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. And from a place of frailty that only a parent can know.
Early on, I assumed if I raised my adopted sons the way I was raised that they could overcome and heal from their wounds of early neglect. My husband and I gave them caring affection, strove to help them build their moral compasses, and provided consistent structure and lots of opportunities for family fun. We gave them what we had growing up.
By the time they reached early adolescence, I began to recognize the flaws in my assumption. My boys were defensive and over-reacted to even the slightest gesture of parental discipline or control. In school, they had continual troubles. One son overtly challenged teachers and school authority. The other son was more passive but quietly did things his way without regard for the rules.
When I found the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, I learned so much about my boys. When I reflect upon those years through the lenses of what I now know, I understand the reasons for the way my boys behaved:
- My boys didn’t trust me or other adults. Children who experienced early neglect learn not to trust. This capacity is compromised when they can’t rely upon consistent care from primary caregivers during the first two years of their lives. Since they don’t trust adults, they don’t trust an adult’s authority as a means of safety either.
- My boys relied on themselves, not me. When children move through multiple homes, from group homes to foster care, their survival instincts kick in. They believe they need to care for themselves in order to stay alive. When my sons came to live with us for the first time at ages 2 and 3, they had already learned that it was unsafe, even dangerous, to let any adults care for them.
Once I understood why my boys did what they did, I learned a better way to parent kids with reactive attachment disorder.
Here’s how I began to cultivate trust and create an emotionally safe space:
- I allowed my boys to learn from natural consequences with empathy. Drawing from the Love and Logic Parenting model, I employed a matter of fact attitude to avoid control battles.They learned that adults could be caring and supportive and not punitive and threatening.
- I learned not to let their challenging behaviors hook me. Children who struggle with trust wounds have an unconscious need to test for safety. They act out and watch to see if the parent is going to emotionally react. It was always better if I could respond to the test with a non-reaction or a one-liner that caused my child to think, such as “What do you think I think of that?” or “Hmmm, very interesting.”
- I learned that seemingly benign nonverbal gestures could feel unsafe to my boys. My boys perceived a stern glance or a sigh of exasperation by my husband and I as signs of weaknesses or our inability to handle or care for them. While the storms of raising early-trauma children are extremely difficult, it’s most helpful to maintain a consistent and upbeat temperament. When children see that adults can handle themselves, they can slowly learn that adults can handle them too.
If you’re in the thick of it now, the road ahead may feel endless as a parent of children with reactive attachment disorder. It’s not a straight path, that’s for sure. Remember that you’re not alone and that you’re doing amazing and commendable things, every day.
Check out our upcoming workshops for support and tips for parents and professionals living or working with kids with reactive attachment disorder at: instituteforattachment.org/events
When we learn together, we can work together to advocate for children and families struggling with reactive attachment disorder!