When Michelle* came home at the end of a long day, she dropped her purse, slipped off her shoes, and walked toward her bedroom. But on her way up the stairs, she stopped abruptly. Her heart raced—a familiar feeling. She saw that someone had turned a photo of her 12-year-old adopted daughter, Kelly, around to face the wall.
One of Michelle’s other children intended to make it clear—he didn’t want Kelly to return home. Ever.
Kelly struggles with developmental trauma (commonly called reactive attachment disorder or RAD)—a disorder in which children’s brains and development get disrupted by trauma they endured before the age of 4. Children with developmental trauma act much younger than their chronological ages. They’re also unable to trust others and attach in relationships.
Kelly temporarily lives in a therapeutic treatment family through the Institute for Attachment and Child Development (IACD). At IACD, Kelly gets the chance to heal and learn how to trust her parents with the help of therapeutic treatment parents, attachment therapists, neurofeedback, and a psychiatrist. Michelle and her husband are also an integral part of the clinical team and take part in weekly therapy sessions.
When Kelly joined their family at age 8, Michelle and her husband didn’t know what to expect. They knew Kelly may go through some rough times, but they had no idea how rough. And they certainly didn’t expect the whole family to experience trauma along with her.
Because of her early trauma at the hands of her biological parents, Kelly has an innate need to control her environment and push her family away to feel safe. To do so, she created chaos in her family constantly. Kids with developmental trauma fall on a spectrum and each of them are different, of course.
This is what developmental trauma looked like for Kelly in her family—
When Michelle greeted Kelly good morning, Kelly typically responded with something along the lines of, “Pieces of s***. I hate this family.” When asked to brush her teeth, start her homework, or any other parental request, Kelly threw a temper tantrum. She punched walls, knocked furniture over, slammed doors, and spit in Michelle’s face. Kelly even tried to tear surgical stitches out of Michelle’s back. Kelly commonly took things from Michelle’s purse or her room. She also made false allegations of abuse toward Michelle out in the community. In the car, Kelly threw water bottles and other objects at Michelle, pulled her hair, and punched windows while Michelle drove. Kelly threatened to kill Michelle and harmed their family pets. In the middle of the night, Kelly often stood at the end of Michelle’s bed and stared at her.
Kelly also tried to push her brothers away. She bit and punched herself and blamed her brothers for hurting her. She’d urinate all over the toilet seat and blame them. During family outings, she’s interrupt the fun by running away and causing a scene. Or she’d sneak food of which she is allergic into the home and eat it before an event so the family couldn’t go out. When her brothers played in the backyard with their friends, Kelly climbed out her bedroom window and threw objects at them from the roof. As the family attempted to fall asleep at night, Kelly typically hit the wall between she and her brother’s room over and over and yelled that he was stupid.
Not all children with developmental trauma are as severe as Kelly. Yet, it is important to understand the realities for the children and families who do struggle like they did.
The wounds are still fresh for Michelle and her family. They all have a long way to go toward recovery. But they have time and a chance to talk now that Kelly is healing too. And to cry. After Michelle talked with her husband and spent some time alone, she felt like she could face her sons the next day. “Okay, who did it? One of you turned Kelly’s picture around on the wall,” Michelle said to her four sons. “I’m not mad at you but we need to talk through it.” Her son Brett spoke up and told Michelle he turned the photo around. “I don’t want you to take it down though,” said Brett. “I want you to put a photo of you in it instead.” Her son wanted his mom back.
At that moment, Michelle grew even more confident that she had done the right thing. She had sent Kelly to live outside the home because the rest of her family needed to heal too. “It was our love and parenting that set Kelly off,” said Michelle. “The more I tried to meet her needs and parent her, the more violent she became with the family and the more traumatized we as a family became. It was a vicious cycle.”
Michelle isn’t alone. Many parents adopt their children without prior knowledge about developmental trauma. Even if they’ve heard of it, they often don’t have help or resources necessary for their families. Friends, family, and even clinicians tell adoptive parents that their children just need time to “settle in”, that love will heal, that they need to learn more parenting techniques, or that their children will simply grow out of it. Meanwhile, their families fall apart.
3 parts of developmental trauma therapists may forget to heal—
1. The primary caregiver—Due to early abuse and neglect, children with developmental trauma fear parent figures—particularly the primary caregiver. They push away those who try to get the closest to them emotionally. The primary caregivers become “nurturing enemies” and often develop their own trauma as a result.
2. Parental relationships/marriages—One way children with developmental trauma push away primary caregivers is through “splitting” relationships. Marriages and other relationships typically suffer greatly as a result.
3. Other children—Parents tend to spend most of their time and energy on their children struggling with developmental trauma. In the meantime, they may fail to notice the difficulties their other children experience in the process.
Clinicians may miss the realities of a critical component of developmental trauma—that the biggest triggers for children battling the disorder are family and love. So, the family and the love also need a chance to heal and recuperate. It is not reasonable, healthy, or effective to simply explain why the child does what he does to his family. They are also experiencing trauma.
This complex and bewildering disorder requires a complex and comprehensive approach to keep families together. “When children fall on the moderate to severe spectrum of developmental trauma, their homes are in crisis mode” says Forrest Lien, Executive Director at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. “The children need to learn how to heal with attachment specialists outside of their own homes, yet in a home environment. Meanwhile, the rest of the family members can also heal and get their own therapy. At that point, the children can return home to healed and stronger families in which they can all thrive.”
Learn about a day in the life as a therapeutic treatment parent at IACD (and perhaps consider it for yourself in the future)
*all names in this article have been changed to protect identitites