How to discipline a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) – Part II

In case you missed it: How to discipline a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) – Part I

STRATEGIES THAT DO NOT WORK, AND WHY

  • Behavior modification isn’t effective because kids with RAD often lack cause and effect thinking and are not sufficiently motivated by rewards. Furthermore, these tactics convey to the child what is important to the parent. The child can use that information to thwart the parent and gain control of the household.
  • Punishments act to reinforce the child’s innate sense of worthlessness. The parent and child will find themselves locked in an ineffective cycle of misbehavior and punishment when the parent is punitive.
  • Multiple warnings are perceived by the child as weakness and an opportunity to continue misbehavior. These nearly always backfire.
  • Reprimanding often provokes an extreme reaction, especially when done publicly because it plays into the child’s already low self-esteem and can trigger their internalized self-loathing and anger.
  • Zero tolerance policies leave parents with little latitude when the child refuses to comply. Parents may find themselves shocked by the obstinacy of the child who continues to up the ante.
  • Focusing on “why” is counterproductive because these children typically lack analytical and abstract thinking skills. Asking why or explaining why is likely to be frustrating for both parent and child.
  • Responding emotionally to a child’s behavior is unhealthy for the parent and places the child squarely in the driver’s seat. When a parent takes a child’s behavior personally and becomes provoked to anger, the child is in control.

As you can see, “Parenting 101” simply does not work with kids who have RAD. Those strategies,

  • continuously activate your child’s fight-flight response system
  • create a tug-of-war between you and your child
  • give your child opportunities to humiliate you with non-compliance
  • give your child the opportunity to exert their (age inappropriate) control time and time again, and
  • create frustrating loops with no off ramp for you as a parent

Most importantly, traditional parenting methods and approaches will not result in behavioral changes or compliance, especially as your child gets older. Since this definitely won’t work, trauma-informed therapeutic parenting  methods can provide a meaningful way forward.

STRATEGIES THAT DO WORK, AND WHY

  • Give choices that allow you to maintain control as the parent, while empowering the child. For example, ask if they’d like to do their homework at the kitchen table or on a pillow on the living room floor. By approaching the child this way, you can often distract them from willful disruption and obstinacy.
  • Be discrete when discussing matters with the child. Feeling backed into a corner, publicly shamed or teased is likely to trigger a negative, possibly violent reaction.
  • Rely upon natural consequences which are best for all children including those with RAD. Always use a neutral or empathetic tone and keep it as simple as possible.
  • Side-step power struggles by showing empathy, but not engaging in endless arguments which are usually counterproductive. The child is likely to capitalize on any discussion to thwart the rules. They also may use it as an excuse to escalate the situation.
  • Be prepared to remove yourself from the situation if you cannot cope. The extreme behaviors of kids with RAD can be extremely frustrating, overwhelming, and hurtful. It’s normal to feel emotional, but when you lose your cool, the child is in control.

None of these strategies are a magic bullet, but especially for kids on the mild end of the spectrum, you may be surprised by how successful they are. And even for kids on the more severe end of the spectrum, they are a way forward.

CHANGING YOUR GOALS AND PRIORITIES

If your child is on the more severe end of the spectrum, and especially as they move into the teen years, therapeutic parenting will not be enough. You may need to re-evaluate your priorities and goals.

To start with, you don’t need to “fix” your child’s RAD. You don’t need to teach them the consequences of their actions. You don’t need to get them into college.

For many RAD parents, getting the child to 18 while keeping everyone safe, is enough. That alone is a monumental success.

This takes a significant mindset shift, but can greatly impact how we address situations with our child.

Let’s look at an example.

“My daughter was vaping in the school bathroom. She got caught but the school isn’t suspending her!! She sweet talked the principal and is getting a second chance. I’m going to call the school and demand that she be treated like every other student. She needs consequences to learn.”

To start with, in principle, I totally agree with this parent. However, in practice, I do not. And that’s where we need to live as RAD parents—what works in practice, not in principle.

Let me ask you this, will this child actually learn from the consequence of being suspended from school? Will they stop vaping?

Very unlikely on both counts.

If anything, they’ll use this as a future way to get out of school whenever they like. The child will not care that they have been suspended. They may even be happy about it.

On the other hand, any suspension will have consequences for the rest of the family. Here’s the reality of what this suspension may actually look like:

  • You will have to take time off from work to monitor the child
  • You will spend all day absolutely miserable, tortured by their behavior
  • Your other children will be trapped in the resulting toxic home environment

If the suspension isn’t going to teach the child and it will only be a punishment for the rest of the family, it’s time to reevaluate.

How might our response be different if we have more pragmatic parenting goals? These may be some realistic, pragmatic parenting goals:

  • Help my child get their high school diploma, fairly earned or not (this will make them more likely to be successful and independent at 18)
  • Protect my other kids in the home from primary and secondary trauma
  • Protect my own mental health and stay in a place where I won’t do something I regret

With these pragmatic goals, I’d be calling the principal to thank her for not suspending my child. In fact, I’d be using my child’s IEP to contest a suspension on the basis that the behavior was related to their disability.

How about chores? If you’ve been asking your child to take out the trash for months—years—and they still refuse, it’s time to rethink that too. First, accept that they’re never going to comply. Second, realize that every time you ask, you are picking up that rope in the tug-of-war they want to engage you in. Finally, you’re creating an opportunity for them to humiliate you with non-compliance. That doesn’t make sense if there’s no real hope of the child ever complying anyway.

As a fellow parent of a child with RAD, I know this is a hard pill to swallow. I know this is bad parenting advice—bad advice if you had adequate tools and supports for caring for a child with a severe mental health condition. But parents of kids with RAD don’t have that.

You don’t have the tools to do the job. And, so, you’re going to have to hold your nose and make the best of the bad choices you’ve got available to you. You must be pragmatic about what you can do and remember that the physical and mental well-being of the whole family matters, including yours.

This is an excerpt from the book Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD): The Essential Guide for Parents

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