As a newly married couple, Angie and Tom didn’t plan to have children. “God had very different plans for us, thankfully,” said Angie. Today, Angie is a widow with five boys—one biological and four adopted sons. Their family journey has been difficult, to say the least.
When Angie found out her husband had been diagnosed with cancer and only had five more weeks to live, it was obviously devastating for their family. For one of their sons in particular, the diagnosis was particularly troublesome. Her son Joe* had just begun to bond to Tom—a monumental task for a child who’d been abused and neglected for years before Tom and Angie had adopted him.
Tom’s death created a downward spiral for Joe from which Angie was afraid he’d never recover. “It was like looking at the same streetwise, need-nobody kid that we picked up in China.” All of the progress and attachment Joe seemed to have made in the three years he lived with the Rylands seemed to have been lost. That year, Joe ran away from home, threatened suicide, jumped out of a second-story window with a knife, had numerous run-ins with police, and had to go to an acute care hospital several times. “I began to realize that we had the perfect storm of trauma, loss, abuse, teenage rebellion, and tremendous grief,” said Angie. “And I wasn’t able to fix any of it.”
Angie is right—there’s no quick fix for the aftermath of trauma. It doesn’t just go away. Children who have been abused and neglected have access to triggers their whole lives. People spend lifetimes working through early trauma.
As little humans, our brains work hard to avoid conflict and pain and to feel joy and relief. The longer the brain practices pain avoidance, the longer it takes for the brain to learn healthier ways to deal with conflict. Therefore, our brains get hardwired for how to navigate relationships early on—either in healthy or non-healthy ways.
Here’s the good news, however—people can also learn to manage their PTSD triggers in healthier ways. It is possible for kids with RAD to grow up to have meaningful relationships with friends and family members with the right help.
Parents can’t “fix” RAD but here’s what they can do:
1. Don’t take behaviors personally. Children with RAD aren’t doing what they do as a personal attack against their parents, although it can certainly feel that way. They are simply relying on primal survival mechanisms they learned early on to push people away and stay safe. To separate the disorder from the child will help you to stay calm and, therefore, to allow your child to feel safer with you.
2. Attain a psychiatric evaluation for your child. Adults who abuse and neglect children often do so as a result of their own mental illnesses (read more here). Thus, abused and neglected children typically carry an unfortunate combination of mental illnesses from their biological parents (“nature”) and attachment disorders due to their early trauma (“nurture”). A child can’t begin to efficiently work on attachment when he’s in the midst of battling his mental illness.
3. Get help for your child from highly specialized family attachment therapists. Just as you didn’t cause or create your child’s disorder, you can’t fix RAD—love is not enough. Family therapy can help foster connections.
4. Get help for yourself. The chaos, stresses, and emotional upheaval of raising children with RAD often result in parents having PTSD too. Those raising children with RAD need to get the professional help and self-care they need in order to effectively parent their children.
5. Have realistic expectations. Look at the child through the lens of mental illness. Children with RAD are different from other children without trauma but that doesn’t mean they can’t heal. Your child’s healing may look different from what you once imagined. For example, she may not want you to hold and kiss her but may let you brush her hair or sit on the couch with you.
When children are able to let down their guards and learn that healthy adults will keep them safe through tight structure, they can learn to trust and connect. This is far from easy. However, attachments are possible with the help of highly specialized attachment therapists and lots of work, patience, and time.
*name changed to protect identity