However they say it, people often give parents of kids with developmental trauma the same message. They say, “All kids act that way” like this:
- The neighbor who says, “All teenagers leave their rooms messy.”
- The grandmother who says, “When is he going to outgrow this phase?”
- The father who says to his exasperated wife, “Honey, all toddlers have temper tantrums.”
- The caseworker who suggests parenting classes to the parents so they can learn to handle “normal adolescence”
- The mother-in-law who says, “You just need to show him love and extra attention.”
If you’re a parent of a child with reactive attachment disorder, you may feel “crazy”, angry, defensive, hopeless, or defeated when people make such comments. Maybe you feel all of these feelings simultaneously. You’re upset either because you’re confused and don’t know where to turn, because no one understands and you feel alone, or because you feel like others are judging you or your parenting skills. You aren’t alone—many parents of children with reactive attachment disorder feel the same way.
You know that your child is different from other children. Your toddler’s tantrums are so much more extreme and last much longer than “all toddlers”. You know that your teenager’s filthy room is much different than “all teenagers” with messy rooms. You know that your child isn’t just going through a normal developmental phase that he’ll outgrow. In fact, he’s not in the correct developmental stage at all. The trauma he experienced at a very young age actually changed his brain and stunted his emotional growth. You know that you’ve given him love from the depth of your soul and it’s still not enough. You are correct. Now, take a deep breath and learn what to do when other people don’t understand.
What to do when people don’t understand your child the way you do:
- Understand your child’s “normal.” Your child is actually “normal” in the context of his diagnosis. While not all children with developmental trauma behave exactly like your unique child, they all seek control of their environments in their own ways. One of the reasons you feel crazy is because your child’s behavior seems so inconsistent. Sometimes he appears cooperative and other times, oppositional. The inconsistency of his behaviors may make you question yourself constantly. Yet, he is consistent in his need for control. For your own sanity, find consistency in the inconsistency. When things go his way, he’ll cooperate. When they don’t go his way, he’ll find ways to gain control again. Remember this–your child’s need for control is a survival mechanism he uses to protect himself as a result of the abuse or neglect he experienced early on. It’s “normal” for him.
- Trust your instincts. You may ask others for feedback on your child’s behaviors to decipher whether you’re really just “crazy” or if your feelings are in fact valid. However, doing so will likely just give you more of the same reactions that make you feel even “crazier”. Unless you have someone in your support group that also has a child with developmental trauma, stop asking. In all honesty, you probably already understand normal child development. You likely have other children, whether adopted or biological, and understand how they differ from the child who concerns you. Trust yourself.
- Find someone who really does understand. Admittedly, it’s difficult to find people who do. Many therapists don’t truly understand reactive attachment disorder. Few parent support groups exist for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder. Yet, start your search and don’t give up. Find a therapist who specializes in reactive attachment disorder. If you can’t find a support group in your community, start your own. We plan to start an online support group in the future here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. If you’re interested, please sign-up for our newsletter here to stay posted on our progress.
- End the battle. If your child is charming everyone around him, let go and let him. Stop trying to convince his teachers, your parents, and his caseworker how bad he really is. It’s a futile effort. Don’t expend the energy. Just let them see your child in a different light for now. Which leads to #5…
- Be patient and let your child be their teacher. Eventually, your child will most likely show his true colors to people in your support system. Don’t wait anxiously for the moment to say, “I told you so.” If the adults in your child’s life eventually understand his true behaviors, just take solace that you may go to them for support at that time. Until then, be patient and live your life. They can’t understand what you mean until they experience it themselves. Remember that at one point, you didn’t understand it until you experienced it yourself either.
- Don’t take it personally. The adults who make these comments probably mean well. They simply don’t understand your life or the complexities of developmental trauma. It’s beyond frustrating, yes. Yet, try to let go when they say, “All kid do that.” They probably want to make you feel better. Imagine what you would’ve advised others before you adopted or fostered your child.
- Know that you’re giving your best and let go. Repeat this Eleanor Roosevelt comment to yourself everyday: “What other people think about me is none of my business.” You know that you’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got. You probably feel like you’re barely hanging on as it is. Stop giving the little energy you have left to what other people think. It’s simply not worth your time and sanity.
- Take action if it’s your spouse who doesn’t understand. It’s wise to save your energy and let go of what other people think. The exception is if that person is your spouse. In that case, find an attachment specialist who understands the family dynamics of triangulation with RAD. It could save your marriage and your family. Read: 5 ways to save your marriage while raising a child with reactive attachment disorder
You’ve probably noticed a general theme. Quite simply, save your energy for what counts as you raise your child with developmental trauma. You’ll need to give an insurmountable amount of yourself toward raising your child while taking care of yourself and your marriage. Know that what you’re doing is more than enough and let the rest go.