Carrie O’Toole’s adopted son wasn’t violent. Yet, Carrie didn’t feel safe in her own home with him. “Friends would say, ‘How can you feel afraid? He’s just a child,’” said Carrie. “But it was very emotionally and psychologically challenging.” Carrie didn’t realize at the time that she suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of raising her child with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). “I didn’t know parents could get PTSD from a child,” said Carrie. “That didn’t even make sense to me.”
When most people hear the term PTSD they think of soldiers who return from war. Indeed, our brave soldiers bring their battles home with them. People often do not recognize that many other groups of people also suffer from PTSD, however. Anyone can experience PTSD as a result of chronic trauma. Holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day present the opportunity to engage in conversation about PTSD with friends, family, and neighbors. It’s an important topic not only on behalf of our honorable war veterans but also for others—maybe even for yourself.
How post-traumatic stress disorder happens
Posttraumatic stress disorder occurs as a result of chronic trauma, including experiencing or witnessing violence and other extreme stressful situations. When these events occur, the stress hormone cortisol gets released in the brain. This biochemical reaction to such chronic and extreme stress changes the formation of the brain.
Consider this analogy—think of the human brain like the earth and water like trauma. Over time, the release of water over the earth begins to erode the soil into pathways. As pathways form, the water rushes down those pathways again and again until they become canyons. Like the earth, the brain looks physically different than it once did. Therefore, the brain reacts differently as a result. When the brain experiences a trauma trigger, fear becomes an overwhelming irrational emotion. The brain automatically goes into survival mode and the person fights, flees, or freezes in his own way. Such triggers only make the erosion and canyons deeper. This is why those who’ve experienced trauma need early intervention and help from highly-qualified clinicians in the areas of trauma—to help them before the canyons of trauma effects grow deeper.
Understanding RAD through the lens of PTSD
When we understand PTSD as a survival mechanism and a brain impairment of sorts, it’s a bit easier to also understand reactive attachment disorder. “Reactive attachment disorder actually is a post-traumatic stress disorder of infants, toddlers, and young children,” said Dr. John Alston, psychiatrist at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. This is why placing children from abusive and neglectful homes in “good homes”—such as some foster and adoptive families, for example—isn’t enough. The children cannot simply replace one set of parents with another and move on. Rather, their brains are hard-wired in stress and survival-mode from PTSD. Children with RAD will continue to try to protect themselves, even when danger is no longer imminent.
Just as children with RAD struggle from what is PTSD, their families often end up battling PTSD of their own as well. Children with RAD “become emotionally more self-protected and not engageable from an attachment point of view,” said Dr. Alston. The children push away their families, particularly their primary caregivers, through subtle actions such as lying and triangulating family relationships. Some also act out with more overt behaviors such as aggressive tantrums and physical assaults.
As the dynamics of RAD play out on a regular basis in homes, whole families begin to fall apart even if violence doesn’t occur.
“I knew that I would get really triggered when my son acted up,” said Carrie. “And I didn’t know how to calm myself down…I realized that PTSD doesn’t care about your intelligence or what you know. It’s an emotional reaction and, for me, it shoots right up the center of me into my brain and literally shuts my brain down so I can’t even think about how to respond.”
The end result of a whole family battling triggers and PTSD is harmful to all involved. No one can begin to heal while living in a battleground of sorts. The whole family needs relief and highly-qualified clinicians to keep the family together. “I didn’t realize that you can’t calm PTSD down,” said Carrie. “Someone needs to be removed from the home for long enough for changes to be made. There’s really no way without outside help that I could’ve made it.”
What PTSD looks like
People can’t physically see the wounds of those suffering from PTSD. It’s important to identify the symptoms so you can assist in getting the professional help they need, whether it’s for yourself or someone else.
Symptoms of PTSD in children:
- Lack ability to focus to complete tasks and filter nonessential information out
- Physically act out
- Act out in school
- Get poor grades in school
- Have trouble making friends
- Have trouble regulating emotion
- Get “stuck” on things that happened yesterday, last week, etc.
- Have an eating disorder
- Use drugs/alcohol
- Mistrust others
- Compliant, aggressive, or avoidant
*Please note—these symptoms fall on a spectrum of severity. Not all children present in the exact same ways.
Symptoms of PTSD in adults:
- Poor memory
- Lack of focus
What you can do
War veterans, children with RAD, adults raising children with RAD, and others battling PTSD generally do not get the quality help they need. Soldiers learn not to ask for help and may avoid talking about their feelings. Children with reactive attachment disorder are in survival mode, do not trust adults, and rely only upon themselves. Parents raising children with RAD are, sadly, often dismissed and shamed by friends, family, and professionals rather than supported.
All people battling PTSD need others to help them recognize when they are struggling. Helpful people include a wife who encourages her veteran husband to seek professional help or a husband who recognizes PTSD symptoms in his wife while raising a child with RAD. Again, it takes highly-experienced clinicians to work with those battling PTSD. Parents cannot help their children overcome the effects of trauma by themselves or for themselves, just as the spouses of veterans can’t “cure” their loved ones of PTSD from war.
Neither love nor time will make PTSD go away on its own, unfortunately. The erosion is too deep. Only effective treatment and efficient coping skills can begin to stop the water from further eroding the soil. The sooner people with PTSD get the help they need, the better their chances of recovery. The phrase, “Time heals all wounds,” most definitely doesn’t apply to PTSD. If you care about a person who may have PTSD—whether you are a close friend, parent, or spouse—speak up and assist her in finding professional help. You can make a difference for that person not only in the near future, but for his entire life. And for that of her family.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May of 2016 and was thoroughly updated in November of 2017.
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