If you’re raising a child with developmental trauma (a.k.a. reactive attachment disorder or RAD) in a way that meets his needs, you’re likely getting lots of eyebrow raises. Your friends may think that you’re too hard on your child. Your parents might say she is just a “normal kid” and you’re doing it all wrong. Your child’s therapist might tell you to take parenting classes.
You might just want to throw your hands up and shout, “No one gets it!”
You’re right—most people don’t get it. Kids with developmental trauma aren’t like all other children. They have different needs than their peers who were raised by healthy adults from birth. Therefore, they need a different kind of parenting.
What does not work for children with developmental trauma:
- Behavior modification (i.e. chore charts, rewards such as stickers, etc.) – Even if children with developmental trauma learn how to navigate behavior modification systems temporarily, their positive behaviors don’t stick. We typically see this in residential treatment centers that rely on behavior modification or in homes where parents don’t yet understand therapeutic parenting strategies.
Why doesn’t behavior modification work? Children who were abused and neglected in early childhood do not trust adults. They learned early on to rely only upon themselves and seek control of their environments at all costs. For them to give up control to adults feels dangerous. That’s part of the disorder. Therefore, to remain in control is far more critical to them than stickers or other positive reinforcements.
- “Normal” traditions (i.e. family vacations or holidays with lots of decorations and gifts) – Many adoptive families make the mistake of going overboard on holidays, etc. to make up for the loss of their children’s healthy early childhoods. However, when the house is decorated with abundant holiday decorations and gifts, children with developmental trauma usually sabotage the event.
Why do family traditions always seem to go wrong? Children with reactive attachment disorder missed the developmental milestone opportunities for their brains to keep up with their physical ages. Therefore, they lack the maturity to think beyond themselves. Just like two-year-old children, they focus on the moment, their needs, and what they can get from others. Therefore, they will throw tantrums like toddlers (but in much bigger bodies!) if things don’t go exactly their way. In addition, children with developmental trauma also disrupt anticipated family plans to create emotional distance from themselves and their families, often the mother in particular.
- Love alone – Many people believe that healthy families and a lot of love will heal children with developmental trauma. While these are indeed important components to overcoming early trauma, they just aren’t enough. Many people feel overwhelmed when, no matter how much they love their children, nothing changes for the better.
Why isn’t love and family enough? When children are abused or neglected early in their lives, their brains develop differently than that of other children. Unfortunately, love alone isn’t enough to overcome the disorder. Those raising children with developmental trauma need professional assistance.
- Hugs – Many parents can give their children hugs to help them feel safe and calm them. Children with developmental trauma, however, won’t receive that affection from the safe adults who raise them. They may stiffen up or back away. Adoptive parents are often confused when their children seek affection from complete strangers but not from them. Some children with developmental trauma don’t want touch from anyone at all.
What’s the deal with affection? Children with developmental trauma lack the ability to securely attach to others. Healthy parents nurture and bond with their babies during critical developmental stages. However, neglected and abused babies and toddlers miss these vital interactions that allow them to make healthy attachments. Therefore, they miss the chance to create intimate bonds early on and to feel safe and secure. For this reason, they often struggle to create intimate connections with the adults who raise them. They will go to great lengths to create emotional and physical distance in those relationships. They will often get their physical needs for affection met through superficial means such as inappropriate sexual relations or hugs from strangers.
So what does work when raising children with developmental trauma?
Children with developmental trauma don’t typically feel safe or believe that adults can keep them safe. In addition, they desire to stay in control at all costs and resist parenting. Therapeutic treatment parenting requires specific ways to help children with developmental trauma to feel safe and grow into the best versions of themselves into healthy adulthood. They include the following:
- Tight structure, constant supervision, firm boundaries, and plenty of choices and limits as determined by the healthy adults who raise them – Here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, our therapeutic treatment parents use Love and Logic parenting strategies. Children learn from the natural consequences of their actions within the safe structure of healthy adults. Adults should avoid rescuing children from the learning experiences of failure. Yet, teachers, family members, and other adults often misunderstand parents who consistently use therapeutic treatment parenting strategies as overly stringent or inattentive. On the contrary, this type of therapeutic treatment parenting grants children natural opportunities to grow their self-sufficiency, pride, and self-esteem and to feel safe.
- Professional assistance – Families need professional services including qualified attachment therapists as well as psychiatrists to decipher mood disorders, etc.
- Respite care – It’s important for parents to have respite care – when qualified people care for their children so parents can take breaks from their children, care for themselves, and parent at their best long-term.
- A robust support system – Families need friends, family, neighbors, etc. to surround and support them and learn as much as possible about developmental trauma. To raise children with developmental trauma is extremely difficult and hard to understand for the outside world. Unfortunately, many people misunderstand them and ostracize them at times when they need the most support.
- Age-appropriate responsibilities – Children with developmental trauma can, and should, contribute to the household. This provides opportunities to learn responsibility, feel safe, contribute to a healthy family, and feel pride in jobs well-done.
To raise children with developmental trauma is an extremely difficult job. If you’re doing it well, unfortunately, you probably get little support and lots of harsh judgement. Continue to reach out for support from people who understand and educate those who aren’t there yet.