No matter where you live in the world, when you adopt a child, strangers will spontaneously tell you how “lucky” your child is, how “incredible” you are, or how “blessed” your family will be. Let’s face it. Society places a halo on the heads of adoptive parents.

But what society doesn’t know is that more than 50% of adoptive parents are tired, frustrated, confused and ready to quit. They seek professional help but still did not feel equipped to help the children in their homes. These parents are suffering, their families are suffering and the dream of “one big happy family” had been replaced with “how are we going to survive?”

This feeling of hopelessness found a home on the world stage in 2010 when U.S. mother Torry Ann Hansen put Artyom Saveliev, the seven-year-old boy she adopted from Russia, on an 11-hour flight and shipped him back to his homeland.

“I no longer wish to parent this child,” read the note Hansen had tucked into the boy’s backpack along with cookies and some crayons when she put him on a plane bound for Moscow. “He is mentally unstable.”

While there has been immense debate about the intentions of the adoptive mother, this case succeeded in drawing attention to a darker side of adoption: What happens when the bond between adoptive parents and children doesn’t form?

The RAD child

What Hansen didn’t know was that her child was almost certainly affected by early trauma or Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

Dr. Bruce Perry is well known for helping us understand the potentially lasting devastation trauma can cause in the lives of young children and ‘how states become traits’. In his book, The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, he says: “there are very individualized patterns of exposure to trauma (all with unique timing, nature, and patterns).” But for adopted children, it is habitually linked to stress in-utero or early institutionalization.

From a biological point-of-view, connections in the brain can be reduced and lost through trauma. This makes it more difficult to utilize brain capacity and learn effectively. It is well documented how exposure to alcohol, stress, or fear in the womb can disrupt the development of brain architecture – but also, the adrenalin caused by these states can become addictive. The child makes it a permanent part of his or her psyche.

The disruption to attachment that is inherent in adoption makes it a significant risk factor for attachment disorder, even when the baby is adopted at birth. There is growing evidence that the baby hears the mother’s voice in utero, knows intimately the rhythms of her body and recognizes her smell and her voice immediately after birth. This sensorium of experience and expectation are the beginning of bonding and it is reasonable to consider that when this infant is put in different arms, and hears a different voice he feels an attachment shock.

Imagine then, if that child is put into an institution. Homes for orphaned or abandoned children often feature overburdened caregivers who work in shifts. These caregivers can’t bond with every child, and the children don’t spend enough time with them to form attachments. In addition, they may experience extreme neglect, cruelty and abuse.

“Kids develop what we call survival behaviors,” says Stacy Manning, Intentional Parenting Coach. “Hyper-vigilance, independence, and manipulative behaviours are some of the ways kid’s brains have been been wired to keep them alive in an institution. They do not let go of those behaviours automatically. When they move to their new family, they tend to recreate the chaos – particularly if a caregiver, often the mother, gets too close. Survival tactics, such as lying, stealing, aggression and constant mistrust, are simply the brain’s way of keeping the body safe. Simply, it’s where it feels less vulnerable and most comfortable.”

Artyom, like many adopted and foster kids, was wired to survive. Parents going through the adoption process are warned that a child who has begun life in an orphanage may be delayed. As such, adoption professionals are big on getting kids out of institutions as early as possible, the younger the better. The premise being the less exposure to the institutional environment, the better chance that the kid is going to look better down the road. All that was required of the adoptive parents was love and the basic assurances of life.

For our family, 13 years in, it is not enough.

What it’s like to raise a child with RAD

To raise a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder is very different from raising other children. Look at some of the symptoms, which exist along a continuum, from mild to severe: –

  • Behaviour: oppositional and defiant; impulsive; destructive; aggressive; lies, cheats and steals; issues with food, sleep, and toileting; abuses substances; cruelty to animals.
  • Emotions: intense anger (0-100 in seconds); fearful and anxious (although often hidden); moody and irritable; depressed and hopeless.
  • Thoughts: negative core beliefs about self and life; lack of cause-and-effect thinking; attention and learning problems; cognitive distortions (magical thinking).
  • Relationships: lacks trust; controlling; manipulative; indiscriminately affectionate with others outside the family; unstable peer relationships (or friends with younger children); blames others for mistakes; feels victimized by others or victimizes others himself.
  • Moral: grandiose perspective of self; lack of empathy, compassion or remorse; identification with the “dark” side of life.

Note: Children with RAD often have standing diagnoses, commonly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD),  bipolar disorder, and sensory defensive.

The tricky part is, to an outsider, a child with RAD can look no different to other children. Looking at the list, there are several behaviours that are common to most children. However, kids with RAD take these behaviours to a whole new level. They are constant, not occasional. The tantrums turn into dangerous situations. The lying is completely irrational. The arguing is incessant and exhausting.

What is more, RAD children don’t outgrow their deficits like their peers. Teens with RAD are cognitively and emotionally immature. In many ways, they get stuck
– often at toddler level – and for parents it can feel like there is no end in sight.

Along with “typical” behaviours, children with RAD also do plenty of things other children do not. Attachment Specialist, Daniel Hughes, states: “they are unlikely to use [parent] relationships to look outward and share the world.” Instead they focus all their attention on staying safe, using coercive or self-reliant behaviours to control their environments and the people in them. Negative responses, manipulation, sabotage and triangulation are often the RAD child’s go-to tools. Seeking out vulnerabilities (finding the right buttons to press) in their parents can also be used to resist entering reciprocal relationships.

Attempts to parent or discipline traditionally simply doesn’t work due to the nature of the disorder. Family life is restricted, holidays and celebrations are curtailed, and parents no longer invite friends to the home, fearing embarrassment. Other children in the family feel the effects and can be susceptible to secondary traumatic stress symptoms.

Life is reduced to a single word: eggshells. Yes, eggshells. Parents of RAD children are always on edge. Anxious. Waiting for the shoe to drop. Because it always, most definitely does.

It gets worse

Parents often look frantically for help with their children with RAD. But reaching out often hurts more. Family and friends tell parents to just love more or discipline better. Teachers report how sweet their RAD child is and look blankly at parents when they describe this “alien creature” that lives at home. Even most mental health professionals either don’t understand the realities of RAD or don’t know how to support.

It is left to the parents to read and research, change diets, try medications, seek out new approaches to parenting, work with schools; often with poor results. As a result, the primary caregivers – often the mothers – blame themselves for the destruction of the family home.

They begin to question their own sanity.

It is not uncommon for parents to retreat to closed groups on Facebook to find the support they need. And sadly, many are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ironic, isn’t it? That the parent who works relentlessly to help their child overcome past trauma now experiences trauma of their own.

How to heal a child

There is a lot of advice for raising kids with RAD. Some of it seems extreme—and controversial. Something called “holding therapy,” which forces children who resist intimacy to be held against their will, seems wrong. Instead, Stacy suggests focusing on parenting techniques that are counterintuitive. 

To start, Stacy says parents need to look at what trauma looks like on their child daily. This requires looking carefully at the things that trip your child up. It’s also imperative to recognize your child’s emotional age, which differs significantly from the chronilogical. “This means you can meet our child at the right level and go forward with them. Even if that means understanding that your teenager may only be able to manage
– relationally and emotionally – at a toddler level!”

Second, she says parents need reframe interactions with their child. “For example, RAD kids don’t feel punished during a time-out – they are relieved. It vindicates their belief that they deserve to be alone in this world. Being alone is a RAD child’s best solace. It gives them the emotional space they crave. Instead of reprimanding the child with time-outs that send them to their room or isolate them, do the exact opposite. Bring them in. Keep the bond solid. Even if you are mad and the child is unglued.”

Third, parents need to gather around other people who are trying to accomplish the same thing. That are living the same life. “After a while it gets annoying when people give out advice when they have not walked in your shoes, nor experienced the helplessness of doing this job alone,” Stacy says. “When you surround yourself with support from people that get it, the immediate outcome is clarity, energy and empowerment. Ultimately, this helps us stay in it with our children for as long as it takes.”

“Parenting an adoptive child – a hurt child – whose history is full of insecurities is a hard job. It really takes us to be totally immersed in being intentional; meeting them right where we are at. To create healing. And that shift we are looking for.”

© Felicia Stewart, 2019

Tragically Stacy Manning passed from this life on April 29. She will be dearly missed by adoptive and foster families around the globe. You can learn more about Intentional Parenting at http://www.tohavehope.com.

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