Unless you’ve lived through a child’s relentless screaming, violent outbursts, physical aggression, and extreme manipulation – hour-after-hour, day-after-day – it may be hard to fathom the long term impact on caregivers.
But, the truth is, it can feel like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Does that seem a bit melodramatic? Before you scoff, consider that hardened terrorists have been “broken” by being subjected to a continuous 24-hour stream of, “I Love You,” by Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Here’s how a US service member explained the impact of this psychological tactic to CNN: “Your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken.”(1)
If the onslaught of an innocuous children’s song is enough to break a terrorist, it’s not hard to imagine how parents of children with serious mental illnesses like reactive attachment disorder (RAD) suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) , anxiety, depression, and more. Or to understand how they become angry, afraid, frustrated, and hypervigilant. At some point, their lofty parenting ideals end up crumpled at the bottom of the trashcan along with broken toys, shredded family photos, and burnt meals. They reach their breaking point.
I remember when I reached mine.
My son Devon’s behaviors had been unmanageable and escalating for five years. On that day, he kicked his legs and pumped his arms like a toddler in the throes of a tantrum. He was eight. Sick to death of the tug-of-war, I surrendered. Or, at least I tried to. I handed him the extra pop tart he was screaming for, but he hurled it away, shrieking as if I’d handed him a coiled snake.
As Devon’s theatrics dialed up, my heart was like the rapid fire of a machine gun. I wanted to hurl him into a wall. Instead, I clawed my fingernails along the sides of my face to vent my anger on myself instead of him.
Fingers shaking, I texted my sister who lived next door: “OMG. I can’t take this. I just want to die.”
I was desperate to stay calm. To maintain control. But a runaway train had slammed into me and I was careening forward. I was frantically pumping the breaks, but there was no stopping.
Perched on the edge of the sofa, I squeezed my eyes shut, just for a moment, rubbing my temples. My eyes flew open as Devon loomed up in front of me.
Spit slapped me across the face.
I lurched up, dry heaving, desperately wiping the stringy mess off with my shirt sleeve
“Stop it! Enough! That’s enough.” My voice was shrill. Screaming. “Just stop it!”
He flung himself backward on the carpet. As I reached for him, he kicked me. I kicked at him.
My sister rushed through the door. Devon’s screams ratcheted up as she pulled me into the bathroom. “You need to take him to the hospital.” She jolted me out of my hysteria.
I held my side, panting. “I can’t. It’s a waste of time.”
“You’re going to end up hurting him. Take him to the hospital. Take him. Now.”
Taking Devon to the hospital that day didn’t result in any meaningful treatment for him, but it was an absolute saving grace. I’m only human. I wish I could handle the relentless pressure and onslaught of raising a child with challenging behaviors. I wish I was superhuman. But I can only take so much. Thankfully, I had my sister to help me that day.
What not to do
The challenges we face every day as parents of children with RAD are real and daunting. Because there are no quick fixes or easy answers, well-intentioned parents sometimes act out of desperation and implement solutions that are dangerous and abusive:
Bed “forts” or other types of cages to keep a child contained in their bed.
Doors that lock from the outside keeping a child in their bedroom.
Sealed windows to prevent a child from climbing onto the roof or running away.
Surveillance cameras capturing footage of a child in compromising positions.
Supervising an older child while they dress, shower, or use the toilet to prevent them from engaging in unhealthy behaviors.
Restraining a child with straps, cuffs, etc to prevent them from causing property destruction or acting out with physical aggression.
It is understandable that parents are tempted to turn to these as last resort strategies, but it’s imperative to remember the ends don’t justify the means. These “solutions” are fire hazards, violate your child’s privacy, are unsafe, and likely illegal in your state.
But let’s get real…
For parents, this can be a no-win situation.
If your child climbs on the roof they could fall off and seriously hurt themselves.
If you don’t prevent your child from climbing onto the roof, you may be considered negligent.
If you secure their door and windows, you may be considered negligent.
This is our reality: Our kids need to stay in their bedrooms at night. Unrestrained, our kids harm others in the family and create thousands of dollars in property damage. Our kids engage in self-harm, take drugs, and more when they are unmonitored. These behaviors are also unsafe, illegal, and dangerous.
Still, the “solutions” listed above are not viable options. We must find other ways to respond.
What to do
If you feel your child’s next violent outburst may take you over the edge, as though you’re about to snap, here are “last resort” options that you may need to consider:
Camp out at your local mental health emergency room.
Have local crisis emergency services on speed dial.
Involve juvenile justice.
Hopefully, you won’t have to take these steps. But, unfortunately, there aren’t perfect, or even good, solutions to this tragic issue. Sometimes this is what it takes to keep your family safe.
Here are some practical steps you can take to keep things from escalating to the point where you have to take such drastic steps.
Persist in finding treatment. While it is very difficult to find effective treatment for RAD we must remain vigilant in our search. As our children grow older, their behaviors typically become increasingly unmanageable. Getting therapy and treatment early is key.
Take care of yourself. This may seem completely out of reach, but start small with our self-care list for frazzled parents who don’t have a moment to spare.
Increase your resilience. Helping a child with RAD heal is a long-term proposition, so find ways to lower other stressors in your life.
Get professional help for yourself. Talk with your doctor about treatments for anxiety, depression, and other areas where you are struggling. Seeing a therapist can be worked into even a packed schedule with the growing number of therapists offering online sessions.
Have an emergency support person. It is critical that you have a person you can count on when you can no longer cope. Alternatively, you may need to rely on local crisis services in your community.
Be self-aware. Take notice of a rapid heartbeat, unnatural thoughts, feelings of hopelessness or excessive anger. Do not ignore these warning signs and get help right away.
Find support. Family and friends are often unaware of the struggles we face. Here’s a letter that may be helpful in educating them. Also, online Facebook support groups like The Underground World of RAD are convenient ways to connect with others across the country for support.
There are no good solutions for families in these predicaments. You’ll likely be forced to choose the best of several bad options. Take the proactive steps outlined above, never resort to dangerous strategies, and be persistent in demanding the care your child needs. Your child’s well-being, your mental health, and your family’s security depends on it.
Burnett, Erin. “Barney Song Used as Torture?” CNN, Cable News Network, 31 May 2012, outfront.blogs.cnn.com/2012/
Image credit: https://www.buzzfeed.com/leonoraepstein/this-is-the-guy-who-played-barney-for-most-of-your-childhood?utm_term=.yy1KrEP9gP#.femK6B9Oo9