Open letter to a therapist from a mom of a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Dear Therapist,

I am desperate for your help. I apologize ahead of time if I seem angry and defensive. I’m just burnt out and afraid you won’t understand. My son is completely out of control and nothing works.

I’ve tried to get help before from therapists and teachers, even police officers, but no one understands. They all think I’m exaggerating, or maybe even lying. My own mother says, “He’s just a kid,” and can’t understand what I’m dealing with is way beyond normal, way beyond safe, and way beyond what I can handle. My son went through trauma at a young age and has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.

I’m not exaggerating when I say my son screams for hours. He’s torn his bedroom door off the hinges and put holes in his walls. His siblings are afraid of him. Sometimes I’m afraid he’ll burn down the house when I’m asleep.

When you meet my son, he’ll look like a very different child than he is with me. You’ll think I’m overreacting. I’m not. You see, my son is an expert at triangulating the adults around him. Due to his early trauma, he manages his surroundings and the people in them to feel safe. In doing so, he’s good at making everyone think I’m mean and crazy. Sometimes I start to believe it too.

I have a secret I should probably share with you—it’s true that I’m not perfect. I’m very aware of that fact. I’ve screamed at my son and lately I’m always angry and frustrated. I’m afraid to tell you this because you’ll think I’m a bad mom and blame me for everything. Most people blame me for my son’s problems. Yet, I’m the one person whose life has been turned inside out and upside down to try to help him.

Even though I’m not a perfect mom, I’m still a good mom trying my best. Click To Tweet

I’ve turned into an unhappy, negative, impatient person whom I don’t even recognize anymore. Sometimes I wonder if I have post-traumatic stress disorder, but feel stupid suggesting that dealing with a child could cause PTSD. It would be helpful for you to encourage me to get some therapy for myself.

Even though I’m not a perfect mom, I’m still a good mom trying my best. Before we get started, here’s what you need to know (because my son will tell you otherwise):

    • I feed my son three meals a day, plus snacks.
    • I don’t hurt my son.
    • I’m not the one who rips up his homework and throws it away.
    • He locks himself in the closet under the stairs. I don’t and wouldn’t ever do that to him.
  • Our house isn’t haunted, he’s not best friends with Justin Bieber, and he’s not going to live with his birth mom next week.

My son will tell you things in individual therapy that will take up all of our time to untangle.

In the meantime, we’ll be distracted from working on the really serious problems for which we need your help. This is why I’m going to insist on being present during all therapy sessions. Please understand it’s not because I have something to hide. I just want to keep things from getting worse than they already are.

Typical parenting strategies like sticker reward charts don’t work for my son. We’ve already tried all sorts of behavior modification strategies. I can’t ignore my son’s negative behavior either. I can’t just watch him hurt himself, his siblings, or destroy everything we own.

Please understand, our family is in crisis.

This is an emergency. We need help and we need it fast. That play therapy you do in the sand…I don’t know, maybe it works for some kids–but not for him. I’m not trying to be unreasonable; I just know what doesn’t work. If you don’t have experience working with trauma-exposed kids, please refer us to someone who does. I understand this is a very specific and serious issue that not all therapists have expertise in.

I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help my son heal and to fix our family. Please help us.



Originally posted by the Institute for Attachment and Child Development.

14 thoughts on “Open letter to a therapist from a mom of a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder”

  1. Here was our letter:

    To Whom It May Concern:
    We have been parenting ____________ full time for over eight years now. She is a very delightful young lady (some of the time). However, she does have some severe behavioral “issues” that started alarming us soon after she was placed in our home. “Normal parenting” has never worked with her, and we have spent a great deal of time researching her behaviors and what we can do to help her overcome them. It has been a long & weary road, to say the least. After lengthy evaluations by numerous doctors, therapists & caseworkers, __________ has been diagnosed with RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) as well as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While I sometimes label this with some humor as Alphabet Soup Syndrome, (A.S.S.),the main problems she has are as a result of the RAD. This disorder is a very difficult disturbance for a child to overcome, and requires constant, 24/7 therapeutic support (we cannot leave this child alone for a second, a firmer understanding of why that is will become apparent later in this document). ____________ has made great strides of progress while living with us, only to regress at the seeming drop of a pin. This disorder has taken years of calm, consistent, therapeutic parenting (in which we have received a vast array of information, training, support & experience in) to overcome. In the absence of that, the RAD child fails to learn what “normal” children do, they fail to bond and fail to learn to trust. A childhood is lost, and a potential sociopath is loosed on society.
    About Reactive Attachment Disorder, cause & effect (in a nutshell). A newborn baby quickly learns to trust her primary caregiver, because her needs are consistently met in a timely, loving manner. ____________ needs were not met, her mother was not loving, and ____________ failed to bond to a caregiver. She subsequently failed to learn to trust. She was neglected the entire first 4 years of her life. Physical & emotional abuse can also cause a “normal” child to turn RAD. ____________suffered a great deal of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse during her first four years of life, with the emotional abuse continuing until she was nearly six years old. This causes the growing child to learn to think in a manner in which she is the only person who can keep herself “safe”, as she has never before experienced an adult providing safety for her. This manifests itself in the child’s great “need” to be in control of all things in her environment at all times. (In order to facilitate the opportunity for healing, the child must learn to accept that her parents are in control, and will keep her safe.) To this day ____________ doesn’t trust the adults in her life to keep her safe. The RAD child often acts very “charming and engaging” with literal strangers. The cuteness & antics of the RAD child overcome these people, and she gains control over them in that manner. These children are also very inappropriately “huggy” & “clingy”. All of these behaviors are very prominent in ____________, and must not be allowed to take place, as it causes immense setbacks in her healing process. Months, even years of progress can and have been lost when a single adult allows this kind of relationship to develop, no matter how brief.
    By this time in the child’s psychological development, some “interesting?” things have happened. It is often said that these children’s brains are hardwired backwards. A QEEG (Quantitative Electro Encephalogram) was done on ____________ and showed three distinct areas of “Short Circuiting”. Those three areas are Attention, Retention, and Processing. What this means is that the development of neuropathways was not influenced by a rational adult or normal human interactions, and the child’s thought processes reflect a lack of cognitive thinking. The child has rejected “cause & effect thinking”. No matter how obvious the outcome of an action may seem to us, the RAD child cannot comprehend this reality. The RAD child often refuses to admit that she knows the difference between right and wrong. The child chronically lies about the obvious (“crazy lying”), and chatters incessantly often asking questions but not listening to/processing the answers given. These are passive ways of gaining “control”, and to allow a RAD child any control that is not age-appropriate (their psychological age, not their chronological age) is a detriment to their healing process. ____________ is capable of waging extreme battles for control of seeming tiny issues (no “issue” is “tiny” to her, if it involves her being in control of it. For her, life revolves around being in control. RAD children firmly believe that they will die if they are not in full control of everyone and everything in their environment at all times.) We have learned that the best way to “win” (or should I say, “not lose”) a control battle is not to engage in it in the first place. When ____________ exhibits a need for inappropriate control, she is most often given a simple choice: to disengage the behavior, or to be removed from the situation.
    ____________ is healing, and getting much better at accepting the “choices” way of life, but still does refuse on occasion to admit that she has a choice, other than throwing a fit. Now, most all kids throw an occasional fit, sometimes even evolving into a tantrum. ____________ however is the Queen of Tantrums, as her psychological age is at best just under 6-9 years old (and most often 3 years, occasionally she reverts back to infancy- about 4-6 months old). These regressions used to be very difficult for us to accept, but we have since learned that she is in fact providing herself with the opportunity to be properly parented and to learn or experience what she missed out on at that time in her life. (You will often see us parent her as a 6-year-old, and occasionally as an infant, as these ages are stalled in her psyche and desperately need to be nurtured to maturity.) At times tantrums are rare, but they still happen with some frequency. This behavior used to regularly evolve into rages. A rage (for ____________) can take one of two avenues. The most frequently traveled path is the one of an anger rage, with the more infrequent path being one of a manic rage. To the uninitiated (and boy, have we been initiated) they may seem very similar except that the former involves her anger being directed at someone, while the latter involves more of a maniacal giggling type of out of control behavior. In either case, her loss of self-control degrades rapidly to the point that she can and will cause harm to herself. It is at these times that a “safe hold” restraint must be initiated. We have to do this when we see the necessity arising, not always waiting until it is absolutely essential to her survival. One “signal” that she is struggling for control is “nervous” scratching. We might restrain her, or we might urge her to do tapping, a “heart hug” or “butterfly hug” as a means of regaining self-control.
    RAD children are masters of manipulation and triangulation. They use these abilities to pit parent against parent, teacher against parents, family member against family member, and peer against peer. This is most often facilitated by showing only their cute & charming mode to one person, while acting as though they are abused or neglected by the person on the other side of the triangle. They will even go as far as to falsely accuse someone of physical or sexual abuse, or of emotional or physical neglect. ____________ has done this numerous times that have been properly documented. They can really put on the act, as they lived it in reality for so long. Please do not be fooled by this behavior, it is well documented and a very unhealthy manifestation of their ability to passively control those in their environment. She may at times appear very “needy”. Rest assured, her only unmet “need” is one of gaining inappropriate control. ____________ is well loved, nurtured & cared for.
    I have only addressed “the tip of the iceberg” here, I could go on for numerous pages about ____________ problems, our experiences, and the support & knowledge that we have on this disorder. Hopefully though, this is enough for our friends & family to have some idea of our situation, & to avoid misunderstandings and/or hurt feelings. We really do know what is best for her, what her needs are, and have a large team of professionals guiding us. This child has become our life; we are very much dedicated to the cause of her healing from the damage that was done by her birth parents. We love her very much and have high hopes for her but we can only direct her, it is she who must do most of the work. Please feel free to ask questions and to discuss what you don’t understand, we are very willing to share with those close to us, and to our daughter.

    PS: Always keep your guards up. ____________ is very good at blindsiding the unsuspecting with her RAD antics, you probably won’t see it coming, & won’t realize that anything was amiss after we have had to remove her from the immediate situation. Rest assured, ____________ knows, and is learning and healing through the process. Feel free to initiate activities with her, but please don’t allow her to take control. She sees most people as an “easy mark” until she figures out that she cannot control you. Your best defense to her controlling behavior is: “I’ll let you know when I want/need/have time for….”, and after you begin to get wise to her, just a plain old “Nice try” will often suffice. We know that it is difficult to not fall victim to her controlling behavior, we have “been there, done that”. Please don’t feel insulted if/when we intervene with her interaction with you, we have unseen insight as to when she is headed down an unhealthy path. It is very good for her to see a consistent, united front from adults. Also please remember that we won’t believe every thing she tells us about you, if you won’t believe everything she tell you about us.

  2. I think I could’ve written this word for word – right down to signing my name. Except I know I have PTSD that was triggered by his behaviors towards me (and re-triggered from my own past). My 7.5 yo daughter was just diagnosed with PTSD because of living with her older brother.

    I am not a perfect mom – but a friend said recently that I used to be a pinterest mom. President of the PTO. Volunteered in the school. And now? None of that. I’m too broken. I have nothing left to give – besides all that my son takes from me.

  3. Hello Keli,
    I found your letter on IACD while searching — in desperation, on a Saturday night — for suggestions for me in teaching a student with RAD. My classroom is a similar environment to your home. I have been too busy all year (with the student) to research beyond the definition of RAD. I cried reading your letter because I found you! My staff and I are going through ALL of the same emotions you listed. We feel so alone! Others don’t see what we see.
    You wrote this letter on the same day he hit me for the first time. The whole year has been a roller coaster, but now I understand the errors I made in not recognizing his need for control and the strategies I thought were trauma-informed but were not really.
    I hope for you and your family to be blessed, healed and healthy. I thank you, with a huge sigh of relief, for writing such a poignant description of yours/his story. You have already touched my life. I look forward to following your website.

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