When a mom struggles to love her child

Originally published by the Institute for Child Development.

Carol was bitter and angry—on edge. Shortly after we met through a mutual friend, she told me about her three adopted sons. She adored her youngest son. The older two were regularly suspended from elementary school, lied incessantly, and threw screaming fits daily. They teased and bullied her 10-year-old daughter.

Her husband Ted listened to us and nodded patronizingly, as if Carol was exaggerating or over-sensitive. He sighed and said that he had told her how to fix the issues but she wouldn’t listen to him. Like my son, Carol’s boys were good in front of their dad. And, like my husband, Ted just didn’t get it.

I know Carol’s desperation well because I lived it myself for years. I told Carol and Ted about adopting siblings Devon and Kayla from foster care. Devon’s behaviors had grown so extreme and dangerous he was now living in a residential treatment facility. He was ten. “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep him there,” I told them. That’s how bad life had been with Devon at home.

I confessed that, although I feel a strong sense of responsibility for Devon, I don’t love him.

Carol burst into tears. I struggled to make out her words through her gasping and sobbing. She said that she didn’t love her two boys and she’d never been able to say it out loud. It was a dark secret she kept, afraid of what others would think.

I’d kept the very same secret as Carol for years, smothered beneath a plastered smile. Love came surely and steadily with Kayla. But it never did with Devon. I was sure something was wrong with me and was driven nearly mad in my quest to love him. I struggled to bond with this little boy who spit in my face, kicked and hit me, threw objects at me, destroyed my home, dismantled my marriage, and tormented my other children.

People understand why a woman wouldn’t love an abusive husband or partner. But this is a child.

We don’t like to admit that even a young child can perpetrate domestic violence. In fact, well-meaning family, friends, and professionals insist that all these children need is love from a “forever family.” With these platitudes condemning us, adoptive mothers struggle to find help.

Carol and I kept what was happening in our homes a secret. Here’s why—

  • We didn’t realize we were being abused. We refused to believe it’s happening because child on parent violence is taboo in our society.
  • We felt responsible. We believed our children would behave differently if only we could be better mothers.
  • We believed things can change. We kept trying to fix it, holding onto hope that we can keep our adoption dreams alive.
  • We feared how others would react. We worried about letting down family and friends who have supported our foster care or international orphan adoptions.

It took years to get help for myself and Devon. Eventually, I learned he had gone through early childhood trauma and he was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). While not all children with RAD are violent, some can be.

In my own therapy, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the relentless stress of raising a child with RAD.

I came to understand that my emotions of anger, frustration, exhaustion, and bitterness were normal. My therapist helped me see that feeling love for a person abusing me–even a child–was not natural, normal, or healthy. It’s unfair to expect adoptive mothers to love children with these extreme behaviors and issues. Faking-it-until-you-make it in front of friends, family, and professionals is not the answer. “It’s unreasonable to force a parent to bond with a child whose behaviors have led to his or her PTSD,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments.” These mothers need compassion, understanding, and support rather than shame and guilt.

The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments. These mothers need compassion, understanding, and support rather than shame and guilt. Click To Tweet

With the proper support and therapy there is hope for healing. There are treatments for kids with RAD that can help them learn to have healthy relationships. Their adoptive families can come to embrace and genuinely care for them. Keeping our uncomfortable, but true, feelings a secret makes it harder, if not impossible, to get the help we need.

For the sake of Carol, and countless other moms who have been shamed into the shadows, I choose to be a silence breaker. I’m not proud that I don’t love my son, but I’m no longer ashamed.

Williams, Keri. “WHEN A MOM STRUGGLES TO LOVE HER CHILD AND OTHER SECRETS FROM PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH REACTIVE ATTACHMENT DISORDER.” Institute For Attachment and Child Development, 11 Apr. 2018