Very few people understand how my son—the boy whom they know as so polite and charming—can suck the life out of me. They doubt that the boy they know steals from my purse regularly, curses and throws objects at me in our home, and tells lies about me to his teachers and therapist. They think I’ve lost my mind. My reactions to the comment, “But your son doesn’t act like that with me. He’s just a normal kid,” changes depending on my mood.
Some days, I feel like a confident and collected mother and respond with a smile and shrug. It doesn’t matter what people think about me. I know that I’m a good, albeit exhausted, mom to my child with reactive attachment disorder.
I feel defensive and overwhelmed other days. There have been more days of standing in my bathroom crying than I’d like to acknowledge. I cry because it’s lonely when no one understands. I cry because I’m angry that the friends and family who once supported me now shun me. On those days, I wish that person who “knows best” would just take care of my child for the day. I could use the break.
And there are also days when I feel empowered. Those are the days when I educate and advocate on behalf of my son with reactive attachment disorder, our family as a whole, and for myself. On those days, this is what I tell “them”—
Here’s why my child with reactive attachment disorder acts differently with friends and family than with me—
1. Trauma actually changes the brain and those changes affect everything. Even though other people can’t physically see how my child is different from his peers, his brain is different on the inside due to early abuse and neglect. His brain is stuck in a hypersensitive state to perceived danger, even when it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. This explains my next point…
2. I am my child’s “nurturing enemy”. My own son perceives me as his greatest threat. Children with reactive attachment disorder perceive the people who try to get the closest to them as dangerous. Due to early trauma, often at the hands of their biological parent(s), they have a primal reaction to protect themselves from caregivers. My son’s brain signals him to push me away. That breaks my heart but I know it’s not his fault.
3. Due to early trauma, children with reactive attachment disorder control their surroundings to feel safe. My son attempts to manage everyone and everything around him. For example, he won’t eat his favorite meals simply because I made them. He controls purely for the sake of control. This explains my next point…
4. Children with reactive attachment disorder manage their surroundings to feel safe. My son triangulates relationships. He can more easily manage his environment if he breaks down relationships. He pushes me (his nurturing enemy) away by manipulating the people in our lives. He is exceptionally good at it. He is so good at it, in fact, that my friends and family don’t even realize it’s happening.
My last three points are all connected to my first point—that trauma actually physically changes the brain. Everything my son does is to feel in control and safe. It is not his fault.
I don’t tell everyone all of these things all of the time for several reasons. It’s exhausting and as a mother of a child with special needs, I don’t always have a lot to give. My friends and family either can’t comprehend it or simply don’t possess the emotional investment and energy to truly hear what I’m saying.
Every so often, I do get to see a shift toward understanding when I take the time to explain reactive attachment disorder. I can see faces soften, body language change, and voices turn from a place of disapproval to empathy. That’s when the tears, frustration, and time pays off. That is when I feel some peace that there’s at least one more person in the world who gets it. That person calms my brain and connects to my heart so that I am better able to do so for my son. That person makes all the difference.
This post is a confessional fiction piece excerpted from the collective and authentic voices of parents we’ve worked with over the last 45 years here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development.