When Annika and Zeb adopt Carl, an 11-year-old boy from the foster care system, they’re confident he’ll heal and thrive in their loving home. Carl seems sweet and charming – at first.
The vestiges of Carl’s childhood neglect and abuse soon spill out. The “ripped from our lives” plot of movie The Boarder (2012) will be all too familiar to families of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). The “ripped from our lives” plot of movie The Boarder (2012) will be all too familiar to families of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Click To TweetThey’re sure to see themselves in its authentic cast of characters—the adopted child suffering the effects of trauma, the “nurturing enemy” mom, the duped dad, and the suffering siblings. For others, the movie is an eye-opening introduction to a disorder many do not know or truly understand.
As the plot unfolds, mom Annika is confused and hurt when Carl spurns her love and affection. But as Carl’s behaviors become more concerning – violent outbursts, lying, stealing, and smearing feces – she sees that he is severely emotionally disturbed. She realizes it is not a problem that can be loved away.Meanwhile, Carl’s adoptive siblings Jarren and Lexi resent Carl’s surly attitude and how he takes all of their mother’s energy and time.
Carl cleverly hides his worst behaviors from and ingratiates himself with his new adoptive father Zeb. When Annika looks to Zeb for support, he takes Carl’s side. Zeb believes his wife has become paranoid, impatient, and oversensitive. As Carl’s behaviors grow more extreme, Annika is consumed by guilt, fear — and anger. She wonders if she’s going crazy as she spirals into despair and hopelessness.
Carl is eventually diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a result of his early childhood trauma. True to life, even with a diagnosis, there are no easy answers for this family.
By the end of the movie, viewers join in Annika’s horror that Carl may have killed the family dog. It is indeed a jarring movie, particularly for those who have never even heard of the term RAD. Some viewers likely gravitate towards the movie’s tagline that “sometimes evil is born”. This myth, however, is skillfully dispelled through flashbacks to Carl’s abuse and neglect at the hands of his birth mother and her boyfriend. Carl is cast as both a victim and a perpetrator – eliciting both sympathy and anger from the viewer.
Despite being an independent film with a modest budget, The Boarderoffers a surprisingly nuanced peek into the lives of families struggling with RAD including:
the painful struggle to attach to a child who actively thwarts love and affection
the damage caused when a child is adept at triangulating the adults around them
the overwhelming sense of guilt that compounds into hopelessness and despair
This authentic depiction is no doubt the result of extensive research by the screenwriter, Jane Ryan, as well as her own personal experience adopting two children who suffered early childhood trauma.
It is important to note that most children are unlikely to have all the RAD symptoms Carl has – he represents a true worst-case scenario. Also, the family has the financial means for Zeb to move into an apartment with Carl and later to pay for his residential treatment. Many families are not as fortunate. The film is likely to leave parents longing for a supportive parenting group like the one Annika and Zeb join.
To find support is one of the most difficult challenges in raising kids with RAD. “Who hasn’t judged a parent harshly when they see a child spiral out of control?” asks producer Jolene Adams. “We simply do not understand the level of difficulty that these parents are dealing with. These are not spoiled children, they are victims acting out in a never-ending loop of abuse.”
There’s a staggering lack of awareness about RAD in our communities, schools, churches, and families. With this film, Ryan and Adams bring awareness so children with RAD and their caregivers can get the treatment and support they so desperately need.
The Boarder offers new insight and understanding into the inner working of a family coping with a child diagnosed with RAD. The Boarder, also released by Lifetime as Troubled Child, is available for rent on Amazon and can be streamed free by Amazon Prime members. Also watch on YouTube here. The film is rated PG-13 and viewers should be aware that it includes profanity and depictions of violence and sexual aggression.
Have you watched The Boarder or shared it with family and friends? Love to hear your thoughts.
Originally published by IACD.