Part I- Behind the mask of Reactive attachment disorder (RAD)
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is a complicated mental health disorder that is fairly uncommon among the general public, yet very common among children who have had inconsistent primary caregivers. This includes children in orphanages, foster care, treatment centers and very common among children who have experienced the traumatic loss of loved ones-mainly their caregivers,
RAD develops in young children who have limited emotional attachments to others and is found on a large continuum, ranging from very mild attachment problems to severe cases of extreme sociopathic behavior. In the more serious cases, children may never be able to give and receive genuine love from others.
A mother shared this insight with me several years ago…
“I knew something wasn’t right early on. We adopted E. from a Russian orphanage in 1996. She never wanted to sit on my lap, sleep in my arms and looked uncomfortable when I hugged her. She never looked for me when she got hurt, and when she tantrummed she rarely accepted our gestures to comfort her and it felt like we made her tantrums worse.”
This presents a difficult challenge because naturally parents want to soothe and comfort their children when they are hurt or upset. Parents feel rejected and helpless as their child responds to their physical touch with indifference or anger, especially if their child is still young. Recent research suggests that noticeable attachment problems have been identified in children as early as their first birthday.
Starts early with a traumatic event
Experts suggest that trauma develops in institutionalized children when they are separated from their birth mothers. When these young infants cry, they are greeted, held and soothed by different nurses,volunteers, and staff… if they are lucky.
In the more troubling cases, infants cry for hours and are never lovingly picked up and comforted. This inconsistent and disingenuous relationship with adults creates distrust and forces the infant to begin self-regulating on their own. If an infant or toddler learns to self-soothe at a very young age, the child quickly becomes too independent, and simply stops needing or seeking out help or comfort from adults. Although it may seem like a great trait to be ‘too independent’, these defense mechanisms are dysfunctional and treatment should be focused on normalizing the need for human interaction, help and close attachments.
A caring adopting couple with the best intentions comes along and wants to provide the child with a loving and supporting family. All the while, the young child recoils when being held, has built strong defensive walls around themselves, and often rejects gestures of kindness or comfort.
This unexpected response can be utterly depressing to parents and the source of pain, heartache and self-doubt.
It’s understandable then that some adoptive and foster parents start questioning their self-worth or ability to parent. To those of you who have said this- THANK YOU. THANK YOU for being willing to open your home to new family members. THANK YOU for your unceasing and limitless love. THANK YOU for caring for these children.
Common symptoms of RAD
We aren’t going to break down the diagnostic criteria for RAD yet, but here are a few common signs and symptoms.
RAD children tend to
- struggle developing long-lasting friendships
- struggle taking responsibility for their actions
- lack cause-and-effect awareness
- have a general lack of empathy towards others
- are content to play by themselves
- have little or no emotion when interacting with other children
- appear sad, unhappy and even scared when participating in normal childhood activities.
Remember, these are not life-long personality traits, rather coping mechanisms developed at a VERY young age to deal with feelings of isolation, rejection and/or loss.
There is hope
RAD children have experienced pain and heartache on a deep level and at a very young age taught themselves a dysfunctional way of coping with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and self-loathing. Yet, thousands of reactive children have overcome these difficult challenges and have gone on to have deep,long-lasting relationships with family and friends.
Their anger and isolated behavior has nothing to do with your ability to parent. Deep down they love and appreciate you and what you are doing for them. They are lucky to have you.