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.
Originally published by the Institute for Child Development.
Carol was bitter and angry—on edge. Shortly after we met through a mutual friend, she told me about her three adopted sons. She adored her youngest son. The older two were regularly suspended from elementary school, lied incessantly, and threw screaming fits daily. They teased and bullied her 10-year-old daughter.
Her husband Ted listened to us and nodded patronizingly, as if Carol was exaggerating or over-sensitive. He sighed and said that he had told her how to fix the issues but she wouldn’t listen to him. Like my son, Carol’s boys were good in front of their dad. And, like my husband, Ted just didn’t get it.
I know Carol’s desperation well because I lived it myself for years. I told Carol and Ted about adopting siblings Devon and Kayla from foster care. Devon’s behaviors had grown so extreme and dangerous he was now living in a residential treatment facility. He was ten. “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep him there,” I told them. That’s how bad life had been with Devon at home.
I confessed that, although I feel a strong sense of responsibility for Devon, I don’t love him.
Carol burst into tears. I struggled to make out her words through her gasping and sobbing. She said that she didn’t love her two boys and she’d never been able to say it out loud. It was a dark secret she kept, afraid of what others would think.
I’d kept the very same secret as Carol for years, smothered beneath a plastered smile. Love came surely and steadily with Kayla. But it never did with Devon. I was sure something was wrong with me and was driven nearly mad in my quest to love him. I struggled to bond with this little boy who spit in my face, kicked and hit me, threw objects at me, destroyed my home, dismantled my marriage, and tormented my other children.
People understand why a woman wouldn’t love an abusive husband or partner. But this is a child.
We don’t like to admit that even a young child can perpetrate domestic violence. In fact, well-meaning family, friends, and professionals insist that all these children need is love from a “forever family.” With these platitudes condemning us, adoptive mothers struggle to find help.
Carol and I kept what was happening in our homes a secret. Here’s why—
- We didn’t realize we were being abused. We refused to believe it’s happening because child on parent violence is taboo in our society.
- We felt responsible. We believed our children would behave differently if only we could be better mothers.
- We believed things can change. We kept trying to fix it, holding onto hope that we can keep our adoption dreams alive.
- We feared how others would react. We worried about letting down family and friends who have supported our foster care or international orphan adoptions.
It took years to get help for myself and Devon. Eventually, I learned he had gone through early childhood trauma and he was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). While not all children with RAD are violent, some can be.
In my own therapy, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the relentless stress of raising a child with RAD.
I came to understand that my emotions of anger, frustration, exhaustion, and bitterness were normal. My therapist helped me see that feeling love for a person abusing me–even a child–was not natural, normal, or healthy. It’s unfair to expect adoptive mothers to love children with these extreme behaviors and issues. Faking-it-until-you-make it in front of friends, family, and professionals is not the answer. “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.” These mothers need compassion, understanding, and support rather than shame and guilt.
[bctt tweet=”The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments. These mothers need compassion, understanding, and support rather than shame and guilt.” username=”RaisingDevon”]
With the proper support and therapy there is hope for healing. There are treatments for kids with RAD that can help them learn to have healthy relationships. Their adoptive families can come to embrace and genuinely care for them. Keeping our uncomfortable, but true, feelings a secret makes it harder, if not impossible, to get the help we need.
For the sake of Carol, and countless other moms who have been shamed into the shadows, I choose to be a silence breaker. I’m not proud that I don’t love my son in that emotional way, but I’m no longer ashamed.
Here are the stories of one dozen children with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and how their families found the answers to stop the fighting and the violence. Amazing loving parents, that never gave up and fought for their sick children to heal, offer their stories for
For years I pulled out my hair not understanding why my parenting strategy was working with my birth and other adopted children, but not with my son, Devon. NOTHING worked. Learning that traditional parenting methods don’t work with kids who have a trauma background was a milestone for us, something I wish I’d know much earlier than I did. How to work with these kids is counter intuitive. Check out this great post by adoptive parent Mike Berry
Here’s my op-ed on the Parkland shooting printed by the Sun-Sentinel (Feb 2018)
When my son, Devon, was nine he pushed his four-year-old brother down the stairs. It was one big shove that launched Brandon through the air and left him sprawled on the tile floor below. At 10, he punched his teacher and several classmates. At 11, he attacked a woman and dislocated her thumb.
Told a man had fresh dental work, Devon (for the purposes of this oped, I’ll call him Devon) promptly slugged him in the jaw. He was 12. At 13, he punched a young girl in the back of the head, unprovoked, and used his pencil to stab classmates. He still does. At 14, he grabbed a woman’s breasts and genitals threatening to rape her; using a jagged piece of plastic he stabbed a man in the cornea. At 15, he bit a man, breaking the skin and drawing blood; he did $3000 worth of property damage in mere minutes.
Devon, now 16, has verbalized detailed plans to torch the group home he lives in. He routinely threatens to kill himself, me, his siblings, his teachers, and other students.
Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland high school shooter, is a troubled kid, too. While I don’t presume to know Nikolas’ history or diagnoses, Devon and Nikolas are both teenagers, adopted males with behavioral and mental health issues. I adopted Devon from foster care in Broward County when he was four. Like Nikolas, his disturbing record of deviant behavior telegraphs worse to come.
The media is calling the Parkland massacre “preventable” and pointing to missed warning signs. But, I’ve heeded the warning signs. Devon’s received comprehensive mental health services for years. Running the gamut — outpatient therapy, day treatment, therapeutic foster care, group homes, psychiatric residential facilities, mental health hospitalizations — he’s received thousands of hours of therapy. He’s been dealt diagnoses like a hand of Go Fish and is on a cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs.
All these mental health services, like water and sunshine, have unwittingly nurtured Devon’s proclivity for violence. He’s only gotten bigger, stronger, smarter, and more dangerous. I fear he could be the next teen paraded across the headlines in handcuffs.
When Republicans call for greater access to mental health services as a remedy to school shootings, they fail to recognize the mental health system has no meaningful solutions for violent kids like Devon and Nikolas.
Take a walk. Talk to staff. Hug your pillow. These are the coping skills therapists give angry teens to reel in their extreme emotions. The absurdity comes into focus when a teen like Nikolas opens fire on hundreds of innocent victims, taking 17 lives. Would tragedy have been averted if Nikolas knew to pull off his gas mask and take some deep breaths? To put down his AR-15 and hug his pillow?
Psychiatric treatment facilities are virtual incubators for violent kids. They focus on underlying mental health issues promising the negative behaviors will diminish. In these programs, Devon has no consequences for truancy, vandalism, criminal threats, and assault. Not even a time-out. Protected from criminal charges, he’s become desensitized to his own violence and indifferent to social boundaries. It’s normalized his violent responses to even the smallest triggers: waiting his turn, a snarky look from a peer, being served breakfast he doesn’t like.
It’s unlikely Nikolas’ trajectory would have changed even if he’d received the years of intensive mental health treatment Devon has. Mental health facilities are little more than holding pens for kids who are too dangerous to live at home.
I’ve tried the system. It doesn’t work.
Funding to offer these same ineffectual services to more would-be-shooters won’t stop tragedies like the Parkland shooting, especially since Trump nixed the Obama-era regulations making it easier, not harder, for mentally ill people to buy guns. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know a bad idea when I see one: giving these kids access to guns. If we’re not going to do something as basic as keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of mentally disturbed teens, what mental health interventions can possibly keep us safe?
Keri Williams, a former resident of Broward County, lives with her family in Charlotte, N.C., and is working on a memoir about raising her adopted son.
Here in Charlotte, NC we’ve recently had a lot of news about Strategic Behavioral Center, a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF). You can read the full story from the Charlotte Observer here describing a disturbing riot on January 1st. Here’s an excerpt:
Patients at Strategic Behavioral Center — some wielding wooden boards — attacked one worker, barricaded themselves in a room and escaped through a broken window. Others fought with each other or vandalized the building.
Amid the mayhem, some hospital staff watched in fear and did not try to control the situation. They initially delayed calling for help because a former executive had erroneously told them to not call the police for trouble with patients.
Having dealt with workers at PRTFs and other mental health facilities, this article bothered me–or rather people’s response to it bothered me. I saw calls for the workers to be fired, and disgust by their behavior. What this article didn’t convey is the untenable position workers like this are in.
Here’s my op-ed response published by the Charlotte Observer:
Stripping naked is just one way my teenage son, Devon, thwarts workers at psych centers. Afraid of sexual misconduct allegations, they’re unlikely to physically restrain him despite the mayhem he causes. This trick has worked for Devon (an alias to protect his privacy) at multiple psych centers in Charlotte and throughout the state including at the Strategic facility in Garner.
The recent investigation into the Strategic facility in South Charlotte paints a picture of workers, afraid for their lives, standing by watching a riot unfold without trying to control the situation. While the workers’ actions are shocking to many, as the parent of a child who has been a resident of five different psysh centers, I understand why and really don’t blame the workers. Continue reading here.
What do you think?
Since I was about 16, I have wanted to adopt children. Not babies, children. I really felt God had called me to it to help fill a niche. Most people want babies so the kids get left behind. I helped my husband get hooked on adoption after I married at 32. Well, before that. He knew that was how it would be well before the wedding. Heck, we had a fundraiser for it at our reception.
I had this incredible dream where I felt I had seen my daughter. It was so different from any other dreams. I remembered details. I still do. She was in Russia. She was 6. She had a little brother somewhere else. He was 2. I found out later that toddlers would be in different orphanages from older children in Russia. But Russia didn’t pan out. It was closing after that lady sent her son back there alone on a plane. I worried that by looking elsewhere, I was turning my back on God’s plan. Others assured me I was not.
Our children came in a way that looked like God had worked in it. Now we see it as dishonest. We heard about an agency that works with Poland. We set up a time to talk with them on the phone. But our cat died that day. So we talked the next. It was Monday. By Friday we had a referral. By the end of the year we were traveling. We only had to make one trip, though Poland is a two trip country. They asked us day 1, if we were sure we wanted to go through with this. The kids we small for their ages. They were 8 & 9 but looked 5 & 6. The boy spazzed out in tantrums. He hit us or his sister. We had heard of R A D. Still, I think anyone might be naive when they first face it. We thought it would get better.
It never got better. He got more violent. Daughter seemed okay by comparison. We were so busy putting out proverbial fires with him, we didn’t see her issues. We finally had him booked for assault when he was 12. He’d been hospitalized 5 times by then and spent six months traumatizing my older sister when she offered to take him in. He broke probation and was removed from out home.
Long story short: group home for delinquents, mostly truants. Got violent there. Very. Detention. MO Baptist Children’s Home. Violence. Hospital. MOBCH. Violence. Hospital. Level 4 security residential. Instigated other boys to attack staff. Fights. Safe rooms. Eventually, he decided to stop being violent. He moved closer to home. A couple different group homes then a residential with a transition program to transition him home. Family therapy with that was a joke. The therapist said just let both kids be verbally abusive to me and lie. At Christmas, he admitted to setting my sister’s house on fire two years before. Still he came home Good Friday of that year. On Mother’s Day, I awoke to him being violent. He went to the hospital and did not come home again.
Daughter: With him gone we could now see her issues. She lied, manipulated, triangulated, left her sanitary napkins in her underwear in the wash or threw them behind the dryer. She got worse with puberty. She stole and binged our food. We’d go to make dinner and find it missing. She is obese but told the school social worker that we didn’t feed her. She stole money, makeup, my underwear and other clothes. She shoplifted at least three times but none would press charges. She cussed us out almost daily, told us what to do, didn’t do as she was told. Didn’t do her homework. Looked up father/daughter porn on her phone and tablet. She was hospitalized twice. The last time was in October. She’d been refusing to go to school. I had to get up and watch her leave. Had to call the cops a lot to get her to school. She snuck back in after I went to work. Police were called to look for her. Found her at home. Said she was looking for something to kill herself with. She got new dxs: ODD and Severe Mood Disregulation Disorder.
In MO, you can legally move out of your parent’s home at 17. She decided in November that she couldn’t wait until April. She wanted to go live with my older sister (same one). She was occasionally violent and she was that day. She was going to be as bad as she had to be for us to say yes and let her go.
Of course now that sister says we threw our children away. That we were too strict and didn’t love them. She forgets that she kicked out my son before she knew it was him who set the fire. She forgets that she kicked my daughter out last month (she let her come back after 3 days). Brother and sister-in-law are adopting our son. Blames me for both their behaviors. Says we kicked son out. He forgets telling me, early on when son was still small, that we should give up, he was a lost cause. We didn’t then, still hoping. Now I’ve lost my brother.
So here we are, no kids at home (that’s the good part) but the loss of a dream, a calling, at least half my siblings. The fall-out is still falling. I lost my job and part of that can be indirectly attributed to our daughter. The trauma she put me through bled into my work.
On the plus side, I’ve gained safety and peace in my home. The only chaos is caused by kittens now.
I will only adopt cats from here on out. They’re my children now. I hope to host foreign exchange kids in the future. Other than that, I want to have only very limited contact with my kids. Son is doing better right now. But I can’t trust he won’t go back to violence as he has before. The wounds from my daughter are still too raw. She’ll be 17 in April. I hope she never moves back home again.
Today is Alexandra’s 12th birthday.
Over the last 16 months we’ve had people reach out asking why she isn’t in pictures etc. I have also posted a few times about reactive attachment disorder.
Alexandra no longer lives in our home. And she will not return to our home. That’s a powerful statement isn’t it? It’s definitely not one I ever thought I would make.
I’ll try to make this as concise as possible. Alexandra has always had issues…and that’s ok. No child is nor can they be expected to be perfect. We searched for help and continued searching when things didn’t work. We tried every therapy we could get involved with. I’m not going to get into our insurance and the joke of what they cover when it comes to mental health issues.
Alexandra was officially diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) when she was 9. RAD is hard…soooo hard to live and deal with. She was also diagnosed with early onset conduct disorder due to her destruction of property etc.
After her diagnoses she began to get more violent. Yes, I said more. We had many instances where one or all the kids were hurt. Both dogs had been hurt by her. She began really destroying property and making more threats. We continued with therapy. When our insurance wasn’t doing enough we went to the county. I sat in offices crying, begging them to help her, help us. They did. We finally got to where we were doing therapy 4-5 days a week, up to 7 sessions in a week including therapists in our home for hours at a time.
She would tell me that the day I died would be a great day in her life. She would remind me that she was getting bigger and stronger and I was getting older and weaker. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes.
When Alexandra shared her very legitimate plan to kill me (and apparently the rest after I was dead) I knew things had taken a very scary turn and more needed to be done. She shared her plan with one of her therapists and they stepped in. We spent 13 hours being observed in an emergency room before she was admitted to a psych hospital for a week. Her threats to finish the job when she got home, along with the documented history of behaviors, got her admitted to a residential facility.
I drove 6 hours round trip weekly for family therapy sessions. She would either ignore me or she would (and most often chose this) yell, scream and curse at me. In front of her therapist she would threaten to hurt and/or kill the other kids at home and said it was my own fault she wanted to kill me. While there, she treated them as she did us (stealing, lying, disrespect etc). She attacked other children as well. After 6 months they told us there was nothing more they could do for her. The county stepped in and Alexandra was transferred to another facility that was closer. I then spent the next few months driving 3 hours round trip weekly. Her behaviors didn’t change. She began making false allegations against staff and threatening to kill them.
Finally her therapist told me that Alexandra would continue to attack our other children if she came home. Social Services told us that if Alexandra attacked the other kids they would be taken out of our home because we couldn’t keep them safe.
Alexandra was given options. She could do her therapy and work on behaviors. We did not expect perfection but she was not allowed to attack or try to physically hurt the other kids. She had to make attempts to try to do better. She refused. She did not want to live where there were expectations and rules.
The professionals did not feel or believe Alexandra could be successful in what’s considered a normal home environment, definitely not one with other children. Through a lot of phone calls, emails and meetings it was “decided” that Alexandra would not return to our home. Being in such an environment triggers her behaviors and aggression.
We continue to pray for Alexandra. That she heals, that she gets the help she needs. We have told her repeatedly that when she is in a place where she can call without screaming at us we encourage her to do that. We want to celebrate her successes with her and if possible help when she needs it.
I know this is a lot for everyone to read. And before people wonder how we could let this happen I feel it necessary to be very clear.
Alexandra planned our murders.
Alexandra planned to make attempts on our lives until she was successful.
Alexandra physically and emotionally/psychologically attacked her siblings.
Alexandra never apologized for her actions.
Alexandra never said she wanted to come home.
Alexandra never stated she would even try to do better and never made any attempts to show us through her behaviors at the residential facilities.
We are heartbroken over her choices. So today on her birthday please pray for her…for her safety and for her healing.
I adopted my three cousins six years ago. Mom and dad of one boy died of drug overdose, other lost custody and is in and out of jail. I knew they were “naughty” but did not realize the brain damage that trauma can cause. They were taken from my cousin their grandmother two years after their mom died due to abuse and neglect. I have worked in groups homes my whole life, was a foster parent, my parents were foster parents, my brother was adopted and my cousins were adopted. To me it was a wonderful thing and I thought I could it take them and make “it all better”. I feel I have secondary trauma at this point. We had to give up jz , bm, incontinence , sexual behaviors, home and school. He was in pull ups still at age 11.
He threatened to kill me.
We put him in residential care. Bm smearing. The other two boys are doing better oldest is pretty independent, 16 year old is addicted to porn, he cannot have drivers license , does “crazy lying” no internet access at home, phone taken away, not independent in daily living skills. I have had NO support whatsoever from Cmh, esd or the school. Cmh refused to take him in public. School told me it was my imagination and he needed to learn to be normal. He would hide from staff, Harrass kids, sexually touch kids. One year to next they would not tell next teacher or recess aides, no special ed help whatsoever!!! I could go on forever…
Rewind to five years ago. (Don’t I wish I could?) My then husband and I have enjoyed an empty nest for about 3 years after raising one daughter and two sons now 28, 29, and 30. I begin to push my husband toward my life long dream of fostering, and the adventure begins. After mounds of paperwork, fingerprints, and physicals, stacks of jammies and undies, toothbrushes and toys fill our hallway shelf in anticipation of our first placement.
So anxious, so naive. Foolishly, we accept a placement for a young sibling group of three. Sure that’s a bunch to take on at once, but hey, we had our own three in three years. We’ve got this. Plus, we’re told there are no reported problems with these kids who have been with an aunt and uncle for the year since their removal from their bio mom’s home. Are you laughing yet, dear reader?
Fast forward past the kids’ removal when our youngest bio son nearly dies when an infection ensues after a nasty spider bite. A few months later the youngest foster, Ashlee, then 4 1/2, returns to us. She has tantrums that can get pretty intense, is bossy and demanding, but we fall in love. Mom’s rights are terminated and despite being 56 and 57 with no prior intention of adopting, we can’t say no to this little sweetie who has won our hearts.
Besides the three littles, there are two older girls 10 and 12 years old. It looks as though they will not get placed and may have to go to a residential placement. My husband and I both feel a tug to take the 10 year old but I know in my heart this is more than we should bite off. When my husband actually begins to push, I take this as a sign and we begin the process that will be our undoing. Literally.
Yesterday, Kyla turned 15. In the four years she has been with us, she has stolen food, candy, gift cards, make-up, jewelry and most tragic…our smart phone and tablet. This last item allowed her to connect with sexual predators online resulting in her sending them explicit photos of herself and even an actual encounter in the woods of our neighborhood. Police report, rape kit, therapy.
Four years of therapy, most of it with a therapist specializing in connection for adoptive families. A week long hospitalization. Numerous runaways and tantrums resulting in visits by the police and CPS. Broken walls and doors. Charges of incorrigibility ending with a 2 month stay in juvenile detention. An attempt at an alternative living situation with her older sister’s adoptive family. And, the dissolution of my marriage as my husband’s anger became too much and I didn’t feel the girls were safe.
Last summer, after her guardians let us know they didn’t feel they could handle her, I found what I thought would be our saving grace. A way to keep her safe and get her through high school. A Christian boarding school for troubled teen girls, fully funded, welcomed Kyla to Kansas to join the other 14 girls being ministered to by a wonderful and committed staff.
Kyla thrived there at first, joining the volleyball team, making friends, enjoying the animals and farm setting. Then she began telling lies (lots of prior experience with that) and refusing to do chores. Lo and behold, there were consequences….something Kyla just cannot tolerate. She pulled out her arsenal of yelling, screaming, swearing, and running off. Behaviors she perfected while at home. These things the school expected and could handle.
When she didn’t manage to get herself kicked out to come home (where she had begged to leave whenever she didn’t like what we did), she needed to escalate behaviors. And escalate she did. She sexually molested her suite mate who reported to authorities. She sent sexually predatory type grooming notes to younger girls. She pushed a staff member and threw rocks at others. Finally, she succeeded in getting expelled and on February 6th, was flown home.
After having exhausted all know resources last summer when the guardianship failed, I planned to have to do the unthinkable and relinquish my parental rights. Perhaps the state would see the need to get her the residential treatment she needs and Ashlee would be able to grow up without this dysfunctional presence in our home and without the threat of insestual molestation. Hold the phone. Not that easy.
Turns out, if I hand Kyla back to the state, that’s abandonment. I am placed on the Central Registry, lose my teaching job and worst of all, lose Ashlee…the very one I am hoping to protect. Government logic. Oxymoron?
So, that brings me to today. Kyla is enrolled in our local public middle school. I have fully disclosed to the principal, counselors and social workers who have a safety plan in place. We had to rearrange rooms in my tiny 2 bedroom condo. Ashlee sleeps with me so that I can protect her. The past three weeks have been uneventful as far as behavior, if you don’t count Kyla taking and eating an entire Whitman’s sampler giving to me by one of my students on Valentine’s Day and her refusing to come home for two hours last Friday.
I have spent these weeks going from one phone call, appt, and lead. Pounding headaches, exhaustion and frustration. I believe I am not alone in experiencing what I’ve learned is called secondary trauma. I am glad I’m not alone and yet I wish I was. I hate to think so many of us are experiencing this debilitating condition.
Not sure how to end this post or how its contents will end….
It took Jay and Jodi Bean of Alpine years to figure out why their new daughter brought anger and fear into the family and triggered maternal hate instead of love. Jodi has written a book to help others who may, unknowingly, be struggling with a rare condition called RAD.
The emotional puzzle began five years ago. That’s when Jay and Jodi welcomed 4-year-old Victoria into their family, adopted from an orphanage in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus.