Our own journey with reactive attachment disorder began when a friend directed me to her girlfriends’ blog. At that point I had never heard of attachment disorder. The blog I read led me to believe that there was a possibility that we were dealing with something very similar to what this woman described.
I started reading and researching. I came across Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s work and read some of his writing on attachment. I took a class that was more geared toward helping people deal with addiction but the workshop leader had specialized in attachment theory and so I learned a little more. That leader had a counseling practice which we utilized, however, having no personal experience with RAD proved to render that counseling useless. Our son is a master manipulator and we found ourselves backed into several corners that we didn’t want to be in under the guise of ‘behavior agreements’ that were made in the counseling room. (I will devote another post to our adventures in counseling!)
The more I read the more convinced I was that this was the elusive piece of our son’s puzzle. He had been tested and labelled with many diagnoses already but this seemed like a much better fit. The big daddy of labels to make sense of the soup we were in. We reread the ed psych report that had been given to us when he was in elementary school. It had gone missing and so we requested the report and were shocked to see that they suggested there should be further testing done way back then because they suspected attachment disorder. The ‘if-onlys’ were overwhelming. The younger the child is the greater the possibility of overcoming an attachment disorder. Our son was twelve when we found out.
When our son first came into our lives he was six months old. My parents were his foster parents. However, due to family circumstances we became his foster parents. Our social worker was astounded at how well attached our son was, particularly to my mom who had nursed him back to health. The plan was for him to be placed in a permanent home; he was not eligible for adoption due to the law at that time. We fought to be able to keep him but that was not to be.
He was moved to another home and then seven months later was returned to our care. The boy we said good-bye to was not the same child we got back. We have no idea what happened to him while he was away from us but it obviously wasn’t good.
That hard won attachment was damaged. He was an angry little boy who didn’t trust anyone. Before he left he had been happy and cuddly and full of smiles and giggles, there were no smiles when he came back, it was like someone had turned off the light in his eyes. Eventually the smile returned but it took a very long time. There were far more tears and screaming and yelling. Hugs were stiff. Fortunately Grandma was still a safe person and eventually, ever so slowly, I became safe as well.
It is not easy to love someone who does not know how to receive love. The RAD kid doesn’t know how to receive or how to give love except in their own twisted terms. They cannot give their heart because their trust has been so damaged by the trauma they have endured. Instead of receiving love they reject it. They tend to sabotage relationships and events in order to prevent disappointment, they can’t handle that. Even after loving our son for 13 years he still says he doesn’t fit in our family and that he is the only person he can trust. He is the best person he knows.
I have noted that there seems to be two types of RAD kids. The outwardly explosive type, that’s the kind I deal with, and the inwardly explosive type. The outwardly explosive kid does what you might expect from an outwardly exploding child, they are destructive. When my son is anxious or agitated he tends to destroy anything he gets his hands on or begins to throw things. Sometimes when he is excited and happy he does the same thing, it is impulsive and traumatic for those around him.
The inwardly explosive child is much quieter but no less destructive. One RAD mom told me about a situation in which her daughter refused to admit that she had peed in a drawer. In order to try to make a point the mom told her daughter that she would have to do her own laundry until she admitted it. The girl went for weeks wearing the same soiled clothing before she would admit it. Another child I know will come up with a reason to accuse someone of something so he can escape uncomfortable situations or tell inappropriate stories in order to get attention. They might not destroy furniture but they destroy relationships just as handily
Part of the damage occurs in the limbic system. This is the part of the brain that regulates our reactions. You have probably heard of the fight/flight reaction. This occurs when we are threatened. Our amygdala will tell us that there is a threat and we will respond by protecting ourselves through standing and fighting or getting out of there. For the RAD child this response is in a constant ON state. They feel the need to fight or flee constantly. They are super self-protective because they do not trust that anyone else will take care of them. They do not believe they are loved or are loveable.
Reactive attachment disorder rarely exists on its own. It is usually accompanied by some other piece of the alphabet soup. ADD or ADHD is often present as is ODD. Some part of the autism spectrum may also be diagnosed. These things are more familiar and ‘treatable’. RAD is much harder to treat because it has to do with the heart and soul of a child. You can’t medicate that. You can only pray for healing. Loving them more doesn’t actually work, they are a closed bottle and only the Spirit of God can open up that bottle and heal it.