This story is one of a series written on behalf of a mom who placed her children at IACD years ago. She writes from a place of love as a woman who has endured the feelings of love and loss after adopting children with reactive attachment disorder. Her boys are now grown men. These are her reflections and memories from life experiences and the wisdom that time bestows.
Just recently, I came across a graduation cap that my son never wore. He got his GED and had the opportunity to go to his graduation ceremony. Although we bought the cap and gown for it, he never went through with the rite. My boys are grown men now and it still brings up feelings. Because kids with developmental trauma (a.k.a. reactive attachment disorder or RAD) typically sabotage their own achievements, they are more familiar with disappointment. My son didn’t know how to acknowledge his success at that time.
May is a month of acknowledging successes with year-end team parties and high school and college graduation ceremonies. This time of year is particularly difficult for parents of children with developmental trauma. Their children typically fall behind peers their ages emotionally and cognitively due to differences in brain development. To make matters worse, children who’ve been abused or neglected sabotage their own successes because they don’t feel worthy of achievement. Children with RAD also constantly seek control and feel entitled to various privileges whether earned or not. Because they were abused or neglected in the midst of important developmental stages, they remain “stuck” in the toddler stage emotionally and cognitively. They can be extremely demanding and unreasonable as a result. These combined factors lead to children with RAD and their parents feeling frustrated—particularly as other kids are graduating from high school, finding employment, or moving away from home.
To find quality professional help for children with RAD to attach emotionally is difficult in itself. Even when parents find the right help, they can still struggle with how to proceed as their children struggle through developmental milestones that their peers breeze through. It’s not helpful for parents to “save” their kids with developmental trauma from failure. When they do so, they rob their kids of learning opportunities. Yet, kids with developmental trauma do need extra structure in order to thrive. It’s a tricky fine line.
Here’s what we recommend to parents of kids with developmental trauma as their kids navigate typical developmental milestones alongside their peers—
- Keep your expectations realistic. Avoid frustration and disappointment and embrace your child’s strengths and limitations. Remember that your child is at a different age cognitively and emotionally from his chronological age. He may not meet developmental milestones at the same time as his peers.
- Find alternatives that fit your child and provide him guidance. Find ways to support your child within safe boundaries. For example, you could suggest Job Corp to a child who wants to move out of home at age 18 but isn’t ready to live completely independently.
- Accept that your child will create his own life. My sons did not go on to achieve their master’s degrees or have white picket fences. That is okay. I have learned that I cannot define success for my children. Only they can.
- Provide your child with safe boundaries but also the gift of failure. Provide your child with love and structure but allow him to learn from his mistakes. Your job is to prepare him for the real world. Some of our children’s best learning happens when we give them that nudge to figure life out for themselves.
- Set up boundaries for yourself emotionally. Children with developmental trauma are skilled at manipulation. Decide what you will and will not do for your child and stick to it without guilt. This isn’t always easy.
- Let go. Let go of your own ideals, expectations, and timelines for your child. You don’t know what your child’s future holds right now. You may never know what lessons your child finally understands by ages 24 or 64. Some of the lessons I allowed my boys to have didn’t stick. Some have only now begun to sink in. Breathe and let go of things you can’t control.
I’m not a perfect mom but I know that my husband and I are home base for our sons. They have come to us for guidance when they don’t feel safe. Yet, we continue to let them go to apply what they’ve learned. We show them that we love and believe in them. And that is success.