What is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)?

I visualize my son’s mental disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), as a tug-of-war. If I tell him to wear blue socks, he’ll wear white. If I make his favorite sandwich, he’ll toss it in the trash and tell his teacher I didn’t send him with lunch. If I ask him to write his spelling words three times, he won’t even pick up his pencil. And there’s no negotiation. If I compromise and ask him to write them only once, he’ll still refuse.

No matter how inconsequential or mundane the issue is, my son treats everything as though it’s a tug of war, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. For him it’s a life-or-death battle. He must win at all costs – no matter how long it takes, and despite any consequences he’s given or any rewards he’s promised.

Kids with RAD have an indefatigable need to control the people and situations around them because they only feel safe when they prove to themselves they are in control. To understand this, we must go back to the underlying causes of the disorder.

What causes RAD?

RAD is caused by adverse childhood experiences (also called ACES) that occur during the first five years of a child’s life. This is when their rapidly developing brain is most vulnerable.

In my son’s case, he was neglected and abused before we adopted him out of foster care at the age four. Other ACES include witnessing domestic violence, having a substance addicted parent, and losing a primary caregiver.

These experiences can cause “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading trauma expert and researcher Bessel van der Kolk. Depending on the timing, duration, and severity of the adversity, a child can be affected in two key ways.

  1. Stuck in chronic survival mode. The fight-flight-freeze is not meant to be our “normal.” Its purpose is to kick in to keep us safe from danger. When kids are chronically abused and neglected, their brains are chronically bathed in adrenaline. As a result, they may begin to default to fight-fight-freeze even in minimally threatening situations. These kids can be hypervigilant and seem to overreact.
  2. Interrupted brain development. Our brain develops sequentially beginning with the primitive brain which controls our basic functions including our breathing and heart rate. The limbic brain comes next and regulates behavior, emotions, and attachment. The cortical brain – where critical, abstract, and cause-and-effect thinking live – comes online last. When kids experience chronic trauma, their brain may not develop properly. These kids can be dysregulated and lack high-level thinking skills.

The impact of developmental trauma is on a spectrum with a variety of symptoms and severity. This is closely related to stage of the child’s brain development at the time the trauma occurred. Unfortunately, there is no single diagnosis that covers all the symptoms of developmental trauma. Children are often given multiple diagnoses including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and RAD.

What is RAD?

RAD is a diagnosis given to children who have experienced chronic developmental trauma before the age of five and did not form at healthy attachment to a primary caregiver, usually their mother. They grow up without an inherent sense of being safe and loved. Instead their psyche internalizes the message they must take care of themselves because no one else will.

The world feels alarmingly unsafe and unpredictable – and that’s why they lock into a tug-of-war with their primary caregiver. Remember too, these children may be “stuck” in survival mode. They may literally perceive an innocuous situation as threatening and kick into fight-flight-freeze mode. Their higher-level brain functions like cause-and-effect thinking may be underdeveloped. This is why they cannot be reasoned with or talked down.

How to end the tug of war

As a parent, the constant tug-of-war, is exhausting, frustrating, and discouraging. Our impulse is often to tug our side of the rope even harder – to teach our child who is boss. We dole out consequences and insist on compliance. They need to learn to respect authority and obey, right? It’s parenting 101.

But traditional parenting backfires spectacularly with kids diagnosed with RAD. They dig in their heels and tighten their grip on their side of the rope. It will inevitably exacerbate the situation and strain the relationship with our child.

It may seem counterintuitive, but to help our child drop his side of the rope, we must first drop ours. This is accomplished by employing therapeutic parenting strategies that prioritize relationship building and focus on the communication and the needs behind the behavior.

Let’s look at how therapeutic parenting can transform the tug-of-war with my son.

  1. When I tell him to wear blue socks, he’ll insist on wearing white. It doesn’t really matter what color socks he wears. I decide to let him make these types of choices whenever possible which enables him to enjoy some sense of control.
  2. He’ll toss his lunch in the trash and tell his teacher I didn’t send one. Perhaps he’s lining up a backup food source because he’s unconsciously afraid I’ll stop feeding him one day. By providing consistent nurturing over time, this need – thus this behavior – will diminish.
  3. Instead of writing his spelling words, he’ll stare at his pencil. I can make this a non-issue by leaving it to his teacher to follow up. If necessary, I can pursue a 504 plan or Individual Education Plan (IEP) to ensure the accommodations he needs to be successful.

And with that, I’ve dropped my side of the rope. We are no longer locked in a tug-of-war.

Of course, it’s easier said than done and takes great patience and perseverance. RAD is a very challenging disorder to manage and there are no quick and easy fixes. A good starting point is recognizing the underlying causes and educating yourself on the therapeutic parenting approach.

Also published on The Mighty (upcoming)

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