cures all. Kids with RAD lack the ability to attach due to early abuse and neglect. Therefore, many people think that a lot of love and affection will counter the effects of early trauma. Sadly, this simply isn’t true. Early trauma physically changes the brain. While love from healthy parents is a vital piece of the long journey toward healing, love alone won’t “fix” RAD.
4. The general population lacks education about RAD. The scarcity of information about the realities of RAD across many systems creates a plethora of issues for those raising and working with kids with the disorder. Many therapists, teachers, friends, family, etc. don’t fully understand RAD and can’t offer sufficient support to parents. In fact, the parents themselves lack education and feel overwhelmed, confused, and hopeless about how to help their children.
What parents raising kids with RAD can do
Here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, we recommend that parents first educate themselves about RAD and then share their knowledge with friends and family. We feel education and advocacy is vital for long-term change for individual families as well as for our world at large. It’s important for parents to educate people around them as early and consistently as possible. “Parents can invite friends and family to trainings and support groups,” says AJ Bernstein, Attachment Therapist at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. “They can also ask their family therapist if their extended family members and friends can participate in therapy to learn about RAD and ways to help.”
Oftentimes, friends and family just aren’t options as reliable support systems. In that case, AJ recommends that parents connect with others at parent support groups and initiate conversations about the possibilities of swapping respite care. She also suggests that parents contact their adoption agencies to see if perhaps there are other families who are willing to connect who share similar struggles. “Admittedly, helping families brainstorm about ideas for support is something that therapists, myself included, often don’t emphasize enough,” says AJ.
No matter what, we tell parents not to give up. To find support is, admittedly, far from easy. However, raising children with RAD is an incredibly difficult job mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically. Without support, parents will burn out. We encourage them to keep looking for the sake of themselves, their marriages, and their children. For Shelli, it took years for her father to understand her children and parenting style. They still have a bit to go, in fact, but are much further than where they began. There is always hope.
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