When people dream of growing their families, whether biologically or through foster care or adoption, they often envision happy family gatherings around the dinner table. A mother may think about future high school graduation celebrations. A father may dream of walking his adoptive daughter down the aisle one day. They may wonder what careers their children will pursue as adults.
Yet, children who battle post-traumatic stress disorder from early childhood trauma, also known as developmental trauma or reactive attachment disorder (RAD), have their heads full already. They have far more to tackle than school tests, college applications, or whatever else society has in mind. For them, their every moment focus is on their fight for survival.
Due to early abuse and neglect, children with RAD learned early on that they couldn’t trust adults to care for them. They learned only to rely upon themselves. To gain ultimate control of their environment feels like survival for them. That control may look like sabotaging family relationships, running away from home, or frequent run-ins with police officers. Whatever the cost, they resist parenting and sincere relationships.
Children with RAD also lag behind their peers due to differences in brain development. They remain “stuck” in the toddler stage emotionally and cognitively because they were abused or neglected in the midst of important developmental stages. Their brains learned to get relief by fight, flight, or freeze. They feel cornered or “triggered” by adults who attempt to parent them.
The disparity between the dreams adults have for the children they raise and the realities of daily life for children with reactive attachment disorder is jarring for everyone involved. No, children with reactive attachment disorder don’t want the parenting that those raising them spent years dreaming they’d provide.
So what is success for kids with RAD?
Success means something different for everyone and it’s no different for kids with RAD. Everyone comes from different places with their own unique stories, talents, struggles, and abilities. No matter the unique child, however, all children with RAD face one common struggle—an insurmountable battle to achieve authentic relationships.
When those raising children with RAD eventually grasp the reality of their children’s struggles, they often wonder where to go from there. A societal template doesn’t apply and the idea of “relationship” feels murky after all they’ve been through. In most households that include children with reactive attachment disorder, the family has fallen apart over the years. The primary caregivers have their own triggers and PTSD from parenting children with RAD. Other children in the home feel resentment. Couples are at odds with one another. The child with early trauma doesn’t trust his environment and continues to feel unsafe. At that point, parents don’t know how to define success or attachment for their children.
Here’s how we measure success here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development:
- Primary caregivers can understand and process their own feelings of past battles with their children
- Primary caregivers have learned effective parenting strategies for their particular children
- Primary caregivers understand their children’s triggers and emotional delays
- The children desire to attain healthy family relationships
- The children have learned tools to be a part of their families in healthy ways
- The children have learned new and healthy ways to stay safe aside from fight, flight, or freeze
- The children can trust healthy adults to care for them in their best interests
- The children learn how to express their feelings rather than act out
- The children have calmer, better organized brains so they don’t feel triggered by healthy parenting
When children learn to trust their caregivers, changes become possible. Children can then begin to make strides developmentally. Their caretakers no longer bear the weight of the journey. Parents and children begin to walk together. That is success—as simple or as complicated as it may seem.