Parents of kids with RAD know “the looks” well—the disapproving glances from strangers out in public. Taking the kids to the grocery store or other public venue is a dreaded outing for most parents. Many strangers (and even friends and family) make unfair judgments about parents of kids with RAD because they simply don’t understand the disorder. And those looks can sting after a long day (after day after day) of raising a child with RAD.
The looks parents of kids with RAD get from strangers
Whether a child with RAD throws himself on the floor of the postal office or charms the woman in the line at the grocery store, parents of kids with RAD get lots of different looks out in public. Sometimes the look is of unease (like when the child is in full-blown temper tantrum mode and strangers pull their own children close to them). Other times, the look is disapproval (as in “You are the worst parent for allowing such behavior”). The other look is simultaneously a look of admiration at the child and confusion toward the parent (when the stranger tries to make sense out of why the parent seems so frustrated and frazzled by her adorable child).
Meanwhile, parents of kids with RAD have their own look. Mostly commonly, that look is of desperation and exhaustion. They love their children, have done everything they can to help them, and often blame themselves (unjustly) for not being or doing enough. They want so much for people to “get it” and to feel supported, but know that’s unlikely.
What it feels like for parents of kids with RAD
The ways others interpret the behaviors they see from kids with RAD often don’t match the reality of what’s really going on. Outsiders often make assumptions that parents are too lenient or too hard on their children with RAD without understanding the big picture.
Here are a couple of small examples from moms of children with RAD—
“I had to go to the Wal-mart pharmacy one day and had no other option but to take my kids along. To get my stepson Joe* to stay with me, I had to hold him by the wrist. I wasn’t holding him tightly but just enough to keep him from running away (which he always did when he had the chance). When I held him by the hand, he’d squeeze my fingers really hard so his wrist was my only option. As soon as we got right inside the door, Joe began pinching me and yelling loudly that I was hurting him. His brother was trying to stay 20 feet away from us. By the time we got to the pharmacy counter, I had to let go of Joe just long enough to sign for the prescription. That’s when he took his arm and swung it across the counter to knock everything to the ground. Of course, he took off running. I turned around to see at least five disapproving glances at me from people in line. I picked everything up, apologized to everyone, ran to find Joe, finally found him and held him by the wrist again, and walked out the door. All the while, we caused more commotion and looks from everyone on our way out. It was embarrassing and draining.”
Many people at Wal-Mart that day probably made quick judgments about this mom. They may have felt as though she is too lenient on her out-of-control child. Others may have believed that she’s an abusive parent. The reality, however, is that she is simply the stepmother of a child who had endured early trauma while living with his birth mother and who also struggles with a mental illness. She loves her stepson and does everything she can to raise him well and to help him feel safe. No matter how she parents, however, she can’t “fix” his struggles for him.
And an opposite experience from another mom—
“Every day is a struggle for me emotionally with my adopted daughter Kristin*. The greatest joy for me would be to get some sort of reciprocal affection from her. Yet, she repels all that I do. When I make Kristin some of her favorite foods, she throws them across the room in disgust. When I try to hug her, she stiffens. I’m trying so hard to show my love to her but she simply won’t have it. Yet, she goes to everyone else with open arms—to complete strangers. Kristin and I were standing in an aisle at the pet store the other day and she started a conversation with a woman in the same aisle. My daughter was warm and charismatic. At the end of their conversation, Kristin gave this complete stranger a big hug. The woman looked at me and said, “She’s so sweet”. She almost winced at the look I gave her back. I’m sure I looked completely drained. Maybe even repulsed. I feel like I’m not even the same person I used to be. I know my daughter came from a traumatic beginning but I’m just so tired, sad, and lonely. This isn’t what I thought it’d be.”
The woman in the pet store aisle that day probably expected an equivalent expression of joy in regard to Kristin from her adoptive mom. She may have felt sorry for Kristin that her mother is so gruff toward her. Yet, the woman didn’t realize that this mom started out on the journey as Kristin’s mom full of joy and excitement. She had always wanted to adopt and loves Kristin immensely. However, many parents of children with RAD develop post-traumatic stress disorder after endless control battles, physical and verbal assaults, and repeated rejections by their children. Kristin’s mom simply had nothing left to give.
Here’s why kids with RAD do what they do out in public
It can confuse parents of kids with RAD how their children can act sweetly to strangers during one outing and then throw temper tantrums the next trip. Here’s the answer—the root of either behavior stems from whatever their motivation is in the moment, whether they seek regard or candy, toys, clothes, or whatever else they want that day.
Children with RAD have a strong need to get what they want due to the following:
1. Due to early abuse and neglect, children with RAD seek control to feel safe. A typical way children with RAD seek control and feel safe is to push away their primary care givers. Sometimes, that means children with RAD will throw temper tantrums simply to embarrass their parents on purpose. Other times, they will fight to hold the mother’s hand walking into the store and then show affection to a complete stranger. This overwhelms and bewilders their primary caregivers. Whether the children make a scene or warm up to strangers, they fill the same motive—to make their parents uncomfortable and push them away.
2. Children with RAD want instant gratification. People who endure trauma early on remain “stuck” cognitively at much younger ages. As a result, they behave like toddlers trapped inside a bigger body. Just like toddlers, children with RAD want instant gratification as well. A 12-year-old child with RAD, for example, can throw the same temper tantrums to get what they want in a store as a 2-year-old, except with greater force and skill.
3. Children with RAD have keen manipulation skills. In order to survive early trauma, children with RAD learned early on how to control others. They use those same skills with others, including strangers, to get what they want from them.
Parents of kids with RAD need support, not judgment
Obviously, the best thing parents can do is to leave their children with RAD at home rather than take them along to the grocery store, etc. That’s not always possible, however. They are doing the best they can with what they have. Rather than judgment from others, they need support. We urge people to give a lending hand, rather than a harsh glance, when they see parents struggling with their children in public.