reactive atachment disorder introduction and resources

I’m passionate about learning as much as possible about as many different mental illnesses and disabilities as I can. In this way if nothing else I can lend support to a variety of people dealing with diverse issues.

A disorder that caught my interest at the end of senior year in college is called Reactive Attachment Disorder or RAD. This disorder is a result of a child’s inability to bond with a caregiver from prenatal stages through the first year of life. Reasons for this include: frequent changes in caregiver, exposure to drugs/ alcohol before birth, witnessing/ experiencing physical/ emotional/ sexual abuse right after birth, birth trauma, unexplained illnesses, inconsistent care in parenting, not being wanted by one or both parents. These are just some causes of the disorder, there are probably other causes not listed in the book I’m reading and some cases there might be no known cause. For whatever reason the child’s brain is wired in such an unhealthy way to where it’s impossible for them to form a loving connection with others. They have very little to no empathy, or conscience. Below are the symptoms of this disorder. A child has to have to have half or more of the symptoms to be diagnosed and one of the causes. The symptoms are:

Superficial Charming

Lack of eye contact on parent’s terms.

Indescriminate affection with strangers.

Not affectionate or cuddly on parent’s terms

Extremely controlling or sneaky

Self destructive, destructive to other people/ objects

Cruelty to animals.

Chronic lying

No impulse control hyperactive or stealing

Issues with learning

Lack of cause and affect thinking

Lack of conscience

Abnormal eating patterns

Poor peer relationships

Preocupation with fire, blood and gore

Persistent nonsense questions and chatter

Inappropriately demanding or clingy

Abnormal speech patterns

False allegation of abuse

Triangulation of adults

Entitlement issues

Parents appear hostile/ angry

Unfortunately, unlike with other mental illness, there is no medicine that can directly influence RAD. Meds can treat some symptoms, like meds for hyperactivity as in ADHD meds, mood stabilizers ETC. Standard talk therapy does not work at all with most children as they are manipulative to strangers, will simply accuse parents of things that never happened or play the victim. There are various types of therapies and different theories on the best course of action that may give a child with RAD a chance at recovery should they choose to take it. This element of choice is extremely important as even a very young child must be at least somewhat committed/ understanding that they need to help themselves in order to be happy in a family environment.

I feel honored to be on a facebook group for those who are affected by RAD, whether it’s parents/ professionals/ and sometimes even adults who had RAD growing up. I joined as a compassionate supporter. I’ve witnessed the power of a group of people who have been in the most dark despairing places with their family. Almost all took on the responsibility of fostering/ adopting these children without knowing about this disorder. Often agencies responsible downplay the symptoms or perhaps they themselves don’t know the heart of what’s going on. Perhaps this is due to the child charming everyone, or there being so much trauma/ disruption and symptoms for a child that people don’t know where to begin with a diagnosis.

In any case it’s sad to note that even parents who get an infant can be dealing with a child who could have severe RAD, due to prenatal or birth trauma, or exposure to drugs/ alcohol in the womb. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking rollercoaster for any family in this situation. They pour all the love, resources, techniques , therapy, support ETC into helping this child. Who could grow from an infant, to a toddler to a school age child to a teenager. Throughout this progression there can be a lessening of certain behaviors while others escalate. There can seem to be a growing true connection on the part of the child to only find out months or years later it was another manipulation and the child still doesn’t feel safe enough to connect. For many families they can literally try everything out there with no success. Or have some success but the second puberty and the surge of hormones hits it undos all progress and makes things a hundred times worse.

Not to say there are no victories. For many there are in one way or another. Some children do come out of it. Particularly in the young adult/ late teen stage of their lives some are able to build on the help given throughout their life and take charge of their healing. Some have to hit rock bottom having a criminal record, going to juvenile detention in order to realize they need to heal. Many don’t however. Many run away from home as early as middle childhood/ preteens and continue to do so. As they grow older sexual problems/ as in diseases/ unplanned pregnancy, being in abusive relationships, rages that envolve more of a chance of actually killing someone, ETC become concerns.

There are big concerns for the family as a whole regardless of the age of the child. Even with a young child with this disorder there are risks from anything like stealing food/ breaking special posessions , toileting issues ( going to the bathroom anywhere but the toilet), fire setting, hurting/ killing animals, intense violent rages, manipulations that are constant, false alligations of abuse ETC. This can and often tears apart marriages, causes severe PTSD/ depression/ anxiety disorder in parents and siblings. Often younger siblings are targets of the RAD child’s abuse. When the other children start to be or feel unsafe in the home it’s often recommended that the child be placed in another foster home, or residential treatment. However even in the case of residential treatment, (that I would think would be the most likely to help with healing), the child often gets worse learning new behaviors from other sick children or manipulating staff to say they’re fine and it’s the families fault. There seems to be true genuine hopelessness around this disorder as for many there are just no answers after everything has been tried. Families hit a wall and have to make the difficult decision to disrupt ( end) the adoption. Or ironically there are some children/ teens who idealize their bio family to the point where they choose to live with them. I found this very shocking and it shows the level of mental illness and unhealthy connections in a child’s brain to where they feel pulled towards those who abused them rather than parents who have given their all for these children.

Sadly, many parents looking back say that if they knew what RAD really is, the absolute havoc it would cause to their own mental health, other children in the home, their marriage ETC they wouldn’t have adopted. This says nothing about the parents being not compassionate or anything towards these kids. They sensibly just don’t want to put their family through this horrible situation, or the child themselves, if it’s not gonna be healing for anyone.

I’m honored as I said to be a witness to their pain and to witness the compassion and nonjudgment by their peers. I also delight in hearing about the victories even if it’s a slight change in behavior towards the positive, or finally for the moment breaking through a trigger/ destructive cycle. I so wish there were true healing for these children. Because they’re the biggest victems. It so saddens me that as infants so many children lack the most basic connections internally in order to bond with others and be emotionally regulated This in spite of the therapy and meds tried sets so many up for disorders of adulthood including borderline, narcistic, and sociopathic personality disorders.

On the other hand it’s incredibly positive to hear the stories of the families/ children that do make some kind of solid comeback. I’ve been touched by hearing the stories of some adults afflicted with disorder who have taken charge of their healing and the resources of the past worked as a support to them being able to continue the work to connect as adults. There have been families who over the years have reached levels of healing to where the child not connect as another non-RAD child would there’s progress to where the parents feel like the work has been worthwhile for everyone.

I’m very interested in reading about the various therapies that are used to try to help with this unique and devastating disorder. I’ve just recently finished a book by Nancy Thomas, a pioneer in the treatment of RAD. I will review this book shortly as try to read more on the subject and let you all know about what I find out.

For more in depth and professional information on this subject go to:

Association for Training on attachment and Trauma

Nancy Thomas Parenting

Institute for Atachment

I hope people find these resources helpful!


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