Also published by The Mighty (upcoming)
Nearly half of America’s children are exposed to one or more adverse childhood experiences (ACES). ACES include being neglected or abused, witnessing domestic violence, having a substance addicted or incarcerated family member, and being forcibly separated from a primary caregiver.
Children with a single ACE often have positive long-term outcomes. However, as ACES begin piling up, they can have very serious long-term impacts. This is most common among kids who have spent time in foster care and in high-risk families.
Chronic ACES that occur before a child reaches the age of five can cause “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert and researcher Bessel van der Kolk.
Trauma and Brain Development
Developmental Psychopathy, the study of how trauma impacts the development of the mind and brain, is an emerging field. What we do know is the impact of trauma depends on what stage of brain development the child is in when they experience the trauma.
For example, if a child experiences chronic trauma at six months this is the peak of primitive brain development. Limbic brain development is underway and the cortical brain is in the beginning stages. Chronic abuse or neglect at this time has the potential to affect the primitive brain functions including coordination and arousal.
In addition, because the brain develops like sequential building blocks, any impairment of the primitive brain may cause the limbic and cortical brain to not develop normally. In this way, trauma can cause a devastating domino effect.
It’s important to understand developmental trauma is a brain injury. It’s caused by chronic trauma endured in the first five years of life when the developing brain is most vulnerable.
Diagnosing the effects of Developmental Trauma
Unfortunately, there’s no single diagnosis in the DSM-5 (the manual used by clinicians to diagnose mental illness) that covers all the symptoms of developmental trauma. For this reason, kids are often given several different, seemingly unrelated diagnoses.
A few of the most common are:
• Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
• Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
• Sensory Processing Disorder
• Anxiety disorders
• Learning Disabilities
• Developmental Delays
• Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
Visualize each of these diagnosis as their own umbrella with the associated symptoms beneath. Kids with developmental trauma are often balancing two, three, or more of these umbrellas. It’s not uncommon for a child to be diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD, RAD, and ODD – or any number of other combinations.
Unfortunately, this diagnostic method is a disservice to children who have developmental trauma.
Let’s take ADHD as an example. The ADHD diagnosis is for kids who have persistent symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity that manifest in more than one domain, for example both school and home. ADHD is caused by a, often hereditary, chemical imbalance. Stimulant medications work because they increase certain chemicals in the brain.
Kids with developmental trauma may also be inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive. However, the symptoms are not caused by a chemical imbalance as they are with ADHD. They are caused by underdeveloped and impaired brain functions or an over-sensitive fight-flight-freeze response. Stimulant medications can exacerbate other symptoms of developmental trauma.
Unfortunately, ADHD is not the only insufficient diagnosis commonly given to kids with developmental trauma. In many cases this can result in a child receiving ineffective treatment. Worse still, these diagnoses may mask the real issue and it will go untreated.
Developmental Trauma Disorder
To better serve children with developmental trauma, Kolk has proposed adding a new diagnosis to the DSM called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD). The new diagnostic criteria requires exposure to chronic trauma before the age of 5. This diagnosis would fully encompass the symptoms of developmental trauma bringing them under one umbrella.
The DTD diagnosis would enable clinicians to more accurately diagnose developmental trauma. In addition, comprehensive treatments for DTD could be developed. This an area of neuroscience Dr. Bruce Perry is pioneering with his Neuro Sequential Model of Therapeutics. His approach includes mapping of underdeveloped brain functionality and a process to stimulate healing in the order of natural brain development.
Largely due to political and financial forces, the DTD diagnosis was not included in the latest version of the DSM. Advocates are working to have it included in the next revision which is several years away. In the meantime, parents must know how to successfully navigate the current diagnoses to get their child proper treatment.
Getting your child the best care
Because DTD is not in the DSM, it is not an official diagnosis and not covered by health insurance. Until this changes your child will be given other diagnoses to fully describe his or her symptoms.
Here’s what you can do to ensure the best treatment:
- Early intervention is key so seek professional help as soon as you recognize there may be a problem or become aware of your child’s trauma history.
- Go ahead and accept the alphabet soup of diagnoses. These are essential to get health insurance coverage for the very expensive treatments and therapies your child may need.
- Get a psychological evaluation from a psychiatrist. If you know your child has a history of trauma, don’t settle for an ADHD diagnosis from your pediatrician. Ask for a referral to get a full evaluation.
- See a psychiatrist for medication management. For your convenience, most pediatricians will continue refilling prescriptions once the patient is stabilized. However, get started on the right foot with a psychiatrist.
- Seek out therapists and other practitioners who have experience working with traumatized children.
As your child’s primary advocate, it’s critical for you to keep the entire team focused on the trauma underlying his or her symptoms. Learn all you can about developmental trauma and keep it at the forefront when you discuss your child’s treatment plan with mental health professionals, educators, therapists, and pediatricians. These steps will ensure your child gets the best treatment available.
Also published on The Mighty (upcoming)
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Published by IACD here.
When Amias was born, I was totally and immediately infatuated with him. I breast-fed and co-slept. I almost never used a stroller or carrier – he was always in my arms. At his slightest whimper, I was there. When he was a toddler, Amias hated the bright Florida sunshine in his eyes. He would hold up a palm to shield his face as he rode in his car seat. When I hung a shade from the car window with suction cups, Amias knew for sure his mom would always take care of him, even if it meant “moving” the sun for him.
My adopted daughter Kayla didn’t grow up in this type of loving environment.
As a baby and toddler, Kayla would cry and scream to get someone’s attention when she was wet or hungry. Sometimes she was cared for. Sometimes she was ignored. Many times, she fell asleep still wet and hungry – having finally exhausted herself.
When we adopted Kayla out of foster care at three-years-old, she would scream for hours – literally hours – for seemingly no reason at all, no matter what we did in an attempt to comfort her. It was so severe a neighbor once pounded on our door and threatened to call the police and report us for child abuse. I really couldn’t blame him. I’d never known a child to scream for so long and for no reason.
Of course, though, there was a reason. We just didn’t know it back then.
Due to trauma during her early development, the lens Kayla viewed the world through was warped. It made even loving caregivers seem unsafe. Situations and people all appeared unpredictable. Kayla likely had no conscious awareness of this and she certainly could not verbalize it.
The Impact of Trauma
Leading trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk explains in his book The Body Keeps The Score that, “Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions.” Because a young child’s brain is vulnerable, chronic abuse and neglect during the earliest years changes the way the brain normally develops–the root cause of developmental trauma disorder (DTD).
DTD can have a wide range of negative effects of varying severity. For Kayla it has caused a math learning disability, relational and attachment struggles, attention deficits, poor impulse control and more. These are daunting challenges in themselves but, remember, her view of reality is distorted which further compounds these issues.
To put this in context, consider for a moment how your worldview – optimistic, pessimistic, faith-based, etc. – impacts everything you do. For better or worse, we all filter our experiences though the lens of our worldview.
Amias and Kayla are only three-months apart in age, but their lenses are completely different because of their differing early childhood experiences. Kayla is far more prone than Amias to being anxious in new situations, to thwarting close relationships, and to misreading people and their intentions.
Due to the differences in their early childhood experiences and development, Kayla faces far more obstacles than her brother.
For many children like Kayla, developmental trauma can be a powerful determinative factor that dramatically impacts the quality of their relationships, their education and vocation, and mental and physical health. They have a higher risk for substance abuse, problems in school and incarceration.
Because Kayla was born into a different environment, she is at a disadvantage compared to her brother.
Healing the Impact of Early Trauma
Over time, a healthy attachment with a consistent caregiver like an adoptive parent can help alter the lens through which a child with DTD views the world. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as changing out a pair of busted up, twisted, kid-sized sunglasses for a pair of top-of-the-line Ray Bans. If only it were as simple. You can think of the lens formed by developmental trauma as melted into a child’s cornea – that’s how deeply imbedded it is into the core of who they are.
“DTD falls on a spectrum. Some kids have more struggles than others. No matter the severity, however, the adults who raise them require extensive support of varying levels,” said the Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Too often, however, caregivers are blamed and shamed rather than supported. This lack of support often leads to a variety of problems, including divorce and adoption disruption. Effective early intervention is vital for these families.”
For children on the moderate to severe end of the developmental trauma spectrum, highly specialized treatment is required to heal. For kids who are on the milder side of the spectrum, like my daughter Kayla, families can often find success through outpatient treatment, obtaining 504s/IEPs and implementing therapeutic parenting strategies.
Kayla has been with us for over a decade now and we’ve fought for support along the journey. Although her world will always be distorted to some extent by her trauma lens, she’s thriving despite her challenges. My hope is that someday Kayla will be secure enough in our relationship to know I’ll always move the sun and moon for her too.
Published by Fostering Families Magazine (May/June 2019)
Three-year-old Devon, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, had big, chocolate brown eyes and was eager to please. His sister Kayla, 2, was feisty, with gobs of curly hair and dimples. During our pre-adoption waiting period, Kayla screamed for hours on end, seemingly for no reason at all, and couldn’t be consoled. I found Devon elbow deep in the toilet playing with his feces. At mealtime, he’d eat fast and furious then throw up all over the table. Once, I found Kayla hiding in the pantry and clutching a jar of peanut butter.
Despite all this, my husband and I jumped heart-first into the adoption. We understood these behaviors weren’t uncommon for foster kids. We believed all Devon and Kayla needed to heal was the love of a forever family.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple.
By referring to these concerning behaviors as “normal for foster kids,” it’s easy to lose sight of the why behind them. For example, Kayla was frequently left alone in her crib for hours as a baby. When she cried because she was hungry or wet, no one came. These experiences etched an innate sense of insecurity on her psyche.
Devon lost his birth mother at 6 months when he was removed from her care and her parental rights were eventually terminated. His mind couldn’t understand, but his body absorbed the loss.
Leading trauma expert Bessel A. van der Kolk uses the expression, “The body keeps the score,” to illustrate how the body remembers trauma with tragic, long-term impacts for kids like Kayla and Devon – even if they find a loving forever family.
What is Developmental Trauma?
Developmental trauma occurs when a child experiences chronic abuse or neglect before the age of 5. These are the years when the brain is developing rapidly and is particularly vulnerable.
Trauma may disrupt a child’s sequential brain development, according to psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry. This can cause, for example, impaired cause-and-effect thinking and poor self-regulation. Their behaviors, emotions, and thinking are developmentally immature because they’re literally “stuck” at earlier developmental levels.
Also, when a child experiences frequent activation of their fight-or-flight response due to abuse, their brains can be overexposed to the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, their fight-or-flight pathway may activate in even minimally threatening situations. Forrest Lien, executive director for the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, explains: “These children live in constant ‘survival mode’. They are hyper vigilant, do not trust others, and feel the need to control their environment at all times to feel safe. Therefore, they do not allow adults to parent them and cannot have healthy relationships.”
Developmental trauma affects each child uniquely and its impact varies in symptoms and severity. The symptoms can include attachment difficulty, self-esteem problems, anxiety, sleeplessness and a lack of impulse control.
Kayla has overcome a math learning disability, has close friends, and is a creative and independent 15-year-old. However, the trauma symptoms haven’t disappeared entirely. She still sleeps on the floor instead of in her bed, and won’t eat in front of non-family members.
Devon, unlike his sister, falls on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum for developmental trauma. Now 17, he lives in a psychiatric treatment facility. He’s physically aggressive and has no close friendships. He has pending criminal charges for assault and will turn 18 with an 8th grade education.
Early Intervention is Key
Like many foster and adoptive parents, I was unfamiliar with developmental trauma and didn’t know the warning signs. I only realized we needed professional help when Devon, at 9, karate chopped his adoptive little brother in the throat and pushed him down the stairs. Regretfully, those early missteps and missed opportunities exacerbated his condition.
To determine if your child needs professional intervention watch for:
- Behaviors that don’t respond to discipline (particularly therapeutic parenting methods)
- Tantrums that last far past the terrible twos and threes
- Persistent struggles severe enough to interfere with home life, school, or friendships
- Feeling frightened for the safety of the child, yourself, or other children in the home
Trust your instincts and err on the side of caution. There’s no harm in getting a professional evaluation, while the cost of not getting help early can be devastating. If you delay, your child may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms including drugs, promiscuity, and self-harming.
Untreated developmental trauma can result in behaviors that cause kids to be expelled from school, institutionalized, or face criminal charges. Other siblings in the home are at high risk for primary and secondary trauma. Parents, especially mothers, may develop PTSD.
This doesn’t have to happen. Your child’s future isn’t yet written. Early intervention can change their trajectory academically, vocationally, legally and relationally.
How to get help
The best place to start is with your child’s pediatrician – but be wary of the ADHD diagnosis they might dole out at first. While developmental trauma may cause attention deficits and poor impulse control, an ADHD diagnosis doesn’t tell the full story. Also, the stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD can exacerbate symptoms. Instead, ask for a referral to a psychiatrist for a comprehensive psychological evaluation and diagnosis.
Developmental trauma doesn’t currently map to any single diagnoses. As a result, your child will likely be given multiple diagnoses to fully cover their symptoms. These may include:
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Anxiety Disorder
- Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder (OD)
- Sensory Processing Disorder
- Developmental Delays
- Learning Disabilities
For a child with developmental trauma, these diagnoses are interconnected and need to be addressed in the context of the underlying trauma. For example, PTSD-like symptoms caused by developmental trauma requires different treatment than PTSD caused by combat according to Dr. van der Kolk.
This is why it’s critical to engage clinicians who have experience working with traumatized children, foster kids, and adopted kids. Work with a psychiatrist to explore medication choices. Get an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in place at school to ensure your child receives the services and supports to be successful.
Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy fixes to developmental trauma, but there is hope with early intervention.
Love is critical, but it’s not enough
Raising a child with developmental trauma can be incredibly difficult and isolating. The more you understand your child’s trauma history, and learn about the science of trauma and therapeutic parenting, the better equipped you will be to help your child heal. Join a local or online parents support group (I recommend, The Underground World of RAD or Attach Families Support Group), prioritize your self-care, and consider seeing a therapist if you begin to feel overwhelmed.
“Love and time will not erase the effects of early trauma,” says Lien. “The best first step is to secure the child in a healthy family but that is only the beginning.”
Children who have experienced developmental trauma desperately need the love of a forever family, but love alone isn’t enough. Get professional help early, before the behaviors and emotions grow too big and overwhelming.
Tweets. Facebook messages. Verbal knockouts. One too many times, I’ve been told reactive attachment disorder (RAD)—the result of a child’s early trauma—isn’t a “real” diagnosis. When parents like me hear that our child’s diagnosis is fake, bogus, or phony, it’s like a kick in the stomach. We feel invalidated, misunderstood, hurt, angry, and frustrated.
I’ve even had more than one mental health professional question my son’s diagnosis of RAD. I’m not sure if this stems from a lack of education, of effort, or of something else. Here is what I, and other parents raising children like my son, know for certain—we know RAD is “real” because we’re living with it.
Don’t miss out on this post: Raising a Child with Developmental Trauma
Parents know firsthand the heartbreak and frustration of raising a child who cannot receive or return our love…and what that looks like in the privacy of our own homes.
A new diagnoses for early trauma
To complicate matters, there is another diagnosis outside of RAD to explain the effects of early trauma. Many clinicians are advocating for the elimination of the RAD diagnosis altogether in lieu of developmental trauma disorder (DTD).
The term DTD was coined by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk who I recently heard speak at the 2018 ATTACh conference. Over the three days of that conference, I had the opportunity to learn more about the DTD diagnosis and the controversy attached from leading researchers and clinicians and I walked away with a new perspective…
Here’s what I heard:
We don’t like the label “RAD,” but we totally get it. We understand the extreme behaviors and challenges parents are facing on a daily basis.
We want to partner with parents because we believe healthy relationships with adoptive parents are the key to healing for these kids.
We know it is very difficult to find and access effective treatments for the impacts of early trauma. We’re advocating every day for adoptive families and focusing our research on meaningful treatments for trauma.
As I absorbed more about the DTD diagnosis, I realized parents and professionals are talking past each other on this issue. These professionals aren’t denying our experiences. They’re questioning how we categorize, label, and communicate about it.
[bctt tweet=”Here is what I, and other parents raising children like my son, know for certain—we know RAD is “real” because we’re living with it.” username=”RaisingDevon”]
What can we agree upon?
- Having a correct diagnosis is important. Children with early childhood trauma are often misdiagnosed and therefore don’t receive treatment. Furthermore, the RAD diagnosis is only the attachment piece of the puzzle. There are a number of diagnoses frequently given to victims of early childhood trauma including PTSD, conduct disorder, ADHD, and RAD. No one disorder covers the complexity of the issues our children face.
- Attachment is only one of the ways early childhood trauma impacts kids. We already know this as parents. Our kids have learning disabilities, cognitive issues, developmental delays, emotional problems, as well as attachment issues. In fact, most of our kids have an alphabet soup of diagnoses to cover all their symptoms
- Regardless of what the diagnosis is called, parents just want help. We’re desperate for treatments that work, therapists who understand, schools where our kids can be successful, more awareness in our communities, and strategies to better parent our children. We want our children to heal and thrive.
What’s in a name?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the guide mental health professionals use to diagnose mental disorders. It’s used by providers to submit insurance reimbursement claims. RAD was added to the DSM as a diagnosis in the 1980s. Three decades ago is a long time! Neuroscience has made huge advances and it’s time for the DSM to catch up.
Here are definitions of the RAD and DTD diagnoses in a nutshell:
RAD is caused by childhood neglect or abuse which leads to a child not forming a healthy emotional attachments with their caregivers. As a result they struggle to form meaningful attachments leading to a variety of behavioral symptoms.
DTD is caused by childhood exposure to trauma. As a result they may be dysregulated, have attachment issues, behavioral issues, cognitive problems, and poor self esteem. In addition, they may have functional impairments in these areas: Educational, Familial, Peer, Legal, Vocational. (footnote)
As you can see, the DTD diagnosis brings the impacts of childhood trauma under one umbrella. It enables mental health professionals to take a holistic approach to our children instead of piecemeal treatments.
Experts petitioned the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to have the DTD diagnosis added to the latest version of the DSM. The request was denied. One cannot help but wonder the impact the health insurance industry had this decision. In fact, Bessel van der Kolk made this point at the ATTACh conference, urging mental health professionals and parents to become politically active around this issue.
While the APA rejected the diagnosis in this latest version of the DSM, leading researchers and experts have embraced the DTD diagnosis. For example, the Institute for Attachment and Childhood Development is not waiting for the inclusion of DTD into the DSM in order to properly acknowledge it.
When mental health and other professionals frown at the RAD diagnosis, they’re not invalidating our very real experiences. On the contrary, they’re recognizing that the current diagnoses, including RAD, don’t adequately describe the severe and devastating impact trauma has had on our children. They’re advocating for more research, treatments, and funding for our kids.
This mom’s resolution of the diagnoses for trauma
Until DTD is added to the DSM and/or covered by health insurance, to embrace the diagnosis still poses issues for parents. Treatment and care for children with early trauma backgrounds is expensive. The DTD diagnosis doesn’t currently qualify for insurance reimbursements. So, for now, I’m hanging onto my son’s RAD diagnosis. For better or worse, that’s how our healthcare system works.
When mental health and other professionals frown at the RAD diagnosis, they’re not invalidating our very real experiences…they’re advocating for more research, treatments, and funding for our kids.
However, I’m thrilled the mental health community is recognizing the devastating scope of impact early childhood trauma has on our children. I’m optimistic about the promising advances in neuroscience that are leading to new treatments. The DTD diagnosis is a major step forward in helping children like mine, who have suffered early childhood trauma, to heal and thrive.
Originally posted by IACD here.
Two-year-old Kayla was shy with dimples that winked when she laughed. Her brother, three-year-old Devon, had curly brown hair, freckles and a quick smile. We’d long dreamed of adopting foster kids and my husband and I jumped in heart-first.
During the mandatory three-month pre-adoption waiting period, Devon and Kayla had some concerning behaviors – issues with food, problems potty training and impulse control – but foster parenting training had prepared me. I knew these were completely normal issues, nothing that couldn’t be healed with the love of a forever family.
What I didn’t know was that Devon and Kayla had experienced early childhood trauma. I discovered that they had learning disabilities, cognitive issues, attachment struggles and behavioral problems over the years. I was woefully unprepared to parent these two beautiful, hurting children.
I did the best I could raising Devon and Kayla but I have regrets in retrospect. Knowing what I do today, I would still have jumped into the adoption heart-first, but I wish I’d also had more information, been better prepared and gone in with the right mindset.
The impacts of early childhood trauma
In the United States there are over 100,000 children waiting to be adopted out of foster care (1). There are thousands more living in orphanages around the globe. Unfortunately, many of these children have histories of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, abandonment and more. When these experiences occur during critical time periods of development, the child’s brain development can be disrupted.
The impact of early trauma is broad and varies in severity. Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk coined the term development trauma disorder (DTD) to describe its effects on some children. Children with DTD typically struggle to form meaningful and authentic relationships, regulate their emotions and control their impulses and aggression. Many of them have sleep issues, poor executive functioning, learning disabilities and low self-esteem. While certainly not all adopted and foster children suffer from DTD, many do.
There are no quick and easy fixes for the effects of early trauma, unfortunately. A healthy, positive attachment to a stable and consistent caregiver, however, is key to positive outcomes for these kids. Adoption is an important piece of the puzzle for many children to heal from early childhood trauma.
Here are some important ways families can prepare for adoption:
1. Learn everything you can about the impacts of early childhood trauma. Despite what people sometimes assume or want to believe, children do not simply outgrow serious impacts of trauma. “Good parenting” also does not heal the disorder. You need to educate yourself beforehand to know what to look for and who to call upon if you need assistance. A few recommended resources to get started include The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. and the Institute for Attachment and Child Development blog.
2. Be realistic in your expectations. Traumatized children need stable love to heal but love alone cannot repair the damage of early childhood trauma and mental disorders. Many children with DTD will need life-long care and intensive mental health and educational services.
3. Consider your ability to manage difficult behaviors and challenging special needs. Every family has differing levels of resilience and abilities to take on challenges. Be realistic when considering your bandwidth. Children with DTD can actively thwart your affection and have serious behavioral problems. It’s possible your adopted child may need a stay-at-home parent. Is this something you are financially able to manage? Also consider the time requirements for tutoring, counseling, occupational therapy, and medical and psychiatric appointments.
4. Think carefully about other children in your home. Having a sibling with special needs can be both a positive and negative experience. It will undoubtedly result in your resources being stretched and shared. If your child has a history of aggression or violence, it’s best if they are the youngest child in the family. It’s almost always beneficial for children to have their own bedrooms. Siblings will need access to respite activities – camps, time away with grandparents and friends and one-on-one time with you.
5. Work closely with your adoption agency. Request a copy of all available records for the child and read them thoroughly. Insist on a full psychiatric evaluation by a mental health clinician so you can understand the challenges your child faces. If you’re adopting out of foster care, ask that your child remain qualified for Medicaid regardless of your income. Negotiate a subsidy and understand the appeal process should your financial obligations change.
6. Build a strong support system now. Lack of support is one of the greatest issues adoptive families face. Don’t assume family and friends understand the challenges of adoption and early childhood trauma. Even adoptive parents typically don’t understand the realities of raising a child with DTD until they have the experience. Provide friends, family, neighbors and educators with resources and ask them to partner with you before the child enters your home, if possible. Consider who you will be able to call on to pick up a child from school, help with dinner in a pinch and to listen without judgement when you just need a supportive ear. Reach out and join local and online support groups.
Children who have experienced early childhood trauma desperately need to be welcomed into families as part of their healing process. Unfortunately, too many adoptive families go in with unrealistic expectations and are unprepared for the challenges they will face. If you decide to adopt, be sure to consider the trauma history of the child and prepare yourself and your family for the challenges ahead.
Originally published by IACD
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.
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.
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 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.