What it’s like being the sibling of a child with RAD

“It’s like living in a prison. We can’t go anywhere. All doors are locked. Alarms everywhere. We can’t have friends over. Stuff goes missing. We’ve all had black eyes, split lips and bite marks…we’re the ones who suffer.” – Grace, 14, on living with a sibling with reactive attachment disorder.

Grace’s experience is not uncommon for siblings of children who fall on the moderate to severe range of reactive attachment disorder (RAD). The dysregulation and other challenges of RAD restrict family activities, cause stress and chaos, and require a disproportionate amount of parental attention and energy.

Siblings are too often the overlooked victims of the disorder.

I initially thought that adopting another child would enrich the lives of my other kids. I certainly never imagined that it’d be a traumatizing situation. For years, my children were routinely exposed to scary outbursts and stressful conflicts. They were humiliated and embarrassed at school – especially after their brother who has RAD punched a teacher in the stomach. They missed out on sleepovers, birthday parties, and were late to basketball and soccer practices. Doing my best in the moment – surviving – I didn’t realize how difficult things were for them until much too late. They had internalized fear, anxiety, and anger.

Doing my best in the moment – surviving – I didn’t realize how difficult things were for them until much too late. It was only later that I realized how traumatized siblings internalize fear, anxiety, and anger.

The struggles and emotions of brothers and sisters of children with RAD—siblings like Grace—can best be understood through their own words. I put up a post on two online Facebook support groups to gather those sentiments. In those posts, I requested parents to ask their children what it’s like having a sibling with RAD. I’ve included their responses throughout this article and only edited their comments for grammar.

Living in Fear

Many siblings are trapped in a perpetual state of anxiety and vigilance, fearful for their own safety and the safety of their parents. They’re often targeted with physical aggression and witness terrifying situations.

Here’s what siblings are saying:

“I can feel her getting all angry and I get worried and feel a little sick in my stomach. When she gets really bad and is yelling and screaming and hitting you [mom] I feel upset that I can’t stop her, that I can’t protect you from her.” – Chad, 10

“Mommy, I am scared. She hurts me.” – Susie, 6

“Is the door locked?” – Jake, 15, sleeping on his parent’s bedroom floor with his 10 and 12-year-old brothers.

“I’m scared she’s going to do something to me. But I won’t let her know I’m scared.” – Mia, 11

“I wish she could live somewhere else. I don’t like her anymore. She’s never nice.” – Ava, 4, whispered to her mother afraid her sister with RAD would overhear and retaliate.

“No, Sis!” – Emma, 2, screamed in a nightmare after watching her 12-year-old sibling with RAD physically attack her mother.

“Why is she always so mean to me? She’s always hateful and yelling at me.” – Ashley, 10. A middle child, Ashley also has a brother with RAD. Of him she says, “He lies to get me in trouble. He hits me and threatens to kill me and swears at me.”

What you can do

Put alarms on sibling’s doors to help them feel safe. Give them the option of sleeping on a daybed in your bedroom. Make a concerted effort to minimize their exposure to violence and danger with an escape plan out of escalating situations. This may mean calling grandma to be picked up, going outside to play or another option that works best for your family.

Internalizing dysfunction

For many siblings, family life can be highly dysfunctional and confusing. This can lead to a warped view of normal family relationships with devastating, lifelong impacts. Siblings often struggle to differentiate the person from the disorder and come to hate their brother or sister who has RAD.

Here’s what siblings are saying:

“She always says she’s sorry and goes right back to being so happy when I’m still hurt. I can’t trust her anymore because she always says she won’t do it again and then usually does in the very same day.” – Beth, 10

“I never want children of my own. What if something goes wrong and they end up like her? I just couldn’t handle raising a child like that!” – Marie, 29

“Mom, does he have to come home? You are so much nicer when he is gone.” – Brandon, 12

“Sometimes I feel like no one can see me because my mom and dad give [my sister with RAD] constant attention.” – Honor, 6, who after having to help out with her RAD sister says she never wants to have children.

“It breaks my heart to hear my baby sister say she hates me and is going to kill me tonight! It’s not fair.” – Samantha, 15, said weeping.

“They’re always mad, sad, and don’t like their mom or dad, and lie all the time.” – Addison, 10, on why all siblings are bad.

“Don’t you get it? She is a horrible person.” – Kayla, 12, when she found her mom sobbing over something her sister with RAD said.

What you can do

Let siblings be honest about their feelings and don’t minimize their experiences. Find a good therapist who can help them process and gain some perspective. An outside person, like a therapist, can help them develop empathy and compassion while maintaining healthy boundaries.

Many people think that time apart is counterintuitive in helping a child with RAD and their family heal and attach. Yet, it’s quite the opposite with the right model.

Losing their childhood

Siblings don’t live the carefree lives of others. They miss basketball practice and piano lessons when their sibling flips into a rage. They aren’t able to go on family vacations and outings are often cut short. Their treasures and toys are broken. Their allowance is stolen. For them, growing up can be less than ideal and full of heartache and challenges.

Here’s what siblings are saying:

“I’m only 10-years-old! I’m too little to have to deal with this stuff!” – Ethan, 10, once a happy-go-lucky boy who is in therapy. ‪

“It was depressing and exhausting. I was never allowed to have fun.”  – Michael, 10, who has been in therapy for the last two years.

“It feels like living in a minefield. Looks peaceful and nice one minute, war zone the next.” Jeffrey, 8

“I never get to have friends over and I missed my best friend’s birthday party. I already had a present and had to give it to her at school on Monday.” – Abby, 11

“They have no idea what it’s been like!” Skylar, 8, cried after neighborhood kids blamed her when her sister with RAD, 11, was removed from the home. Her sister was removed because she was planning to murder Skylar and her family.

“I can’t wait to move out.” – Hunter, 17. When Hunter’s sister Ava, 10, also traumatized by their sibling with RAD heard this she said, “You can’t leave me here with her!”

“Sometimes it feels like it will never end.” – Emma, 15, who has started cutting to “release” the pain, is severely depressed, and has lost 40 pounds in the last year after witnessing the tantrums, explosions, anger, aggression, violence, and threats of a sibling with RAD.

Siblings don’t live the carefree lives of others. They miss basketball practice and piano lessons when their sibling flips into a rage. They aren’t able to go on family vacations and outings are often cut short…For them, growing up can be less than ideal and full of heartache and challenges.

What you can do

Enlist family and friends to help siblings with rides to practice, science fair projects, and other important activities. When accomodations cannot be made, acknowledge your child’s feelings and validate them. Enroll them in camps. Let them stay with grandma or auntie for long vacations to get a break and enjoy their childhood.

Collateral damage

Many parents, myself included, are so consumed with the minute-by-minute challenges of raising a child with RAD that they underestimate, or don’t fully recognize, the impact on siblings. It was only after my son was admitted to a residential treatment facility that I began to fully understand how his disorder had impacted my other children. To this day my youngest son who lived in fear of his brother for the first five years of his life is highly anxious and at age 11 is afraid to sleep alone. I often wish for a do-over.

When assessing treatment options for your child with RAD, be mindful of the needs of siblings. Many people think that time apart is counterintuitive in helping a child with RAD and their family heal and attach. Yet, it’s quite the opposite. “Time apart allows the parents and other children to heal from their own trauma while, at the same time, kids with RAD learn how to attach and to live in a family,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “When the children return to their own families after the Institute, everyone is stronger. They can live together safely. We’re strengthening families so they don’t fall apart forever.”

Don’t make the mistake of imagining siblings are coping and doing okay. Don’t, like me, realize only once the damage has been done. There are no perfect answers, but understanding how RAD impacts siblings is a good starting place. Don’t let them be collateral damage.

Don’t miss these posts:

What to consider before you adopt

How moms of kids with RAD get PTSD

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of these children.

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15 thoughts on “What it’s like being the sibling of a child with RAD”

  1. I’m sobbing reading this, as a 20-something who grew up with a RAD adopted sibling. She’s still extremely unstable as an adult, and I often need to help her and talk her down from ledges. I care about her and know that trauma is not her fault, but I often feel really sad wondering if my life would have turned out differently without her. I have C-PTSD and all sorts of stress related physical problems. And I feel like she stole my parents from me as a child.

  2. Does anyone have ideas for bedtime tantrums? Older child is actually doing better during the day but not at night. She is 6 years old, for many years after adoption she screams/cries at night, terrifies her younger sibling, nothing works to calm her down. I think she likes the control and that she’s ruining everyone’s night. If we walk her to another room where other child can’t hear, to calm down she just gets quiet there, and then starts screaming and shrieking as soon as she goes back to her room. My younger one who is a very happy thriving kid is now having night terrors because they are both upstairs and he hears her shrieking every night. Either that or she sneaks into his room and wakes him up and scares him in the middle of the night. Alarms on her door but sometimes I sleep through the chime out of pure exhaustion because none of us sleep well.
    Tonight I lost my mind and screamed at her and spanked her (I was scary – not okay!!) until she stopped out of pure fear which obviously just made it worse and isn’t good for her, I feel so terrible and like a horrible mother for responding that way. My other child probably heard too and he is very attached to me, he loves and trusts me so much and I am his hero. I went downstairs and just cried out of pure guilt and exhaustion and helplessness feeling like I failed. I have many friends but no one knows it’s this bad, she doesn’t usually act this terribly in public although sometimes she bullies other kids. Normally I stay calm and I have a loving response and a game plan, but I just couldn’t take it anymore, years and years of tantrums and shrieking every night and spending hours of my night dealing with it. Also years of therapy to make one tiny step at a time during the day – but night is a nightmare. What can we do to make evenings be more peaceful? She never hurts anyone physically just teases, antagonizes and screams at the top of her lungs. I want to sleep well so badly and I want my kids to be happy and safe. I day dream of sleeping through the night. I want to co-regulate and be a gentle mama and do the right thing. Help please!

  3. My RAD daughter is biological, but she witnessed extreme marital violence in her earlier years. She also has an autism spectrum disorder. My other three (younger) children still have scars from her abuse and they hate her. She has chosen to live with her father, and cut me off completely, but other than worrying about his influence on her, I’m okay with that. She put me through many years of angst and now I have PTSD from both her and her father’s treatment.

  4. So true 🙁 While my adopted child is not on the extreme end of the RAD spectrum, she definitely has developmental trauma disorder, complete with attachment issues. I have been pondering why my adult children don’t call more often or seem eager to visit. I suspect I don’t realize the degree to which they internalized the fear, anger and overall stress. Even though they are so much older than her, so it wasn’t like she actually endangered them. They sure listened to a lot of her endless tantrums and heard me lose it with her many times.

    Like you, I thought that adopting would enrich our family. I would never say this and use my real name. But I know now that adopting her was a huge mistake. It has not only traumatized and stressed my husband and I out, but ended up alienating our other kids. And it was bad for my daughter too. Taking her away from her birth mom was horrible for her, I now realize. Birth mom should have gotten the help and support she needed. I don’t blame her, I blame her boyfriend, her relatives, the system, and the overall crappy society with no real community. And to think, we thought we were “trusting god” and “following the Lord’s calling.” This is one of the reasons I am now agnostic.

    1. Anna, I could have written your reply– and added to it. Our adoptions stole our lives and our biological kids’ childhoods. We are agnostics today, too. Thank you for sharing your story, as most adoptive families feel utterly alone in their misery. Everyone likes the feel good stories, and nobody wants to hear about the reality of the day to day living with children with developmental trauma. The truth is that these kids do not– can not!– seem to ever heal from their attachment disorders. Prospective adoptive families ought to be warned they may be facing years of (useless) talk therapy, psych med changes, hospital stays, legal troubles, emergency room visits and the juvenile justice system. In some cases the children can learn to manage the symptoms of their developmental trauma, but that’s about as good as it gets.

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