When their foster daughter *Becca first arrived in *Carrie and Don’s home, she was sweet. “She told me she loved me within the first hour that she arrived,” said Carrie. Becca drew a picture of Carrie, complete with rosy cheeks and curled hair. She gave the drawing to Carrie affectionately. Just when Carrie began to enforce house rules and give directives, however, Becca’s demeanor changed dramatically. She grabbed the drawing she had made, scribbled all over it, crumbled it up, and threw it in the trash. The sweet Becca had left the building.
Becca displayed a common dynamic in reactive attachment disorder—the “honeymoon phase”. Becca’s honeymoon phase in her new home environment was extremely short—a mere two hours. Other children with reactive attachment disorder may carry out the honeymoon phase for several weeks or months. Those parenting children with reactive attachment disorder often feel completely disoriented by the dynamic. They wonder what happened to the charming and cooperative children who first entered their homes.
Why the switch in behavior for kids with RAD?
Of course, qualified professionals need to assess children as individuals to decipher their needs. Sometimes, a shift in behavior over the course of months or years in children can occur due to late onsets of genetic mental illnesses. On the other hand (or in addition to), the “honeymoon phase” of reactive attachment disorder could explain the shift in demeanor in children with RAD. Some children with RAD skip the honeymoon phase all together. Again, every child is unique.
The single reason children suffering from early trauma carry out the honeymoon period is to gain control. Due to early abuse and neglect, children with RAD learned early on that they couldn’t trust adults to care for them. They learned only to rely upon themselves. Thus, to gain control is a primal need of survival for them.
The 4 steps of the RAD “honeymoon phase”:
- Present a false sense of trust in order to lower the guards of the adults who care for them
- Observe adults to find their trigger points and weaknesses
- Charm other adult figures outside of the home, including grandparents, counselors, and teachers
- Split adult relationships within their environments and gain control
Here’s what those working with or parenting children with RAD must know—even though children with RAD fight for control at all costs, they will never feel safe until they learn how to let it go. Think of it this way: Imagine you had always wanted to fly a plane. Rather than learn how to fly it properly, you found the loopholes you needed to fly unlicensed. You have full reign. Yet, would you really feel safe if you were in ultimate control of a plane? Wouldn’t it feel scary up in the air with full control when you’re not yet prepared to fly?
Children with reactive attachment disorder were forced to ‘fly the plane’ from very young ages. They need to keep their planes in the air so they will survive. While they continue to fly the plane, however, it feels very scary inside.
Here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, children cannot carry out the honeymoon phase for lengthy periods. That’s because we have a solid team that the children cannot split. Our community includes the local schoolteachers and principal, police department, our therapists, executive director, therapeutic respite providers, and therapeutic treatment parents. The entire IACD community creates a circle of safety and security around children. It is within that circle of safety that children can begin to learn to trust adults, let down their guards, and foster authentic relationships in their lives.
Although the honeymoon period can feel nice for a while, they all end in some way. When those working with or parenting children with reactive attachment disorder can recognize the phase for what it is, they can move on more effectively. If navigated with plenty of support and professional guidance and advice, the end of the honeymoon phase can offer opportunities for real work to begin.
*names are changed to protect identitites
We’re hiring therapeutic treatment parents. All of our treatment parents came to us as parents of kids with RAD themselves. Learn about a “day in the life” of an IACD parent.