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.

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Affiliate I earn referral fees when you use my links.

The Essential Guide to RAD

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD): The Essential Guide for Parents has the resources, advice, and information I wish I’d had when my son was diagnosed with RAD. During our last promotions we’ve given away more than 4,000 copies. See what customers are saying here.

Devon was a friendly, jabbering three-year-old with round cheeks and a bright smile when we adopted him and his two-year-old sister Kayla.

Soon I realized something was seriously wrong, but had no idea what. He played with feces, threw screaming tantrums for hours, and seemed defiant and willful. I tried parenting strategy after parenting strategy, but nothing worked.

I was still trying to “fix” him when, at nine, Devon pushed his then four-year-old brother down the stairs in a rage and karate chopped him in the throat. That was my wake-up call. We needed help.

Not long after, Devon was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). What a huge sigh of relief – finally we could get some help and treatment. Or so I thought…

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions for kids with RAD. Over time, however, I learned how to navigate the system, advocate for my son, and get the support I needed. Raising a child with RAD is a hard road to follow especially when you don’t have a support system or know where to go for help. This is why I wrote the guide I wish I’d had back then.

My new book, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD): The Essential Guide for Parents, is written from the trenches. No platitudes or false promises – only key information, practical suggestions, and resource recommendations.

What customers are saying:

“This is the clearest, most honest book on Reactive Attachment Disorder I have read.” – Missy

“A must read for all those involved with children: mental health professionals, educators, and most of all struggling parents.” – Jen

“This book nails it!! I no longer feel alone or crazy!!” – Drykun

“This book brought some sanity back into my world.” – Debra

How parents of kids with RAD get PTSD

“It’s unreasonable to force a parent to bond with a child whose behaviors have led to his or her PTSD,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments.”

Published by the Institute for Attachment and Child Development here.

Trauma and the Incredible Hulk

Effectively parenting children with a history of trauma requires a paradigm shift. This short video by psychologist Jacob Ham is incredibly effective in helping us understand why consequences don’t work for kids with reactive attachment disorder and how we can help them deescalate.

How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

It’s the million-dollar question. How do we manage the behavior of children with RAD?

Therapeutic approaches can seem scarily permissive. Meanwhile, traditional parenting approaches backfire spectacularly.

At the root, most behaviors children with RAD engage in are intended for self-preservation – by sabotaging relationships and controlling their environments. It’s unlikely, however, that they’re introspective enough to be consciously doing this. These underlying motivations are etched like scars on their psyche.

Most likely, the in-your-face motivations of these kids are far more concrete. For example, our kids may be arguing incessantly because:

  • it’s a habit like biting their nails or spinning a pencil
  • they want to test our boundaries to see how flexible the rules are
  • they don’t really care about anyone else’s feelings or needs
  • they love to push our buttons and get a reaction

When we’re in the trenches trying to manage these behaviors it’s sometimes difficult to embrace therapeutic parenting approaches because they seem to discount these in-your-face motivations entirely. Instead, they focus completely on the underlying, unconscious motivations.

[bctt tweet=”I’ve had therapists tell me that my son has no control over his behaviors – as if they’re as involuntary as a sneeze. I sure know that’s not the case.” username=”RaisingDevon”]

Yes, in the real-world of RAD parenting, we know the in-your-face motivations are every bit as real as the unconscious, underlying motivations. In fact, they’re what make the behaviors so painful to deal with emotionally. As a result, parents often focus on the in-your-face motivations and find themselves angry, frustrated, and easily triggered.

Let’s consider that in many children, both sets of motivations co-exist.

For example,

My child is arguing just because they enjoy pushing my buttons. It gives them a feeling of control which they unconsciously crave because they intrinsically believe the world is unsafe.

When we look at the motivations for the behavior more holistically like this we are able to have greater empathy, more patience, and find energy to invest in long-term approaches. Below are some resources I’ve found useful for specific strategies and approaches. Please be sure to comment and share what’s working for you.

Recommended Resources


The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting

Sara Naish’s book “The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting” it a balanced approach that’s both therapeutic and practical. She covers behaviors from Absconding to ZZZZ (sleep issues) and everything in between. For each behavior she helps us understand the broad range of reasons why a child might be doing it. She also provides strategies to prevent the behavior, to manage it in the moment, and to address it after the fact. These suggestions are refreshingly practical and obviously written by someone who has been in the trenches themselves. Read my full review or pick up a copy here: The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting.


How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder-2

How-to blog post

Check out this excellent post on how to discipline a child with RAD. This is one of the most complicated topics related to RAD. Most ‘discipline’ is ineffective and it can be quite risky.

How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder – Every Star Is Different

Believing “children are resilient” may be a fantasy | Psychology Today

How did resilience become a standard? How did we come to view children almost as nuisances who just need minimal support? How did children’s needs become dismissable?

via Believing “children are resilient” may be a fantasy | Psychology Today

Laying blame will not help heal the child.

The feelings of guilt and shame the parents are burdened with, as the child injures other children and pets, defies authority and is destructive to things around them, are very painful and destructive to themselves. The community looks for someone to blame rather than a solution to the problem. Finding someone to blame does not help! It is vital to let go of the guilt, let go of the shame and resolve to solve the problem. Whether another parent is the one that broke your child’s heart or you made the errors yourself is of no consequence anymore. Laying blame will not help heal the child. Carrying guilt and shame wastes a tremendous amount of energy that could be put to much better use healing the child.

— Nancy L. Thomas, When Love is Not Enough