Category: Parents and Caregivers

RTF: A bad option, that’s sometimes the best option

My son Devon was 10-years-old when I dropped him off at a residential treatment facility (RTF) for the first time. I knew almost instantly it wasn’t going to work. They didn’t believe in consequences. School work was optional. With unlimited dessert and no rules, it was more like a summer camp than a program for kids with severe behavioral problems.

I called my sister for advice and my words came out with a sob, “He’s going to get worse here.”

“Without hesitation, my sister said, “You have to get him out of your house. Nothing else matters right now.”

“But he’ll see this as a reward.”

“I don’t care if it’s Disney World. We’ll deal with that later. Leave him,” she said. 

And I did.

Devon’s behavior had been growing increasingly unmanageable and dangerous over the previous 18 months. He was having violent outburst every day and the stress level in our house was toxic for everyone. My youngest son, who was 4, was especially frightened and would tremble with fear when he sensed Devon’s anger mounting. I was suffering from PTSD—even though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I’d been trying to get help for Devon for years. We’d tried outpatient therapy, intensive in-home therapy and partial hospitalization. He wasn’t getting better and I had no idea how to help him. I only knew what I was doing wasn’t working. 

As I’d predicted, Devon’s behaviors did become dramatically worse from the RTF. However, my sister had recognized what I could not – it was still the best option available to us. Unfortunately, if you’ve exhausted outpatient options and your child is becoming unsafe, it may be your only option too. 

Why RTFs don’t work

While an RTF may be the best – or only – option available, it’s important to have realistic expectations. These facilities are rarely effective for kids with developmental trauma disorder. In fact, they can exacerbate the symptoms, and here’s why:

1. The treatment is not specialized for developmental trauma. Your child will be placed with kids who have a variety of issues including anxiety disorders, eating disorders and PTSD. The coping skills they will learn – like taking deep breaths, playing with a stress ball and counting to ten – are not enough to heal the brain injury caused by developmental trauma.

2. The workers are under-trained, overworked and underpaid. Your child will work with a licensed clinician for therapy. Yet, the general supervision is typically provided by workers who have a high school diploma and on-the-job training. Our kids are very challenging to deal and the chronic understaffing and inadequate training results in inconsistent quality of care.

3. The staffing structure lends itself to triangulation. Because workers are rotated (and have high turnover) they are easily triangulated – especially against the therapist and parents. Unfortunately, your child is likely to gain a sense of control by behaving this way – a feeling they unconsciously crave – and will continue even when it sabotages their treatment.

4. The kids become institutionalized. In these facilities, your child will be exposed to and influenced by kids with sexualized behaviors, horrific language and physical violence. They’ll quickly learn the ropes and how to work the system to their advantage, for example, by making false allegations to retaliate against staff or peers. This is knowledge they’ll ultimately use to manipulate the staff and you as well.

RTFs are intended to teach your child how to cope and let them “practice” good behavior for when they return home. Yet, the artificial environment and behavior-based modification techniques do not help them to truly heal. 

“Kids with DTD learn to work within the external structure of residential treatment facilities. It doesn’t get internalized for them though,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Ultimately, most kids go back into their families and fall apart. Sadly, it’s oftentimes the only option for parents.” 

Sadly, unless you are able to send your child to a program that is highly specialized for developmental trauma, your child is unlikely to get better. 

When to consider an RTF anyway

Parents who are considering sending their children to an RTF often ask for my advice. It is a very personal decision and every child and family is different. However, the following are a few words of hard-earned wisdom I often share. 

1. Consider an RTF if your child is unsafe to himself or others. Remember to consider not only the physical, but also psychological well-being, of other children in the home.

2. Consider an RTF if you are at your breaking point. You cannot help your child when you are unstable yourself. An RTF may be the breather you need to regain perspective.

3. Consider an RTF if your child  engages in unlawful behavior. An RTF is likely a better option that juvenile detention where your child will get a criminal record and receive little treatment.

The decision to send your child to an RTF should be a last resort but you may be at that point now. You alone are not able to heal developmental trauma any more than you can set your child’s arm or cure his leukemia. The best you can do is access the best possible treatments available and support and love your child through the process. 

For us, an RTF was the best choice because Devon had become unsafe to himself and his siblings. And after years of giving it my all, I had nothing left to give. He’s now 17 and in his ninth RTF. It’s not the forever family I’d hoped for and not what any parents wants. Yet, it is often the best of the limited choices families like mine have. It is the best choice for us. And while my son doesn’t live at home, he’ll always be a part of our family.

First published by Institute for Attachment and Child Development.

What I Wish People Knew About These Popular Social Media Quotes…

Everyday I see quotes like these on social media:

Behavior is not a kid being bad, it’s a form of communication.

My behavior is a symptom of my trauma, not willful non-compliance.

These types of sentiments garner thousands of likes, shares, and re-tweets. But for families like mine, they simply don’t ring true.

My son, Devon, has been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), a result of early childhood trauma. My husband and I adopted him out of foster care when he was 4 and prior to that he was neglected and did not form a close attachment with a caregiver. This is called “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert Bessel van der Kolk.

Kids who experience chronic neglect and abuse may begin to default to fight-or-flight mode in even minimally threatening situations. Developmental trauma can also disrupt the brain’s development causing impaired or under developed cortical brain functions including cause-and-effect thinking and abstract thinking. RAD is a common diagnoses for these kids.

I liken RAD to a tug-of-war. For example, Devon will become belligerent over anything from what color socks he’ll wear to if he’ll use a seat belt. His screaming fits last for hours – literally hours – and often include property damage and dangerous physical aggression. Devon treats every situation as though it’s life-or-death, in a desperate attempt to control the people and situations around him.

Are Devon’s extreme behaviors related to his developmental trauma? Of course. He’s driven by the unconscious trauma scars etched on his psyche.

His behavior IS communication.

His behavior IS a symptom of his trauma.

That doesn’t mean his behavior isn’t also willful.

Devon makes a choice when he refuses to buckle his seatbelt. He chooses to tip desks over in his classroom. He chooses to break windows and chase his siblings with a baseball bat.

Certainly, there are some disorders where symptoms are involuntary such as schizophrenia and alzheimer’s. However, RAD is a behavioral disorder. Control and anger issues are symptoms of this disorder.

Kids with RAD can be both unconsciously motivated by underlying trauma scars and willful. These two things can and do coexist. In fact, this is what makes parenting a child diagnosed with RAD so challenging.

Our child enjoys pushing our buttons because it gives them a feeling of control, which they unconsciously crave. That’s the underlying motivation and the pay off, but that doesn’t negate the child’s role in making a choice to engage in certain behaviors.

The idea that a person has no control over their behaviors is not healthy for anyone. I refuse to take away my son’s agency. If he has no control over his behaviors. then he has no hope for a better life and no hope for the future.

As a parent in the trenches, here’s my take on the social media quotes I listed above:

  • I recognize my son’s behavior is a symptom of his trauma, but also as willful non-compliance.
  • I listen to the communication behind my son’s behavior, but I also tell him his behavior is bad.

As I like to tell my son, a sneeze is involuntary – stabbing someone with a pencil is not.

Let’s acknowledge that our children’s mental health is complex and nuanced. Let’s stop painting with such a broad brush. Causes behind our children’s behaviors aren’t always simple enough to be encapsulated in a snappy social media quote.

2/3 of kids with RAD are first misdiagnosed with ADHD

It’s not ADHD!

Our recent Facebook poll showed that 67% of children first misdiagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and other developmental trauma diagnoses were first diagnosed with ADHD.

Survey by @RaisingDevon, March 2019

6 in 10 kids are being misdiagnosed with ADHD instead of RAD or other developmental trauma related disorders. Here’s what it matters:

  • Stimulant medications typically given for ADHD can exacerbate other symptoms the child is experiencing.
  • A misdiagnosis like this can cause significant delays in the child getting the treatment they need.

Keep in mind, kids with developmental trauma may have attention deficits and other symptoms of ADHD: inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity. However, the ADHD diagnosis doesn’t correctly point to the cause of those symptoms – the trauma. ADHD is a chemical imbalance often successfully addressed with stimulant medications. These same symptoms from developmental trauma are caused by a brain injury and stimulant medications can exacerbate other symptoms of developmental trauma. 

Here’s what parents are saying about how the misdiagnosis of ADHD impacted their child and family.

Our sons ADHD medicine amped him up causing extreme violent rages. He was arrested 3 times and faced felony assault charges from these rages. It wasnt until I was able to get a doctor to listen to me that he started to get better. His ADHD diagnosis and treatment made life hell at times. He is much better now and while we still have struggles, no one ends up arrested in the process.

S.H.

I parented my child so incorrectly..,we lost so many years. Letting go of the guilt was hard, so trust me I understand!

Katie

We went in completely unprepared for RAD [because of the initial ADHD misdiagnosis]. And it delayed getting a [correct] diagnosis and treatment by several years.

Jesi

We lost three precious years chasing the wrong problem.

Emily

Wrong medication for years, delayed us understanding how to cope with him. Still many professionals dont use the RAD diagnoses and always think ADHD when he can sit still and read for hours on end!

Katalina

Too many stimulants which caused aggression and chaos at home and in school. Terrible situation which makes me angry and bitter.

Karen

It’s how they minimized the problem, only mildly medicated him, and turned all the blame on us, because we apparently couldn’t manage basic behavior management. Mind you, this was social services AND a children’s hospital after an 11 day stay. Nor was it the last time. Still happening, only now he’s self-medicating with street drugs…

Sarah

Why kids with developmental trauma get diagnosed with ADHD

  • RAD and ADHD have many overlapping symptoms. With developmental trauma, kids can be hyperactive, have attention deficits, and other ADHD-type symptoms.
  • Most kids are getting this early misdiagnosis from pediatricians who are very familiar the ADHD diagnosis, but not as well versed in RAD or developmental trauma.
  • ADHD is a go-to diagnosis for kids who are struggling with hyperactivity and inattention school. It only requires diagnosis from a pediatrician and there are a number of medications that can be easily prescribed.

The difference between ADHD and RAD

While RAD and ADHD have overlapping symptoms, skilled clinicians can differentiate between the two. In a 2010 study by the University of Glasgow, researchers found these core items that point to a RAD diagnoses vs. ADHD.

Disinhibited items

  • Does s/he preferentially seek comfort from strangers over those s/he is close to?
  • Is s/he overly friendly with strangers?
  • If you are in a new place, does X tend to wander away from you?
  • How cuddly is s/he with people s/he does not know well?
  • Does s/he ask very personal questions of strangers?

Inhibited Items

  • Does s/he often stand or sit as if frozen?
  • Is s/he a jumpy child?
  • Is s/he wary or watchful even in the absence of literal threat?
  • When you have been separated for a while (e.g. after an overnight apart), is it difficult to tell whether s/he will be friendly or unfriendly?)

While not all children with RAD will exhibit all these symptoms, they are not symptoms of ADHD. Asking these diagnostic questions can enable clinicians to differentiate between the two disorders.

Full information on this research study can be found here:

How to get the right diagnosis

It’s critical that a child gets the correct diagnosis so they can receive the treatment and medications they need without delay. Here are some steps you can take to ensure this happens for your child.

  1. Inform your pediatrician (and any other clinicians) about developmental trauma your child may have suffered. Be sure to use the term “developmental trauma” and that you are concerned your child’s brain development may have been impaired.
  2. Ask your pediatrician for a referral to a psychologist for a full psychological evaluation. A referral may be necessary for your health insurance and also enable you to get into see a psychologist sooner. If the pediatrician suggests trying ADHD medications first, remind him/her of your child’s background and respectfully insist on the referral.
  3. Be cautious about accepting prescriptions for stimulants for ADHD. See a psychiatrist for medication recommendations. Once your chid is stable on mediations usually a pediatrician will take over dispersing them for your convenience.

It takes a village

My son Devon has a long track-record of making false allegations against staff at treatment facilities where he’s a patient. “I’m afraid Devon might make up a story about me too,” I recently told his therapist Cathy. “If CPS got involved, I could lose my other kids during the investigation…” In my mind I imagined my youngest son being dragged off to foster care even for one night. It’s a mom’s worst nightmare.

Cathy stammered a response, apparently incredulous I believed my son capable of such a thing. 

When Cathy and I spoke the following week, she’d already discussed the issue with Devon. “I explained to him exactly why you’re so concerned about false allegations.You could be arrested. You could lose your other kids. False allegations could ruin your life,” Cathy said, recalling her words to Devon. She continued, “When I explained this to Devon, he was so upset. Now that he knows how serious this is, you have nothing to worry about.” 

I was dumbfounded. I felt as though Cathy had handed my son the user’s manual for a weapon of mass destruction. And our family was the potential target. Telling Devon just how powerful false allegations are was extremely risky. It gave Devon all the more reason to do so. 

Unfortunately, Cathy was unfamiliar with the nuances of developmental trauma disorder—a result of Devon’s early childhood neglect and abuse. Because Devon lacks an innate sense of security, he can be very manipulative in an attempt to control his environment. “When children’s brains are impacted by trauma during early development, they live in a fight/flight ‘survival mode’, do not trust others and rely entirely upon themselves,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “They will go to great lengths to push others away—especially primary caregivers—to feel safe. Sometimes, that includes false allegations.”

When “help” isn’t helpful

Those on the “other side” of developmental trauma disorderadults living outside of the child’s homemay want to help the child and family but lack the insight to do so. With DTD, there is often more happening than meets the eye. If therapists, educators, police officers, and other professionals aren’t familiar with the nuances of developmental trauma, their interventions sometimes make already volatile situations worse. This is why parents like myself can seem defensive, inflexible and frustrated. We desperately need support from community resources. Yet, we’re also desperately afraid they’ll exacerbate our child’s condition, damage our hard-won and tenuous attachment with our child or put our family in danger. 

Here are some real-life examples of misunderstandings about developmental trauma that have had a harmful impact on families:


Tom’s Story

Ms. Linda, the school cafeteria worker, was charmed by 6-year-old Tom. He told her stories about how his mom mistreated and didn’t feed him. Ms. Linda always had a cookie or treat for Tom. She even told him that some kids get ‘re-adopted’ if their family isn’t a good fit. In fact, she said, she’d love to adopt a little boy just like him. That afternoon, Billy went home and demanded his mother let him be “re-adopted.”

Things to consider from the “other side”—

Kids with developmental trauma can be superficially charming. Again, it is often a learned survival strategy because they unconsciously feel unsafe in the world. By having this “secret” with Ms. Linda, Tom was bonding with her instead of his mom. Instead of encouraging Tom to build healthy relationships within his new family, she gave him an easy out. Mom needed Ms. Linda to contact her about the situation so they could get on the same page and partner together in Tom’s best interest. 


Janey’s Story

Janey had a bad month. She’d been in a fight and had run away. She’d broken her bedroom window. She’d been suspended from school. During therapy Janey, her mom, and the therapist set some goals for Janey to work on. Then, just as the session was ending, the therapist smiled maternally at Janey. “Look at her, mom,” she prompted. “She just needs love. That’s all this is about. A little girl who needs her mom to love her.” Janey’s behavior did not improve during the following month.

Things to consider from “the other side”—

Kids with developmental trauma need clear and consistent parenting in order to thrive. While Janey certainly needed her mom’s love, that should not be used to excuse her from accountability for her actions. This is not a mindset that will be helpful to Janey in the long run. Unfortunately, Mom walked away from this session feeling blamed and beaten down. And Janey had no motivation to work toward more effective strategies. Mom needed the therapist to do attachment work but also to hold Janey accountable for her actions. 


Nate’s Story

Nate, 13, was enraged and lunged at his mom with a shard of glass. She called the police. By the time the officer arrived, Nate was calm and sitting in a recliner as though nothing had happened. The officer looked between hysterical mother and serene son and made a snap judgement. “This seems like a ‘parenting problem’,” he said. He then reassured Nate not to worry and that he couldn’t be arrested for anything at his age. The next time Nate acted up, he told his mother there was nothing she could do to stop him—the policeman said so.

Things to consider from “the other side”—

Kids with developmental trauma may escalate until they reach a hard limit. Without limits, they may continue to behave violently and endanger themselves or others in their family. Mom needed the officer to speak with her privately to understand the full story and to express any concerns he may have out of earshot of Nate. Even if the officer was not going to make an arrest, Mom needed him to speak sternly to Nate so he’d understand how serious his actions were. 


Unfortunately, in these examples, well-meaning professionals made the situation worse. They inadvertently derailed treatment, disrupted attachment work, caused confusion and stoked deep resentments and hurts. In some cases, they put the children and families they were trying to help in greater danger. 

Ways professionals can best support children with DTD and their families

The best ways to help children who have developmental trauma can feel counterintuitive and, therefore, requires more than common sense. If you’re a mental health professional, educator, police officer or other community resource, please educate yourself on developmental trauma and therapeutic interventions so you can help families like mine.

Here are some good things to know as a professional working with children and families

  1. Realize things may not be as they appear. Pause to consider that there may be complex, nuanced mental health issues involved.
  2. Consider that parents’ concerns and fears may be justified – that we may not be overreacting. Our children may be dangerous even at startlingly young ages, particularly if they have a co-morbid mental disorder.
  3. Realize children with developmental trauma may act very differently in front of you than how they behave behind closed doors with their parents. The situations you encounter are likely far more complicated than an innocent misunderstanding.
  4. Discuss your concerns frankly with parents, but always privately. Partner with us—out of earshot of our children—to resolve and manage the situation and present a unified front.
  5. Refer us to local crisis services and community resources. We often don’t know where to turn for help but are eager to follow-through on any recommendations for services that can be helpful for our child and family.
  6. As a clinician, feel comfortable referring clients with developmental trauma elsewhere if appropriate. If you do not specialize in developmental trauma, it is vital to know your limitations. Do your best to connect families with therapists who specialize in the disorder.

We desperately need the community to rally around our families and provide support. To successfully help our children heal, we need to partner with trauma-informed therapists, educators, and law enforcement officers. If our children, who come from hard places, are to thrive and live happy, well-adjusted lives, it’s going to take a village. 

If our children, who come from hard places, are to thrive and live happy, well-adjusted lives, it’s going to take a village.  Click To Tweet

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved and all stories are being told with permission.

5 lessons I wish I’d known when I first adopted a child with developmental trauma

My husband and I adopted Devon out of foster care when he was 3. Devon has complex developmental trauma disorder (DTD, commonly diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder). This often occurs when a child experiences chronic abuse or neglect early on and results in disrupted brain development. Adoptive parents like myself aren’t given a how-to manual for raising kids with a history of trauma. I very quickly found myself drowning with no life boat in sight.

This is why I’ve been working on telling my story through a memoir. I hope to educate others about the challenges parents like myself face and to raise awareness about the lack of treatment. Throughout the writing process, I relived painful memories. I grappled with guilt and many regrets. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and I’ve learned a great deal through reflecting on my own story.

Here are 5 lessons I wish I learned earlier in the journey of raising Devon:
1. I should have given up and gotten help earlier.

For years, I tried to parent Devon on my own. But no matter how hard I tried, nothing worked. Unfortunately, those failures and missteps weren’t merely wasted time. They exacerbated my son’s condition, derailed our relationship and led to a decline in my own mental health. Meanwhile, my other children were living in a home that was highly volatile and unhealthy, causing them secondary trauma.

I often wonder how things might be different if I’d gotten help in the years before Devon was 10-years-old. Don’t get me wrong, writing my memoir also solidified my belief that most professionals aren’t versed in developmental trauma and few treatments are available. However, perhaps with support, my family could have avoided some of our darkest moments. Maybe Devon would have better coping skills and a brighter future. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the warning signs and had no idea where to find help.

2. I was worse off than I knew.

I stopped taking phone calls and opening my mail. My hair was falling out. I knew I was overwhelmed, frustrated, and depressed but didn’t realize I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the ongoing stress (see How Parents of Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder Develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I was hanging onto the very edge of sanity by my chipped fingernails. Raising a child with a trauma background took its toll emotionally, physically, and spirituality. It irreparably damaged my marriage and relationships with family and friends.

When writing my memoir, I was shocked to realize just how difficult things were. I saw that there was a gradual shift from manageable to completely out of control. For example, at the time, I didn’t recognize when my son’s tantrums shifted to rages. My mental health was declining more than I realized and did not begin to improve until I started seeing a therapist and went on antidepressants. In retrospect, I realize I should have started taking care of myself far earlier than I did.

3. I could only change myself.

At the time, I was so sure I could “fix” Devon – but I was wrong. Early trauma can tamper brain development and requires specialized treatment. It’s like having a child with leukemia – you can feed them organic chicken soup, tuck them in with warm blankets and curl up beside them to read stories – but, you can’t treat the disease. For that, children need professional treatment. “Many people mistake children with DTD as typical kids going through a tough time or phase. They think love and structure will make all the difference. Unfortunately, it’s often not that simple,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “DTD is a disorder of the brain, not a developmental stage that they outgrow with time or ‘good parenting’. Parents can’t heal them through love alone. They need effective professional help.”

I very nearly had a nervous breakdown before acknowledging what was beyond my control and identifying what I could change. The parenting challenges I was facing were difficult enough without having marital issues, an air conditioner on the fritz and the stress of a difficult boss. What I could do was improve my ability to cope and my capacity as a caretaker by addressing these things. To survive, I had to find ways to raise my own resilience by decreasing or eliminating other stressors in my life.

4. Burning bridges with clinicians is a bad idea.

Some mental health professionals say the hallmark of a kid with RAD is a “pissed off mom”. That was me. As a result, my son’s therapists pinned me as unreasonable, uncaring and angry. I thought they’d give me the benefit of the doubt and assume the best about me. I was wrong. I spent two years torching bridges before I realized the value of building partnerships, even with professionals with whom I disagreed.

I started making progress in getting my son better treatment when I began to hold my cards close to the vest. I forced myself to listen then respond calmly and reasonably. Why is this important? Some of those professionals became my best allies when I needed referrals for treatment, favors called in to get Devon into new placements and back-up documentation when he made false allegations.

5. My family really didn’t get it.

When my father read a draft of my memoir, he found it so painful he had to take breaks from reading. My mother, after reading it, apologized for not understanding and being more supportive. It took my parents walking in my shoes, through the pages of my memoir, to truly grasp how difficult my life was. For some reason, I’d always felt their minimization of my challenges raising Devon was in part willful – as if they just didn’t want to believe it.

I now realize, they truly didn’t “get” it. That makes sense. If my life were a movie, I’d be the first to say the script was over the top and totally unrealistic. Before I adopted, I never imagined a child could have behaviors as extreme and unrelenting as my son does. It’s easy to become defensive with family and friends, but, in retrospect, I wish I’d done more to help educate them about developmental trauma disorder and reactive attachment disorder with movies like The Boarder and through other online resources.

Learning from our stories

It’s hard – impossible – to see the big picture when you’re just trying to stay afloat while parenting a child with developmental trauma. We’re often so caught up in our day-to-day moments, we don’t have time to reflect. We then fail to take a strategic approach to parenting. I wish I’d had the opportunity to benefit from the stories of others instead of learning the hard way.

I encourage parents of children with a trauma background to join online communities like Attach Families Support Group and The Underground World of RAD. We can all learn from each other’s experiences and support one another along the way.

First published by IACD.

When pigs fly: the day my son’s therapist apologized…

Today my son’s therapist apologized to me. (Go ahead, take a moment to pick yourself up off the floor, then keep reading…) If you’re the parent of a child diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) you know just how significant this is. 

As parents of children with developmental trauma, one of our biggest pain points is dealing with therapists who don’t “get it.” They blame us, are manipulated by our kids, and offer our families little practical help. At best they’re ineffective, at worst they cause enormous damage.

My son’s current therapist, we’ll call her Amy, has made the classic blunders we’re all so familiar with.

      • She tells my son all he really needs is my love, excusing him from responsibility.
      • She praises his cunning circumvention of rules as “trying really, really hard.”
      • She disagrees with me openly and emphatically in front of my son.
      • She makes me the “bad guy” in therapy sessions.
      • She prioritizes her relationship with my son over mine.

Can I get a show of hands? I sure know most of us are struggling with these very same issues.

But today something unexpected happened. I confronted Amy and she acknowledged she could have handled things better and apologized. We then worked together to come up with a reasonable path forward. I very nearly fell off my chair.

In retrospect, here are a few things that may have contributed to this success:

  1. I was confident, not defensive. When we act defensively, therapists are quick to write us off as unreasonable, close minded and pissed off. It’s important to be in a place where we know our rights and can speak as confidently and unemotionally as we might in a business presentation.
  2. I didn’t get personal. We’ve all been offended and hurt by therapists and it’s easy to become wrapped up in those feelings. But when we do, our confrontation goes off the rails. In the end, the conversation shouldn’t be about our feelings at all. It should be about the needs of our child.
  3. I focused on my child. Don’t talk about what the therapist has done to you, or how they have made you feel. Keep the focus on what’s best for your child. My child needs to be safe. My child needs to build a strong secure relationship with me. These are specific things you and the therapist can agree on.
  4. I was specific and kept it simple. If you walk into these conversation with a laundry list of problems, it’s far too easy to get lost in the weeds. Pick one specific issue that highlights the underlying problems to focus on. Make it specific, actionable, and simple. Pick something as objective as possible.
  5. I was reasonable. What can you expect out of a confrontation? You’re not going to change the therapist’s style or philosophy. You’re unlikely to educate them on RAD and DTD, although you might crack open the door for that. What you should be able to do, is come to an understanding and agree to some ground rules.

It sure felt good when Amy apologized to me, but that mattered far less than the action plan we put into place. With a common goal established we agreed to:

  • Meet prior to family therapy sessions to agree on how news will be delivered to my son and how to approach what will be discussed in the session.
  • If  a topic comes up that we need a sidebar on, before discussing in front of my son, I’ll use a code word and she’ll put off that topic until after we’ve had a time to talk privately.

Every therapist, family, and child is different. Some therapists are easier to work with than others and this isn’t a one-size-fits all formula for every situation. Still, I hope reflecting on my experience may provide a useful starting point as you work hard to advocate for your kids and help them get the therapy they need.

Today my son’s therapist apologized to me. If you’re the parent of a child diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) you know just how significant that is. In fact, you might have to pick yourself up off the floor after reading that. Click To Tweet

How have you been successfully able to work with therapists?

5 things I learned at ATTACh 2018

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the ATTACh 2018 conference. I learned from keynote speakers including leading researcher and author of The Body Keeps The Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. and attended a variety of workshops and parent sessions.

Here are 5 things I learned and want to pass along to you:

  1. Keep a beach ball on hand. To have effective conversations with our kids we need to first connect. A great way to do this is to throw a beach ball back and forth while having a discussion. Getting into rhythm with your child will help them focus and make your conversation more productive. I love the idea of doing this with these emoji “feelings” balls.
  2. Talk with your child about their history. Not talking about your child’s history doesn’t keep them from thinking about it. All it means is they’ll be trying to figure it out on their own without your help. Have sensitive, age-appropriate conversations about your child’s birth story and trauma history. Help them process the information in bite-sized chunks with love as the special-sauce that makes it palatable.
  3. IEPs can focus on core content. Coloring maps, making index cards, and completing projects – all that busy work may be to much for a child with a history of complex trauma to manage. Work with your school to get your child a 504 or IEP. With an IEP you can request that your child’s work load be limited to only tasks and knowledge required for course mastery.
  4. Our LGBQT kids have too little to lose. In our society coming out can mean losing some of our family, friends, social groups, dreams, and more. An adopted foster child may have limited connections already. They may have only one friend or a single family connection.  For them, coming out means risking it all. It’s important to be sensitive to how scary this can be for our kids with a history of abandonment or difficulties with attachment.
  5. Adoptive parents are the key. The single determinative factor in positive outcomes for traumatized children is having a positive, healthy attachment to a caregiver. This is why the adoptive parent is a crucial role in healing. While these children need professional treatment, a healthy relationship with an adoptive parent is powerful healing salve.

Also be sure to also check out my post on what I learned about Developmental Trauma Disorder at the conference.

ATTACh has made their conference affordable for parents and has a track of sessions designed specifically for us. In 2019 they’ll be in Scottsdale, Arizona. I strongly encourage you to consider attending upcoming ATTACh conferences. ATTACh 2019.

What to do when CPS comes knocking…

An interview with Diane L. Redleaf, a family defense pioneer

Nationally-known leaders have called Diane L. Redleaf the “conscience of the child welfare system,” the driving force behind creating a “better, fairer child welfare system” and “the people’s lawyer.” Diane has played a leading role in hundreds of important cases on behalf of families, with over 60 published court opinions. She has also led legislative efforts that have benefited millions of children and families.  Her litigation and legislative advocacy has created due process remedies for wrongly accused family members and created social service and housing support models for families throughout the United States.


Child protective services (CPS) plays a vital role in keeping kids safe. For this reason, CPS investigators often err on the side of caution to ensure children aren’t exposed to harmful situations. Even when allegations are false, caregivers can face lengthy investigations. This unwarranted disruption and family upheaval is collateral damage, necessary to make sure children who really are abused get the justice and safety they deserve. 

For many parents of children with complex developmental trauma disorder (typically diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder or RAD) these interactions with child protective services are an unfortunate and challenging reality.

To legally advance the false allegations of a child with DTD is an unrecognized, innocent and unintended form of further harm to that child.

Children with RAD may make false allegations in their desperate attempt to control the people and situations around them. The resulting investigations disrupt the family, are tremendously stressful and in rare cases the outcome can be devastating.

Innocent parents and caregivers are often frightened and lack the resources and knowledge to defend themselves and protect the interest of their children. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Diane Redleaf, a leading civil rights lawyer for families in the child welfare system. She has extensive experience defending and advocating for parents who face false allegations of child abuse and neglect. She’s the founder of the Ascend Justice (formerly, Family Defense Center) where she served for many years as the Executive Director/Legal Director. With over 60 published court opinions, she’s played a leading role in hundreds of important cases and policy change efforts on behalf of families. Today she’s an advocate for families through her private legal practice Family Defense Consulting.

In our interview, I asked Diane how falsely accused parents and caregivers can successfully navigate the child protection system. While this cannot substitute for legal advice or address individual circumstances, I’m excited to share her invaluable guidance and tips.       

Keri: Kids like mine, who have RAD, sometimes make false allegations of abuse. As parents we’re afraid CPS investigations will be unfair and that we’ll lose our kids. Does that really happen? Are our fears justified?

Diane: It is a justified fear. You may assume the system will protect your rights and that justice will be done. That’s not always the case. There is a tendency to reinterpret everything as the parent’s fault. It may not happen the first time, but if the child makes allegations over and over, it’s possible they will finally get to an investigator who believes them.

Keri: CPS once knocked on my door at 1 a.m. because my son made a false allegation of abuse. What do you recommend a parent do in this situation?

Diane: Certainly be polite. In general, I never recommend you invite them in if you’re the only person around. You need a third party present. This will help ensure the investigator does not misrepresent what you say to them. You might suggest going into the office to discuss the situation at another time.

Keri: How can we protect ourselves during an investigative interview as parents? Is it a good idea to ask to record the interview?

Diane: In some states it’s perfectly permissible to record the interview, but that can get the investigators’ back up. Definitely have a third party present and keep your own notes. Put everything in writing.

You also need to be prepared for commonly asked questions. You can find a list in the Responding to Investigations manual found on the Family Defense Center website. For example, investigators will ask if you use drugs, have a domestic violence problem or have a history of mental health treatment yourself. If your answers to these questions could be problematic, you need to have thought through your responses because the information you give likely will be used against you. You don’t want to be provocative but you have the right to say, “Thank you very much, but I’m declining to answer any further questions.”

Keri: What if CPS wants to talk to our kids? Can they interview them without permission at school or similar locations?

Diane: It’s such a basic question but there isn’t a clear answer as a matter of law. They shouldn’t be able to speak to a child at school without the parent’s permission, especially if it’s not an emergency. They cannot speak to a child in the home without parental consent unless they have a court order or a dire (life-threatening) emergency. Children also have the right to not talk to investigators but of course they get intimidated easily. This is why it’s important to try to set up the interview in a therapeutic setting, especially if the child has a mental health issue. This will help make sure false statements aren’t repeated unchecked, that the situation doesn’t escalate unnecessarily and that the child doesn’t feel uncomfortable.

Keri: Many parents like myself keep daily documentation of our children’s behaviors. Some parents also use security cameras. Are those good strategies?

Diane: In general, keeping as much documentation as possible in terms of a diary is a very good idea. It’s really important for people to educate and work with their service providers. A lot of times they are your best allies. If there’s a history of false allegations, you need the service providers to document it. Having that documentation readily available will disarm the investigators because they’ll realize they may not have a strong case to go forward with.

Using security cameras depends on personal judgement and may sometimes be helpful. But I worry that cameras can be a double-edged sword—they may not show the full incident for example, or they may be used to show the parent was unreasonable even if all the parent is doing is defending herself. Video footage is more open to interpretation than parents may realize. And at the same time, video can capture the real out-of-control behavior of the child in a way that is otherwise hard to describe in words.

Keri: These investigations can be extremely frustrating and sometimes we get angry about how we’re being treated. Is it safe to vent on social media?

Diane: It’s a bad idea. I understand why parents do it but Facebook creates a written record. You worry that those communications will go straight to the state’s attorney or the judge who is going to interpret the child’s behavior as the result of the parent having a temper. It may not happen very often, but if a prosecutor wanted to access those communications, they absolutely could. And if they wanted to use them against the parent in court they almost certainly could. Remember only communications with your lawyer, and in some cases a therapist, are truly confidential.

Keri: So, what can we do if we feel the investigator or agency is targeting us or treating us unprofessionally?

Diane: You begin by going up the chain of command to register your concerns about how the matter is being treated. Start with the supervisor and go all the way up the line to the director. Unfortunately in some states you won’t get anywhere with that. At some point going to a legislator might be a good idea. If your concerns are legitimate, legislators can intervene and get a bad situation addressed. If there is an ombudsperson or inspector general in the agency then a call to them can be a good idea too.

Keri: When do we need a lawyer?

Diane: If you get the sense there is the possibility of legal action or you need advice on how to answer potentially problematic questions then getting legal counsel is a good idea. There are cases that get closed as unfounded right away. In those cases, getting a lawyer isn’t necessarily a good use of your funds and may make things worse. Unfortunately, you may be viewed as having something to hide if you get a lawyer. The investigators are often not sophisticated enough to understand that you can be innocent and still need or want a lawyer.

Keri: What type of lawyer handles these types of cases?

Diane: One of the reasons I founded the Family Defense Center in 2005 is that so many families truly didn’t know where to go or how to find help. The situation is better now than in 2005 — there is a much more organized family defense bar nationally and there are even well-coordinated networks of family defense attorneys in some states (Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Washington state are the ones I know the most about). However, in many places, it is still extremely hard to find a knowledgeable and affordable lawyer. Lawyers who aren’t well versed in this area will oftentimes advise families to go along with what child protective services is asking. I don’t necessarily give that advice because I’m trying to protect people. Even unaffordable lawyers may not be knowledgeable so it is especially important to ask questions about the lawyer’s child protection defense experience. Lawyers who have represented families with mental health issues often have the experience needed for these cases so that can be a good place to start.  

 Keri: One of our big fears is that we’ll lose our children during an investigation. In my case, I’ve pre-arranged for my sister to take them. What can parents do proactively to ensure their children won’t go into foster care?

Diane: Exactly what you are suggesting is a good idea. Also, short term guardianships are a legal protection that can be developed as a plan. If it happens that the kids get taken, it’s really important for support people and family to go to court. Judges often see families who show up to court alone with no support or people willing to be a resource for the family. A big group of supporters showing up to court creates a whole different dynamic.

Keri: I understand you have a very limited practice these days and are focusing your efforts on advocacy. Are there other resources you can recommend to families?

Diane: When I was with the Family Defense Center I wrote the manual, “Responding to Investigations” which is posted on their website. It is used by both parents and lawyers who want to understand the questions and concerns that arise during a child protection investigation.

Keri: I’m really excited about your recent book, They Took the Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Families at Risk. Tell me more.

Diane: The book is about how the system is not adequately protecting parents in wrongful allegation cases. I cover several cases where there is a medical misdiagnosis of abuse, usually with very young children who cannot say what happened. I focused on these types of cases in particular because they make it easy for the average person to understand how things could go wrong and the dynamics of these situations. I use these cases as a vehicle to talk about the challenges families face in proceedings where the presumption of innocence is not honored in practice. I discuss in detail what family defense is all about and make recommendations for some fundamental changes in the system to protect children by protecting their families. (Find more information about Diane’s book and request a discount code on her website here.)

The information in this article is intended to provide general guidance for “wrongly accused” parents who are involved in child protective investigations. It does not constitute specific legal advice.

Interview first published by IACD.

When you feel like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown…

Unless you’ve lived through a child’s relentless screaming, violent outbursts, physical aggression, and extreme manipulation – hour-after-hour, day-after-day – it may be hard to fathom the long term impact on caregivers.

But, the truth is, it can feel like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Does that seem a bit melodramatic? Before you scoff, consider that hardened terrorists have been “broken” by being subjected to a continuous 24-hour stream of, “I Love You,” by Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Here’s how a US service member explained the impact of this psychological tactic to CNN: “Your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken.”(1)

If the onslaught of an innocuous children’s song is enough to break a terrorist, it’s not hard to imagine how parents of children with serious mental illnesses like reactive attachment disorder (RAD) suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) , anxiety, depression, and more. Or to understand how they become angry, afraid, frustrated, and hypervigilant. At some point, their lofty parenting ideals end up crumpled at the bottom of the trashcan along with broken toys, shredded family photos, and burnt meals. They reach their breaking point.

I remember when I reached mine.

My son Devon’s behaviors had been unmanageable and escalating for five years. On that day, he kicked his legs and pumped his arms like a toddler in the throes of a tantrum. Sick to death of the tug-of-war, I surrendered. Or, at least I tried to. I handed him the extra pop tart he was screaming for, but he hurled it away, shrieking as if I’d handed him a coiled snake.

As Devon’s theatrics dialed up, my heart was like the rapid fire of a machine gun. I wanted to hurl him into a wall. Instead, I clawed my fingernails along the sides of my face to vent my anger on myself instead of him.

Fingers shaking, I texted my sister who lived next door: “OMG. I can’t take this. I just want to die.”

I was desperate to stay calm. To maintain control. But a runaway train had slammed into me and I was careening forward. I was frantically pumping the breaks, but there was no stopping.

Perched on the edge of the sofa, I squeezed my eyes shut, just for a moment, rubbing my temples. My eyes flew open as Devon loomed up in front of me.

Spit slapped me across the face.

I lurched up, dry heaving, desperately wiping the stringy mess off with my shirt sleeve

“Stop it! Enough! That’s enough.” My voice was shrill. Screaming. “Just stop it!”

He flung himself backward on the carpet. As I reached for him, he kicked me. 

My sister rushed through the door. Devon’s screams ratcheted up as she pulled me into the bathroom. “You need to take him to the hospital.” She jolted me out of my hysteria.

I held my side, panting. “I can’t. It’s a waste of time.”

“Someone is going to get hurt.. Take him to the hospital. Take him. Now.”

Taking Devon to the hospital that day didn’t result in any meaningful treatment for him, but it was an absolute saving grace. I’m only human. I wish I could handle the relentless pressure and onslaught of raising a child with challenging behaviors. I wish I was superhuman. But I can only take so much. Thankfully, I had my sister to help me that day.

What not to do

The challenges we face every day as parents of children with RAD are real and daunting. Because there are no quick fixes or easy answers, well-intentioned parents sometimes act out of desperation and implement solutions that are dangerous and abusive:

    • Bed “forts” or other types of cages to keep a child contained in their bed.

    • Doors that lock from the outside keeping a child in their bedroom.

    • Sealed windows to prevent a child from climbing onto the roof or running away.

    • Surveillance cameras capturing footage of a child in compromising positions.

    • Supervising an older child while they dress, shower, or use the toilet to prevent them from engaging in unhealthy behaviors.

  • Restraining a child with straps, cuffs, etc to prevent them from causing property destruction or acting out with physical aggression.

It is understandable that parents are tempted to turn to these as last resort strategies, but it’s imperative to remember the ends don’t justify the means. These “solutions” are fire hazards, violate your child’s privacy, are unsafe, and likely illegal in your state.

But let’s get real…

For parents, this can be a no-win situation.

For example,

If your child climbs on the roof they could fall off and seriously hurt themselves.

If you don’t prevent your child from climbing onto the roof, you may be considered negligent.

If you secure their door and windows, you may be considered negligent.

This is our reality: Our kids need to stay in their bedrooms at night. Unrestrained, our kids harm others in the family and create thousands of dollars in property damage. Our kids engage in self-harm, take drugs, and more when they are unmonitored. These behaviors are also unsafe, illegal, and dangerous.

Still, the “solutions” listed above are not viable options. We must find other ways to respond.

What to do

If you feel your child’s next violent outburst may take you over the edge, as though you’re about to snap, here are “last resort” options that you may need to consider:

    1. Camp out at your local mental health emergency room.

    1. Have local crisis emergency services on speed dial.

    1. Explore residential treatment options.

  1. Involve juvenile justice.

Hopefully, you won’t have to take these steps. But, unfortunately, there aren’t perfect, or even good, solutions to this tragic issue. Sometimes this is what it takes to keep your family safe.

Here are some practical steps you can take to keep things from escalating to the point where you have to take such drastic steps.

    • Persist in finding treatment. While it is very difficult to find effective treatment for RAD we must remain vigilant in our search. As our children grow older, their behaviors typically become increasingly unmanageable. Getting therapy and treatment early is key.

    • Take care of yourself. This may seem completely out of reach, but start small with our self-care list for frazzled parents who don’t have a moment to spare.

    • Get professional help for yourself. Talk with your doctor about treatments for anxiety, depression, and other areas where you are struggling. Seeing a therapist can be worked into even a packed schedule with the growing number of therapists offering online sessions.

    • Have an emergency support person. It is critical that you have a person you can count on when you can no longer cope. Alternatively, you may need to rely on local crisis services in your community.

    • Be self-aware. Take notice of a rapid heartbeat, unnatural thoughts, feelings of hopelessness or excessive anger. Do not ignore these warning signs and get help right away.

  • Find support. Family and friends are often unaware of the struggles we face. Here’s a letter that may be helpful in educating them. Also, online Facebook support groups like The Underground World of RAD are convenient ways to connect with others across the country for support.

There are no good solutions for families in these predicaments. You’ll likely be forced to choose the best of several bad options. Take the proactive steps outlined above, never resort to dangerous strategies, and be persistent in demanding the care your child needs. Your child’s well-being, your mental health, and your family’s security depends on it.


Footnote:
Burnett, Erin. “Barney Song Used as Torture?” CNN, Cable News Network, 31 May 2012, outfront.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/31/barney-song-used-as-torture/.

Image credit: https://www.buzzfeed.com/leonoraepstein/this-is-the-guy-who-played-barney-for-most-of-your-childhood?utm_term=.yy1KrEP9gP#.femK6B9Oo9

What Social Workers Need to Know When Working with Adoptive Families

By brave adoptive parent and advocate Pernell Meier

Social workers have been an ever-present part of my family. Over the course of 13 years, we have parented 7 children from foster care, 5 of whom we adopted. In that time, we have had countless social workers in and out of our lives. Some have been rock-stars and stepped-up for our family and kids, advocated and pulled strings. Others have been toxic and blatantly destructive to our well-being. And the vast majority have fallen somewhere in the middle – neither appreciably helpful, nor actively working against us. Though these workers were generally decent people with their hearts in the right place, I’ve been struck by how much even caring and well-meaning social workers can be unintentionally damaging…

This amazing post goes on to provide concrete ways social workers can support adoptive families:

#1 – We desperately need your help.  
Life with an emotionally disordered child, particularly one with attachment disorder, is profoundly hard…

#2 – We need to be believed.
Most of us present one way to the world and another way to those closest to us. They can turn on the charm and show their absolutely impressive best sides to you, while five minutes later becoming unimaginably cruel to us. I know that this is hard to believe…

#3 – You might be one of the only persons who we can talk to.
Most adoptive parents of high-needs kids have the same experience – friends and family fall away. The challenges are just too hard for people to process, so avoiding it is much easier. And venting to people can bring forth the inevitable, “You did this to yourself!” comments

#4 – We expect that you will be educated on these issues.
Over the years, we have found such an unimaginable lack of basic education on matters related to trauma, prenatal exposure and attachment that the process of trying to educate and explain becomes draining. We are turning to you as an expert…

#5 –  When we tell the truth about our lives and our children, this does not mean that we do not love them or lack commitment.
Telling social workers about what is really going on at home backfires and gets used as ammunition against us to further cement the workers’ original views of the family. This atmosphere creates self-censorship as the adoptive parents come to view most social workers as either not helpful or detrimental.

#6 – We don’t speak social work.
You have your own specific acronyms, and ways of speaking and understanding things, just as all professions do. But when you are talking to us, please consider that we are not always going to know what you mean…

#7 – No, we are not triggering them.  
Ok, let’s be real. Sometimes we do, just as any parent will occasionally handle a situation poorly.  But, these children do not turn into raging, mean, or out-of-control persons because we are in general doing something to them that makes them that way…

#8 – Yes, we have skills.  
We have read more than you could possibly know, called and talked with anyone we could, watched videos, taken trainings, and turned our values and our way of thinking inside out to try to make things better…

#9 – Your meetings can be painful and often feel like a waste of time.
Please know that we are likely dealing with quite a few different social workers, support persons, doctors, therapists, school officials, etc. and we have a lot of meetings that we need to attend…

#10 – You are not our child’s friend.
When you approach interactions with our children from the perspective that the most important thing is having a positive relationship between the two of you, you inadvertently damage our parental relationship because you put on those empathy blinders that do not allow you to even see, let alone confront deceit, poor behavior, manipulation and destructive dynamics…

#11 – You continually undermine us.
You set meetings with them without even bothering to tell us, thus keeping us out of the loop and making us play catch-up. You buy them things that we have said “no” to. When they have been behaving terribly and break the rules, you take them out for ice cream or fancy coffee…

#12 – You have enormous power over our lives and that is frustrating and scary.  
As the gatekeeper, you are the one who gets to decide if we “need” something or we do not. When you deny us what we’re asking, please understand that this is “just business” to you and to us it feels like a hot knife slicing through us…

#13 – You get to go home.
We don’t. This is our home. This is our life. At the end of your long, stressful work days trying to make the world a better place, you get to go home to a quiet house or to your attached children, where your pets and other vulnerable children are not being abused, put your purse or wallet and car keys down without thinking to lock them away, and shrug off the day’s worries. For us, our homes often feel like prisons…

#14 – You cannot imagine our grief and our guilt.
Often co-mingled with our grief is our intense guilt. Raising a child with special needs seems to inevitably bring this on as we often second-guess and agonize over so many of the decisions related to our children’s care. Often our lives are so impossible that absolutely nothing feels like the right thing…

#15 – We need you to be honest and acknowledge your mistakes.
We need to trust you because the repercussions of you either baldly lying, withholding essential information, or manipulating us to obfuscate the truth can be devastating. In this power imbalance, you hold the cards. We have little recourse when you do things that create harm…

#16 – You hurt the kids.
Social workers will come and go, but we will always be there. You are not their parent, we are, and the best thing you can do to help them is to help us with the excruciatingly hard task of standing by them…

Please be sure to read the full article here.

Parenting a challenging child? Here’s how to increase your resilience

Do you ever roll out of bed already over it? At your limit before the day starts? Knowing you can’t take even one more surly look, one more rude comment, one more call from school, one more violent outburst? I’ve been there too.

As parents of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), life can be so stressful it feels impossible to face another day. When we near our tipping point, our instinct is to imagine that finding a way to “fix” our child will immediately relieve the stress we are experiencing. In reality, as necessary as it is, getting help for our child often adds more stress to our lives because it comes with therapy appointments, challenging therapeutic parenting approaches, and disputes with insurance companies. Effective treatment for kids with RAD is a daunting, long-term proposition.

Raising, finding help for, and advocating for a child with RAD is difficult. It’s stressful. Parents get PTSD, become depressed, and struggle with other mental health issues. They lose friends and family, and turn into someone they feel they don’t even know. This is why we need to find ways to increase our resilience by effectively addressing the stress in our lives.

Al Coates MBE, adoptive parent and advocate, is flipping the paradigm by focusing on practical ways we as parents can increase our resilience – our ability to take whatever’s thrown our way, figuratively or literally. With his background in social work, Al has tweaked the Stress – Vulnerability Model (1) specifically for parents who are raising challenging kids.

To understand the Stress – Vulnerability Model let’s start by imagining a bucket. Inside the bucket are your stressors – each one like a cup of water that’s filling your bucket up. For now we’ll set aside the stress specifically related to parenting a child of RAD. Instead, let’s focus on the stressors that are with you before you even start your day.

    • Money – are you scraping by and just making ends meet, worried about retirement, or struggling to pay the mortgage?

    • Career – are you in a job that’s unfulfilling, or perhaps under a great deal of stress with deadlines and frustrated customers?

    • Relationships – is your relationship with your spouse strained or do you have a toxic friend or family member in your life?

    • Other children – do you have a special needs child who requires extra help, or a high school football player that needs to get to practice on time five days a week?

    • Everyday nuisances – how about that neighbor’s dog that barks like crazy, or an air-conditioner that’s on the fritz too often leaving you hot and sweaty?

    • Social history – do you have a personal history of neglect or abuse, something that can be easily triggered?

    • Medical – are you the kind of person he needs eight hours sleep or someone who has debilitating migraines?

If we think of each of these stressors as a cup of water, it’s easy to see how we can wake up with our bucket almost full. If your bucket is already filled to a quarter of an inch from the top, you simply don’t have room for a temper tantrum, a broken window, or a screaming child. That’s how we reach our tipping point. What sloshes out – over the side of our bucket – is anger, frustration, tears, and more.

If your bucket is already filled to a quarter of an inch from the top, you simply don’t have room for a temper tantrum, a broken window, or a screaming child. Click To Tweet

Now imagine waking up with your bucket only half full. You’d have a whole lot more to give your kids in terms of time, energy, and patience. You’d be a more resilient parent, able to weather the storms that come your way.

So how can we begin to reduce our normal stress?

    1. Create a personal list of stressors and solutions. Using the list above as a starting point, write down the stressors in your life and possible solutions. For example, one of my stressors is a propensity for migraines. A solution would be to set a cell phone alarm so I remember to take my preventative medications.

    2. Go for the low hanging fruit first. Start by picking off the stressors that are easy to address. For me, that might mean asking a teammate to give my son a ride home from football practice. Look for quick and easy ways to take a scoop of stress out of your bucket.

    3. Set some longer-term goals. Other changes may be more difficult to make such as  changing jobs or affording a new air conditioner (although a rotating fan or two might be a short-term solution). Don’t stress yourself out trying to de-stress by taking on too much at one time. Pick one goal at a time to focus on.

As you work through this, remember change takes time. But, every drop of stress relief is one less drop in your bucket. Even small changes can begin to make a difference.

It’s also important to recognize that not all our buckets are the same size. Some of us have short buckets – stress is very difficult for us to handle. Others have tall buckets – they can tolerate higher levels of stress. Another way to build your resilience is to increase your stress tolerance. Here are just a few strategies to get you started.

    • Get your endorphins pumping even if the only exercise you can fit in is power walking around the field during your kids’ soccer practice.

    • Take care of yourself. It’s not as impossible as you might think. Check out our self-care list for exhausted, frazzled, frustrated parents without a minute or ounce of energy to spare.

Raising children with challenging behaviors can feel overwhelming. To be successful, we as parents, must be resilient enough to handle the inevitable stress that comes our way. Take the time to consider what stressors are in your life and ways you can lower the water in your bucket.

(1) Stress Vulnerability Model –  from Zubin & Spring (1977) Brabban & Turkington (2002).

Originally published by Institute for Attachment & Child Development

You need a safety plan

If you’re raising a child with RAD you almost certainly need a safety plan.

Our children’s dangerous behaviors can include suicidal ideation, self- harming, violent outbursts, serious property damage, and physical aggression towards others (especially siblings).

This is shared from a blog post by Renae and Jason who are grappling with their daughter’s violent episodes.

This story could be mine, and probably yours too:

It was a Monday when everything came to a head.  Sunshine couldn’t be reasoned with.  She was not functioning.  What would normally be a calm exchange of words turned violent.  Sunshine started to throw any items she could get her hands on.  She even threw a dining room chair, almost breaking a window.  And then she verbally threatened to kill me with a knife.

That’s when I knew, my dear sweet Sunshine was horribly manic.  She had become a danger to herself and to others.  The medicine had been working more than we knew.  We were in trouble.  I had to initiate our safety plan.

They also share these important steps of their safety plan:

1. Immediately remove others from harm’s way
2. Stop the child from endangering herself or others
3. Call and report
4. Lower expectations
5. Follow through with recommendations made by doctors and specialists

Renae and Jason say their daughter “had become a danger to herself and others.” If you reach this point, it’s always time to get help. Also, be sure to tell mental health professionals this – “My child is a danger to themselves and others” are ‘magic words’ that will help you get your child the acute care they need. (See my post on why I use the word “rage” and not “tantrum” for the same reason.

'My child is a danger to themselves and others' are 'magic words' that will help you get your child the acute care they need. Click To Tweet

Read more details on Renae and Jason’s safety plan in the full post here: A Safety Plan for Mental Health Emergencies 

What steps do you take to keep your family safe in a crisis?