Here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, adoptive mothers call and email us every day with the same sort of statements. They include:
“No one believes me.”
“I don’t feel like the same person I once was.”
“My marriage is falling apart.”
“I feel shunned by my family, church, etc.”
“I can’t find a therapist that ‘gets it’ “.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
We hear the anguish in their voices. We read their long emails about their personal stories and can almost see the tears swell in their eyes as they write. While we want so very much to help every single one of them, we know it’s just not always possible.
We can help to spread advocacy, understanding, and resources, however. To do so, we’ve updated and extended our most popular blog post How an adoptive mom becomes a “nurturing enemy”. The original post seems to have given many adoptive moms a resource to share with those in their support systems. At the very least, it seems to help them to feel less alone. To get through one more day.
We hope this revised version can help them in the same way but with more resources or that it reaches more people who didn’t see it before. Please join our mission and share it via the social media buttons at the bottom of this post.
How an adoptive mom becomes a “nurturing enemy” (an unfortunate effect of reactive attachment disorder)
As an adoptive mother of a child with reactive attachment disorder, you’ve likely learned firsthand that your child isn’t the only person facing an inner battle everyday. You are too. Adoptive mothers of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) often fall into the role of the “nurturing enemy” – a dynamic in which a child who has experienced early trauma pushes away the single adult who attempts to get closest to him emotionally. Many adoptive mothers of children with RAD experience their own post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.
Why children with RAD typically reject their adoptive mothers
In Nancy Verrier’s book The Primal Wound, she explains how children feel the effects of abandonment by their birth mothers for a lifetime. Mothers carry babies in their womb when attachment begins, can breastfeed, and are in positions for early bonding through these nurturing connections. If a mother neglects, abuses, and eventually abandons her baby, that baby is a person with a “primal wound”. If a mother figure (i.e. adoptive or foster mom) connects with a baby early enough—perhaps right from the hospital—the loss isn’t usually as profound. When a child misses that opportunity to form a healthy maternal attachment during his first five years of life, however, he will likely interpret maternal figures as threats.
A child who has a “primal wound” rejects future attempts from mother figures to attach emotionally as a survival mechanism. Thus, the adoptive mother becomes the “nurturing enemy” of that child through no fault of her own. When the father figure is the day-to-day primary caregiver for the child, he can also act as the “nurturing enemy”. However, such a dynamic is less common than with mothers.
Children with RAD typically reject their adoptive mothers through subtle behaviors that other people do not witness or recognize. The subtle rejections may look like normal childhood behavior to other people. However, the adoptive mothers experience the same subtle behaviors daily and are the only people who receive such treatment.
Examples of subtle rejection behaviors of children with RAD toward their adoptive mothers include:
- Become stiff when the mother attempts to nurture him through physical affection such as a hug
- Ignores or challenges requests by the mother but respectively follows the same directives from his father, grandmother, childcare provider, etc.
- Rejects his favorite foods only when prepared or bought by the mother
- Uses hurtful words and foul language toward the mother to suggest that she is a bad parent
- Tells lies to family members, therapists, teachers, etc. about his adoptive mother to make her appear unreasonable
- Destroys gifts from his adoptive mother and then expects her to replace them
- Purposely causes destruction in various ways in which the mother’s support systems can mistake for innocent accidents, i.e. repeatedly clogging the toilet
- Urinates or defecates on toys, carpet, etc.
Again, adoptive mothers are typically the only adults who recognize such subtle behaviors on a regular basis. Many adoptive mothers report that they “feel crazy” and alone. Their husbands, mothers, etc. often assume that the mothers need parenting classes or are overreacting. Such responses from people in their support systems leave them to feel even more hopeless.
How adoptive mothers get post-traumatic stress disorder
Adoptive mothers who become nurturing enemies to their children typically look for help frantically. Unfortunately, they do not often find support. Children with reactive attachment disorder have keen abilities to superficially charm others, including their fathers, extended family members, and mental health professionals. Other adults typically enjoy children with RAD and only recognize adoptive mothers’ anger and frustration toward the children.
Adoptive mothers with post-traumatic stress disorder feel isolated, agitated, and unable to care for their children. When their efforts to seek help and support fail, they often consider relinquishing parental rights and their risk of divorce from their husbands increases.
When and how to find professional help
If you’re an adoptive mother of a child with RAD, you need professional help. To live with a child with who has post-traumatic stress disorder affects the whole family, including parents and siblings. Seek family therapy as soon as possible. Traditional therapy does not work for families tackling reactive attachment disorder, however. You will need to find a qualified therapist who understands reactive attachment disorder and the family dynamics involved. The therapist should understand the issues you face as the maternal figure and provide support and therapy for you specifically as well.
Unfortunately, quality therapy is hard to find. While many are skilled in the traditional sense, only a limited amount of therapists have the expertise to work with children with reactive attachment disorder and their families. You’ll want to carefully select a qualified therapist before you begin therapy sessions.
To raise a child with reactive attachment disorder isn’t easy. There is hope though. While there is no quick remedy to “fix” reactive attachment disorder, specific interventions and therapies can help. Your child may still have opportunities to learn how to trust, let love into his heart, and live a healthier life. Likewise, you can regain your emotional wellness and healthy family. Yet, it all starts with you. It’s time to take care of you too, mom.