Living With Reactive Attachment Disorder
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Living With Reactive Attachment Disorder

Living with a child who has Reactive Attachment Disorder. Fostering or adopting a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder.
    A little over three years ago, my wife and I decided to take the plunge and become licensed as foster parents.  Originally, we figured we would be respite providers.  A respite provider is someone who provides child care for foster parents.  However, once we got licensed, we decided to just go all the way and take placements in our home.  It was a matter of days and we had a one year old boy joining our family.

    Initially, we were led to believe that this placement would be temporary.  One year later, his parents relinquished parental rights.  Now we had a child who was part or our family and was available for adoption.

     That is when things truly changed.

     For that first year, our son was the easiest kid we had ever seen.  He went to bed regularly by 7:30 without crying.  He was able to entertain himself for long periods of time.  And he was smart.  Already he was learning to count and recognize numbers and letters.  He also noticed everything.  If you missed a turn on the way to the grocery store or church, he would point it out.  He was already interested in toilet training.  He did have this weird tendency to defecate and urinate down the air duct in his bed room.  He also had this disconcerting preference for strangers and a deathly fear of being raised above people's heads.

     Anyone who does foster care knows that you are opening your home to kids who have been traumatized.  Just the act of removing a child from their home is a traumatic event, even if that home is a terrifying place of abuse and neglect.  However, frequently, foster parents receive kids with issues that nobody has a clue are present.  A child may have been sexually abused, but it may not be known and in their file.  A child may have been on the receiving end of physical abuse, but nobody has recorded it because there is no evidence.  Therefore, it is advisable to treat any child brought into the foster care system as someone who has been victimized and may be suffering from the trauma that would bring to a young, developing mind.

    In our sons case, he had been removed from the house due to domestic violence.  Over the course of our time transporting him to visits, my wife became very close to his biological mother (she still takes our other son born of the same parents to visit his mother, even though parental rights have been terminated).  One thing became abundantly clear.  Mom and dad wanted to raise their kids, but not on the terms of their treatment plan.  Both were put on random drug testing and mandated to attend anger management classes.  Nevertheless, dad frequently turned up positive for marijuana when tested.  Mom found herself in and out of jail on alcohol charges and was kicked out of her anger management class for bringing a negative influence to the group.

     In the middle of all of this was an intelligent little boy with no certainty about when or if he would be going home.

     When the court finally terminated rights on mom and dad, the honeymoon with our little angel ended.  He became aggressive: hitting, kicking, and biting my wife.  His problems with defecating and urinating in inappropriate places became more deliberate.  I know it is hard to think of a child who is not yet two doing such a thing intentionally, but the evidence was way to strong.  He did these things when he was angry for not getting his way.  When he was happy, such issues didn't occur. 

    He also resisted any affection.  If we held him and said "I love you," he would avert his eyes and put his hand up to block our eyes.  He would squirm and try to get away, becoming enraged when such affection was offered.  He even went so far as to try to poke my wife in the eyes when she tried to cradle him and express love.  My wife and I have two children and have both been teaching for quite some time.  We had never seen anything like this before.  We began asking other parents with sons about the issues we were seeing.  At first they said, "You're just not used to boys.  They are very different from girls."  But the more we described our sons behavior, the more they looked at us like we were crazy and said, "Kids don't do that.  Maybe it's you."

    My wife began researching.  What was wrong with this adorable but frightening little boy?  First she looked into FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder).  We knew he had been alcohol exposed in the womb and may have even been exposed to methenphetamine.  However, testing showed that he didn't seem to have the symptoms (both physically and mentally) for this diagnoses.  More searching brought us nothing but frustration, and the system that had entrusted us with this child merely turned the blame on us.  We weren't good parents.  We needed more structure.  We were making things up or blowing them out of proportion.  Needless to say, this kind of "support" does nothing for a person's self-esteem.

     Finally, my wife found a little thing called RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder).  The checklist of symptoms seemed to perfectly describe our little boy.  Resistant to love.  Artificially charming when out in public.  The list goes on and on.  He had also advanced to verbal threats of violence.  "I'm going to destroy you.  I will destroy the house."  When asked what he thought destroy meant he said it meant to make something dead.  You might think he picked this up off of television.  We rarely let him watch television.  When he does watch TV, it is programming like Bob the Builder, Clifford, Sesame Street, or The Wiggles

     We had him tested again.

    This time, he received a diagnoses from a five person panel of experts in the field of child psychology: Reactive Attachment Disorder.  I wish I could say that this was a relief.  It wasn't.

     RAD is a serious disorder that can have life long consequences.  It is a disorder that creates a failure in a child's development to form the bond we associate with a parent and child.  This failure to bond is brought on by major trauma experienced during the crucial development period between birth and age three.  During this time the brain is activating and developing the mental wiring that allows us to develop trust and relationships with people close to us.  If you think about it, there is a cycle to developing these feelings of trust and need for a care giver.  It goes like this.  A child has a need (they are hungry or need to be changed or are scared).  The child cries.  A parent meets that need quickly (feeds, changes, or comforts the child).  The child is happy, and the cycle repeats.  Over time, the child comes to realize that mom and/or dad will protect them and give them what they need.

    For a child with RAD, that cycle plays out much differently.  The child has a need.  The child cries.  The caregiver ignores the need or yells at the child or hits the child.  The child is not happy and eventually learns not to cry since it won't get their needs met and might get them hurt.  I'm sure all parents would love to find a way to get a child to stop crying, but his is not the strategy to do that.

    A child with RAD is in essence conditioned to not trust anyone.  They have learned that these people in their life do not want to be bothered with the needs they have.  Eventually, this leads to an inability to form a bond with anyone.  After all, if you can't trust the people you see every day, who can you trust?  Such a child learns that the only person who cares about them is them.

    Now this is, to say the least, a rather shallow description of this terrible disorder.  It is by no means comprehensive.  For example, a child who develops RAD may have great parents who meet all of the child's needs.  However, if the little one suffers from horrible medical problems, their trust may also be affected due to the parents inability to meet their needs (stop the pain).  However, RAD is a serious issue that people who are considering foster care or adoption need to be aware of.

    There are numerous wonderful resources for learning about RAD.  The following are some of the main sources that have informed my knowledge of this disorder: Dandelion On My Pillow, Butcher Knife Beneath, by Nancy and Beth Thomas;;; and (a support form for parents and caregivers living with RAD).  From these resources and personal experience I have learned that all of the normal parenting strategies you would use to raise a child don't work with RAD.  Therefore, the parent of a RAD child will frequently look frazzled, overbearing, and or disconnected from their child.  It is easy to judge such a person, but hard to imagine the battles they face every day with their little angels who seem so sweet in public.

      This is one case of parenting where it might be best to hold that judgement and just be glad it's not you.

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Comments (1)

I applaude what you have done. Fantastic article!