Category: RAD and related diagnoses

What is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)?

Also published on The Mighty

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 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

RAD Symptoms – which are most common?

Parents of kids diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) are all too familiar with the symptoms. Anecdotally we often list food hoarding, violent outbursts, crazy lying, to name a few. However, there is little research on just how common each of these symptoms are.

The symptoms of RAD fall into three general categories – physical aggression, relational difficulties, and survival based behaviors. This is not surprising given the diagnostic criteria for RAD in the DSM 5. Kids with RAD have experienced chronic neglect or abuse before the age of 5 and did not form a nurturing bond with a primary caregiver.

But which symptoms are most common? To explore this further we collected data on 277 children and analyzed the results of the 236 who have been formally diagnosed with RAD.

The most common symptoms

Based on the survey results these are the most common symptoms for kids diagnosed with RAD.

  • “Crazy Lying” ….89%
  • Superficially charming …..89%
  • Damaging property …..86%
  • Poor boundaries …..85%
  • Stealing ….79%
  • Gorging/Grazing …..77%
  • Violent Outbursts ….77%

Crazy lying is the most common symptom, as many parents of kids diagnosed with RAD might have guessed. This can be as benign – though frustrating – as a kid claiming they had pizza for dinner when they had chicken. Unfortunately, it can also be dangerous. One survey respondents says her 9-year-old son has made continuous false allegations of abuse, to the point she and her husband are now now facing criminal charges. 

Being superficially charming is also a well known hallmark of the RAD diagnosis. One mom says, “I wish our child would treat the family as well as she treats strangers. They think she’s inspirational and cannot understand why she’s currently living in a treatment center.”

While it is disheartening to see these symptoms so common – over 3/4 of kids – it can be reassuring for parents to know they aren’t alone.

Aggressive symptoms

Developmental trauma can result in impaired brain development, depending on the time the trauma occurred. Many of these children have poor impulse control and are disregulated. In addition, chronic abuse they may have heightened their fight-flight response that activates in even minimally threatening situations. This can underpin many aggressive behaviors.

Out of the children studied, 94% exhibit some form of aggression. Here are the detailed results.

Damaging property86%
Violent outbursts77%
Physical aggression to mother71%
Physical aggression to siblings66%
Physical aggression to pets46%
Weaponizing bodily fluids39%
Physical aggression to others37%
Physical aggression to father26%

Worth noting:

  • The most common physical aggression is towards the child’s mother. This is expected because these children see their mother as the nurturing enemy. One mom says, “I survive by being numb to everything. I’m a shell of the person I once was, having no life or spark left in me. I honestly can’t think of one thing I enjoy doing anymore.”
  • The second most common physical aggression is towards siblings. They are often the overlooked victims of the disorder.

See also the results of my survey results on I-CPV (Intentional Child on Parent Violence).

Social Relational symptoms

Children diagnosed with RAD did not form a nurturing bond with a primary caregiver – typically a mother figure. As a result they struggle to know how to form attachments with others. They are often obsessed with their need for control – to combat what feels like an unsafe and unpredictable world – and view relationships as a means to an end.

Out of the children studied, 98% exhibit some form of social relational symptoms. Here are the detailed results.

Crazy lying89%
Superficially charming89%
Lack of boundaries85%
Inappropriate affection65%

Worth noting:

  • These children often have underdeveloped high-level brain functions. Their cause-and-effect thinking, for example, may be impaired or not “on-line.” This likely plays into the “crazy” lying symptomology.
  • These children have an innate sense of insecurity. They are afraid of authentic relationships and don’t know how to attach. They also may view relationships as a means to an end because their basic need to survive trump all.

These types of symptoms can be extremely challenging for the whole family. One parent says, “This has almost ruined our lives.  Our whole family has to go into therapy because of our son.  If it weren’t for the grace of God, we wouldn’t have a family.”

Survival symptoms

Kids with RAD have been neglected and abused. They may have cried in their crib when their belly hurt. Sometimes they were fed, but often they were hit or cried themselves to sleep – still hungry. For a young child who cannot process this, their body absorbs the trauma. They unconsciously learn that the world is unsafe and unpredictable and often their behaviors seem survival based.

Out of the children studied, 98% exhibit some form of survival based behaviors. Here are the detailed results.

Stealing79%
Gorging/Binging/Grazing77%
Potty Issues64%
Food hoarding57%

Worth noting:

  • Kids often hoard even when given free access to food. This behavior is often driven by unconscious food insecurity. Understanding this can help parents better address the behavior.
  • Potty issues may be developmental delays or due to neglect and abuse. Abuse and neglect can cause brain injury that results in developmental delays, and, for example, late potty training. Kids may also choose not to use the toilet because of PTSD type symptoms from abuse.

If you’re a mental health professional reading these survey results, please know how desperately these children need affordable, accessible, effective treatments. Many therapists disregard parents reports of these symptoms because they seem too extreme. These results prove they are not.

If you are a parent, I highly recommend The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting. It’s an excellent practical resource. Check out my review here.

Do these results jibe with your own experience? Drop a note in the comments to let me know.

When they say RAD isn’t a “real” diagnosis…

“Saying RAD is not a ‘real’ diagnosis is like arguing Bipolar I Disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder are not ‘real’ diagnoses.”

My son was first diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) by a licensed clinician at 11-years-old. He subsequently received this diagnosis from several psychiatrists in mental health treatment facilities and hospitals. In sharing our story, I only provide actual diagnoses we received. This is why I talk about his RAD diagnosis and not others like “Attachment Disorder” which he never received. It would be untruthful and inaccurate for me to do so. 

Mental health professionals diagnose RAD based on the criteria in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). You may have heard about the controversy surrounding the RAD diagnosis. However, it continues to be a valid diagnostic code (313.98) and our children are being given this diagnoses by licensed psychiatrists. Saying RAD is not a “real” diagnosis is like arguing Bipolar I Disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder are not “real” diagnoses. 

That said, I certainly agree, that the diagnosis of RAD is not serving our children well and I strongly support the movement towards replacing it with Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD). Unfortunately, DTD was rejected from the latest version of the DSM which makes it a diagnosis not covered by health insurance. RAD, however, remained a diagnostic code in the current edition of the DSM. You can find more information on the controversy here: DTD and RAD: What’s all the controversy about?

Regardless of what we call it, my son and other children like him suffer the effects of early childhood trauma. As an advocate for him, and in trying to raise awareness of this issue, I’ve taken the pragmatic approach of focusing on the issues related to parenting and supporting these children.

An Introduction to Developmental Trauma

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The ugly truth about trauma

Warning: Graphic image

Because trauma from early childhood neglect and abuse is invisible to the untrained eye, we tend to imagine our children having only bruised and bleeding hearts.

In reality, some of our children have huge gaping trauma wounds. The gash is infected and oozing puss. It smells. It’s sticky and messy. No vital organ or system in our child’s body is safe from its insidious spread. As a result, our children can’t sleep or eat. They can’t learn. They don’t play nicely with others. Sometimes they spend days – years – delirious with fever and pain.

I’m sorry if this is disturbing, but that’s the point I’m making about trauma.

Our kids don’t know how to treat their own trauma gashes, but they’re afraid to let us help. They want us to just leave it alone and let it get better by itself. But trauma gashes, left to their own, can become life threatening or leave a mangled, ugly scar.

As parents we try to treat our child’s oozing trauma gash with bandaids, ice packs, and Neosporin. Afraid and in paid, they lash out at us like wounded animals no matter how lovingly we soothe and comfort. We explain the pain is only momentary, that we’re just trying to help the wound heal, but they fight to keep us far away.

Most trauma gashes need stitches or surgery. Our kids need highly specialized treatment that, more often than not, is unaffordable or inaccessible. And so, as parents, we just do the best we can with our inadequate home first aid kit.

Bruised and broken hearts can be comforted. And even trauma gashes can heal and fade with proper treatment and time, but they always leave a scar.

Learn more here:

Understanding the impact of childhood trauma
Raising a child with developmental trauma

Developmental Trauma and Psychosis


When my son was 12 he’d “snap” into one of two personalities – a ballerina or a thug – by shaking like a wet dog. As a ballerina he’d loop his arms over his head and plie across the lawn, deftly ignoring calls to come in for shower time. His thug personality was less benign. He’d curse and swagger, punching walls and sometimes people. 

Like many moms, I fancy myself a bit of a human-lie-detector, and was pretty sure my son was faking these “personalities.” This was confirmed by the results of a neurological exam, brain scan, and full psychological evaluation. No indications of psychosis. What he had been diagnosed with, however, was Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), also called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD). 

This left me wondering if there is a link between DTD and psychosis, and what parents can do to get their child the best possible treatment.

Is there a correlation between DTD and psychosis?

Up to 3.5% of the general population experiences psychosis. Psychotic symptoms most commonly include: 

  • Visual hallucinations – seeing things that aren’t there.
  • Auditory hallucinations – hearing things that aren’t there.
  • Sensory hallucinations – feeling things that aren’t there.
  • Delusions – beliefs that are not true and are irrational.

DTD is a brain injury caused by early childhood trauma (and RAD is just one related diagnosis). DTD can have wide ranging symptoms with varying severity depending on the stage of brain development the child was in when the trauma occurred. Symptoms can include attention deficits, poor impulse control, developmental delays, underdeveloped cause-and-effect thinking, aggression, and more. 

Psychosis, however, is not a symptom of DTD.

Though psychosis is not a symptom of their developmental trauma, some children with DTD do report hearing voices, seeing “beings,” or seem delusional. To delve deeper, I conducted a survey on this topic. Out of 184 parents, over 1/3 said their child reports symptoms of psychosis. 

(March 2019)

This is a significant number and a concern for many families. Since psychosis is not a symptom of DTD, if your child has reported any of these concerning symptoms the first step is understanding the possible causes. 

Potential causes of “psychotic” symptoms

1. The psychotic symptoms may be made up.

When a person fakes psychotic symptoms it is called malingering psychosis. Manipulation and lying are common behaviors of children diagnosed with DTD. These strategies are often used to gain a sense of control in what feels like an unsafe and unpredictable world. This was the case with my son. 

Tracy, another mom, says her son faked multiple personalities and was even diagnosed at one point with dissociative identity disorder (DID). After professional psychological evaluations, the clinician identified it as malingering psychosis. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” she says. 

Qualified psychologists are equipped to discern between malingering and true psychotic symptoms. Don’t rely on your own gut feelings. It’s always best to get a professional evaluation. In addition, if your child is faking symptoms they need treatment for the underlying reasons for this behavior.

For help with malingering psychosis, find a therapist who has extensive experience working with adopted or foster kids who have developmental trauma.

2. The psychotic symptoms may be a drug side effect. 

Children with DTD are commonly diagnosed with RAD, PTSD, ADHD, ODD, and more. They are frequently on a cocktail of serious medications, some of which may have psychosis as a potential side effect. 

Jessica’s son saw “little goblin creatures” when he was taking medications. “The last time, he said a naked man woke him up and told him to go outside,” she says. “Praise God he didn’t listen! That was a scary time.”

Psychotic symptoms may be a side effect of a drug, the result of drug interactions, or due to abruptly stopping or inconsistently taking the medication. Remember too, illicit drug use like LSD can cause psychotic symptoms. While appropriate medications have been helpful for many children it can takes some time to find the right combination.

For the best treatment insist on seeing a psychiatrist for medication management.

3. The psychotic symptoms may indicate a co-morbid disorder.

Disorders including schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar can cause psychotic symptoms. These can be particularly difficult to diagnose in children because adoptive parents don’t have knowledge of hereditary mental illnesses that may run in the family. 

Furthermore, developmental trauma paired with a co-morbid disorder with psychotic symptoms can be a dangerous combination. “Developmental trauma disorder alone does not deem a child dangerous,” says Forrest Lien, Director of the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. “Furthermore, not all children with DTD have a mental illness. Yet, some do. Children with complex developmental trauma often feel angry and can lack empathy. When you combine a child who feels slighted and vengeful with [for example] a misdiagnosed or poorly-treated severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features, it can be dangerous.”

Angela, says her daughter “creates her own ‘truths’ or ‘realities.’ “At 11 and 12 I would hear her having long talks with herself but I never knew if she was putting on an act or if it is real…” This is a dilemma for parents because what seems like delusions may be immature thinking caused by the DTD.

For correct diagnoses, a professional evaluation is essential. 

Don’t panic – but do get professional help.

If your child is reporting psychotic symptoms, don’t panic – but do get professional help. Whether your child has malingering psychosis, is suffering a drug side effect, or has a co-morbid disorder they are signaling for help. With proper treatment and early intervention these children can grow and thrive.

Understanding the long-term impact of early childhood trauma

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.

Why adoption stories aren’t fairy tales

Adoption finalization is a reason to celebrate. Parents have filled out mountains of paperwork, waited months or years and shed many tears to get to that moment. They wear matching tee-shirts, eat way too much cake and splash photos all over social media. Adoption day is so momentous that it feels like a “happily ever after” in itself. After friends and family return home and the frosting is wiped clean, some adoptive families are left with a much different “ever after” than anticipated. They can struggle immensely feel completely alone. 

When you support adoptive families, you support children from hard places and all the generations to come.  Click To Tweet

While a friend, family member or professional can support an adoptive family in multiple ways, one simple task is most important—to understand that adoption stories aren’t fairy tales. And the path to happily ever after can be extremely difficult to find for kids with developmental trauma. Once a person understands this reality, they can offer more effective support to an adoptive family over time.

Unfortunately, the judge’s pen isn’t a magic wand for kids who come from hard places. “While many people think that love or ‘good parenting’ will make up for the early trauma a child experienced, it’s just not that simple,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Families of kids with developmental trauma need extensive support and specialized services.” 

Without early and effective intervention, many adopted children from hard places continue to struggle academically and socially[i]—even in stable, loving families. They’re at increased risk for substance abuse and criminal conduct and at higher risk for mental health issues.[ii]

When adopted kids struggle, it’s easy for those around them—family, friends, community—to point the finger at adoptive parents. They’re quick to blame the adoptive parents for not getting help for their child. Or they criticize the child for willfully squandering the opportunities given to them.  

“While many people think that love or ‘good parenting’ will make up for the early trauma a child experienced, it’s just not that simple,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Families of kids with developmental trauma need extensive support and specialized services.”

But an adoptive parent cannot serve as a hero or the villain in combating the effects of a child’s early trauma. And the child cannot simply “get over” developmental trauma. 

Adoption is better likened to the nostalgic “make your own adventure books” where readers make choices that lead to different endings. But depending on their geographical location, proximity to specialized therapists, level of trauma their child experienced early on, financial situation, insurance provider, etc., adoptive parents don’t have many viable good options from which to choose. 

Make Your Own Adoption Adventure: Story of Bobbi

To begin to understand the reality for many adoptive families, take a walk through their unfortunate “adventures”—

Chapter 1

Bobbi, age 7, squirrels food away under her pillow and gets into fights at school. Her parents notice these behaviors aren’t getting better. Bobbi needs to see a therapist who has experience working with adopted kids with developmental trauma. This would put her on the path to happily ever after. However, this is unlikely to be a choice available to Bobbi and her family. Here’s why:

 No matter the path chosen, most parents unwittingly go it alone.  They often hope traditional parenting methods will eventually work. Or they find a therapist who lacks specialized training in developmental trauma. Either way, matters get worse with time.

Chapter 2

By the time Bobbi is a teenager, her behavior is increasingly risky. She’s experimenting with drugs, partying and sexting. At this point, Bobbi needs to go to a specialized in-patient treatment program for her safety and the safety of others. This would put her on the path to happily ever after. However, this is unlikely to be a choice available to her and her family. Here’s why: 

  • Most residential programs mix together kids with a variety of conditions instead of offering specialized treatment for developmental trauma.
  • Many families cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs left over after the limited insurance coverage provided. 

Chapter 3

Unfortunately, many children like Bobbi grow up in institutions where they do not get better. Others get tangled up with the juvenile justice system. By then, choices are even more limited as early intervention is key for optimal healing.  

Why the good options are limited

Developmental trauma can have far reaching and severe impacts. Kids may suffer from attention deficits, developmental delays, behavioral problems and more. Because developmental trauma is a disorder stemming from brain impact during critical developmental stages, there are no shortcuts to happily-ever-after—no quick fixes or easy solutions. Even well-informed adoptive parents and early intervention by qualified clinicians is not always enough. However, proper and early interventions definitely offers hope.

Here’s how that can happen:

  1.  Adoptive parents must be given comprehensive training on developmental trauma and therapeutic parenting. They need support to parent their child and to recognize when they need professional help. 
  2. Adopted children must have access to effective, specialized mental health services. This treatment needs to be accessible and affordable.

It’s both shockingly simple and profoundly tragic. Parent training and specialized mental health services are just common sense. Yet, far too many adoptive families are headed down a rocky and difficult path due to lack of these two basics. 

Although the path toward “happilly-ever-after” isn’t as simple as one would hope, friends, family and professionals can at least try to understand the journey. And they can advocate and educate on behalf of these families. 

The Institute for Attachment and Child Development and I invite you to choose your own adventure in creative ways to support and advocate on behalf of the adoptive families. It’s time for communities to join together to make sure our vulnerable children have every possible resource to reach their happily ever after. Because when you support adoptive families, you support children from hard places and the generations that follow.

Originally published by the Institute for Attachment and Child Development..

[i]https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-paradox-of-adoption/
[ii]https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/can/impact/long-term-consequences-of-child-abuse-and-neglect/crime/

California Looks To Lead Nation In Unraveling Childhood Trauma

Imagine identifying a toxin so potent it could rewire a child’s brain and erode his immune system. A substance that, in high doses, tripled the risk of heart disease and lung cancer and reduced life expectancy by 20 years.

And then realizing that tens of millions of American children had been exposed.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s newly appointed surgeon general, will tell you this is not a hypothetical scenario. She is a leading voice in a movement trying to transform our understanding of how the traumatic experiences that affect so many American children can trigger serious physical and mental illness.

The movement draws on decades of research that has found that children who endure sustained stresses in their day-to-day lives — think sexual abuse, emotional neglect, a mother’s mental illness, a father’s alcoholism — undergo biochemical changes to their brains and bodies that can dramatically increase their risk of developing serious health problems, including heart disease, lung cancer, asthma and depression.

“[Nadine] has probably single-handedly done more to elevate this issue than anyone else,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician known for documenting the rise in children’s blood lead levels in Flint, Mich., after the city switched its water supply.

With Burke Harris’ selection as the state’s first surgeon general, California is poised to become a vanguard for the nation in embracing the research that traces adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, to the later onset of physical and mental illness. In pockets across the country, it’s increasingly common for schools and correctional systems to train staff on how academic and behavioral problems can be rooted in childhood trauma. Burke Harris envisions a statewide approach whereby screening for traumatic stress is as routine for pediatricians as screening for hearing or vision, and children with high ACEs scores have access to services that can build resilience and help their young bodies reset and thrive.

As California’s surgeon general, she will have a powerful bully pulpit — and the firm backing of a new administration with deep pockets. In his first weeks in office, newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom has made clear he intends to devote significant resources to early childhood development. He has named several recognized experts in child welfare, along with Burke Harris, to top posts, and is promoting child-centric policies that include extended family leave for new parents, home nursing visits for new families and universal preschool. In his first state budget proposal, released last month, Newsom called out ACEs by name and committed $105 million to boost trauma and developmental screenings for children.

“It should be no surprise to anyone that I’m going to be focusing on ACEs and toxic stress,” Burke Harris said in a phone interview just days into the new job. “I think my selection is a reflection of where that issue fits in the administration’s priorities.”

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A Game-Changing Study

Adversity is the sort of thing we intuitively understand, at least to some extent. Having a parent who struggles with addiction or mental illness is hard on kids, as is growing up in a neighborhood marked by poverty, gun violence or drug abuse.

A 1990s study laid the groundwork, however, for an understanding of adversity that suggests it poses a pervasive threat to public health.

During interviews with patients at a Kaiser Permanente obesity clinic in Southern California, Dr. Vince Felitti was shocked at how many said they had been sexually abused as children. He wondered if the experiences could be connected. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

As head of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, he had access to a huge pool of patients to try to find out. Together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he surveyed more than 17,000 adult patients about 10 areas of childhood adversity. Among them: Did a parent or other adult in your household physically abuse you? Emotionally abuse you? Sexually abuse you? Go to prison? Was your mother regularly hit? Did you often go hungry? Were your parents divorced? The researchers scored each patient, assigning a point for each yes, and matched up the responses with patients’ medical records.

What they found was striking. Almost two-thirds of participants reported experiencing at least one kind of adversity, and 13 percent — about 1 in 8 — said they had experienced four or more. Those who reported experiencing high doses of trauma as children were far more likely to have serious health problems as adults, including heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. And the higher their ACEs score, the worse their health was likely to be.

This extended to mental health, as well: Adults who reported experiencing four or more ACEs were 4.6 times as likely to have clinical depression and 12 times as likely to have attempted suicide.

In the 20 years since, scientists have built on the research, replicating the findings and digging into the “why.” In the simplest terms, traumatic events trigger surges in cortisol, the “stress” hormone. When those surges go unchecked for sustained periods, they can disrupt a child’s brain development, damage the cardiovascular system and cause chronic inflammation that messes with the body’s immune system.

And where children really get into trouble is when they also are missing the best-known antidote to adversity: a nurturing and trustworthy caregiver. Without that positive stimulation, children can end up with an overdeveloped threat response and a diminished ability to control impulses or make good decisions. Children with high ACEs scores are more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, and cognitive impairments that can make school a struggle. They are more likely to grow into adults who drink to excess, are violent or are victims of violence.

The research is compelling, because it has the potential to explain so many intractable health problems. What if some portion of Generation ADHD really has PTSD? What if obesity and hypertension are disorders with roots in childhood experiences, and not just what we eat for dinner?

‘What Happens To You Matters’

Until now, Burke Harris’ professional epicenter has been Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco. It’s a vibrant community with a history of activism, but also deeply impoverished, and blighted by pollution and violence. It was there that Burke Harris, at her pediatric clinic, noticed that many of her young patients with serious medical conditions also had experienced profound trauma. And patients who had experienced serious adversity were 32 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning and behavioral problems than kids who had not.

When a colleague introduced her to the ACEs study, she saw her patients written between its lines. Though these problems might be concentrated in Bayview, they certainly weren’t confined there. This was a health crisis transcending race, class and ZIP code.

In the years since, Burke Harris has worked to advance ACEs science though her work at the clinic and her nonprofit research institute, the Center for Youth Wellness. She regularly travels the country to train fellow pediatricians in trauma screening and treatment. She has written an acclaimed book on the issue, “The Deepest Well,” and her TED talk on the topic has been viewed nearly 5 million times online.

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Now, she’ll be directing her singular focus back on California.

She plans to start with a statewide tour to hear from doctors and other health leaders about barriers to increasing pediatric screening and care. She’ll also be talking about the science of ACEs. “It’s Public Health 101 that raising awareness is a critical form of primary prevention,” she said.

But even with the funding included in Newsom’s budget, there are challenges to standardizing trauma screening. For one: In medicine, it’s common practice that you screen only for what you can treat. Many doctors — even those persuaded by research on adversity — have raised concerns about the lack of established protocols for treating childhood trauma. What can a pediatrician, with her 15-minute time slots and extensive to-do list, do about the ills of an absent parent, or a neighborhood riddled with gun violence?

In general, experts working on the issue say a critical ingredient in helping kids heal is ensuring they find and develop healthy relationships.

“All of us want to feel seen, heard, understood and supported,” said Alicia Lieberman, a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco who specializes in early childhood trauma. Involving parents is an essential aspect of treatment, particularly because so many have experienced trauma themselves. “It has to start with an acknowledgment that what happens to you matters.”

Researchers have found early success in seemingly simple interventions: Therapists coaching parents by filming and playing back positive interactions with their child. Therapists working with teachers on how to support their students. Key to success, said Pat Levitt, chief scientific officer at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, are quality programs that start early and recognize the role of relationships.

At her clinic, Burke Harris coordinates with a team that wraps a child in care, treating mind and body. When a patient scores high on the adversity scale, she can send them down the hall to a therapist; connect them with classes on meditation, nutrition and exercise; involve the family in counseling; and aggressively monitor for and treat any physical manifestations.

Most clinics aren’t set up for this staff-intensive approach.

Dr. Andria Ruth, a pediatrician with the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics in California, is among those researching how to “treat” adversity within a more traditional doctor’s office. Her research team is randomly assigning patients who screen positive for trauma into one of three groups. One group is assigned a navigator who connects the family to services for basic needs, such as food and housing. A second group also sees a behavioral health therapist at their child wellness visits. The third group receives both those services, and gets home family visits from therapists.

Ruth has a healthy skepticism about what’s possible, but she and her colleagues are convinced childhood trauma does pose a potent health threat: None of them felt comfortable including a control group that wouldn’t receive any services.

In the big picture, these experts say, addressing the fallout of traumatic stress will require a broader paradigm shift, to a system that recognizes that bad behavior can be a physical symptom rather than a moral failing. Gov. Newsom has signaled a move in that direction: In January, he said he would transfer the Division of Juvenile Justice out of the Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s prison system, and into the Health and Human Services Agency.

Garnering that kind of official backing is a powerful boost, said Jason Gortney, director of innovation at the Children’s Home Society of Washington, that state’s oldest and largest nonprofit dedicated to child welfare. His organization has lots of programs with promising results, he said, but connecting them to state agencies that aren’t used to working together is a challenge.

With Burke Harris crusading from the surgeon general post, Gortney said, he and fellow advocates across the country are hoping California can provide a beacon.

“Maybe California can show some of the other states how to do this,” he said.

This story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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.

Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Mediaa news collaborative covering public health.

Negative childhood experiences can set our brains to constantly feel danger and fear says psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert Bessel van der Kolk. He’s the author of the recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

A  report by the University of San Diego School of Law found that about 686,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2013. Traumatic childhood events can lead to mental health and behavioral problems later in life, explains psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of the recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Related: How two professors are helping children cope with violence

Children’s brains are literally shaped by traumatic experiences, which can lead to problems with anger, addiction, and even criminal activity in adulthood, says van der Kolk. Side Effects contributing producer Barbara Lewis spoke with him about his book. 

Barbara Lewis: Can psychologically traumatic events change the physical structure of the brain?

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk: Yes, they can change the connections and activations in the brain. They shape the brain.

The human brain is a social organ that is shaped by experience, and that is shaped in order to respond to the experience that you’re having. So particularly earlier in life, if you’re in a constant state of terror; your brain is shaped to be on alert for danger, and to try to make those terrible feelings go away. 

The brain gets very confused. And that leads to problems with excessive anger, excessive shutting down, and doing things like taking drugs to make yourself feel better. These things are almost always the result of having a brain that is set to feel in danger and fear. 

As you grow up an get a more stable brain, these early traumatic events can still cause changes that make you hyper-alert to danger, and hypo-alert to the pleasures of everyday life. 

BL: So are you saying that a child’s brain is much more malleable than an adult brain?

BK: A child’s brain is virtually nonexistent. It’s being shaped by experience. So yes, it’s extremely malleable.

BL: What is the mechanism by which traumatic events change the brain?

BK: The brain is formed by feedback from the environment. It’s a profoundly relational part of our body.

In a healthy developmental environment, your brain gets to feel a sense of pleasure, engagement, and exploration. Your brain opens up to learn, to see things, to accumulate information, to form friendships. When you’re traumatized you’re afraid of what you’re feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness. I think these body-based techniques help you to feel what’s happening in your body, and to breathe into it and not run away from it. So you learn to befriend your experience. 

But if you’re in an orphanage for example, and you’re not touched or seen, whole parts of your brain barely develop; and so you become an adult who is out of it, who cannot connect with other people, who cannot feel a sense of self, a sense of pleasure. If you run into nothing but danger and fear, your brain gets stuck on just protecting itself from danger and fear. 

Related: Some Early Childhood Experiences Shape Adult Life, But Which Ones? 

BL: Does trauma have a very different effect on children compared to adults?

BK: Yes, because of developmental issues. If you’re an adult and life’s been good to you, and then something bad happens, that sort of injures a little piece of the whole structure. But toxic stress in childhood from abandonment or chronic violence has pervasive effects on the capacity to pay attention, to learn, to see where other people are coming from, and it really creates havoc with the whole social environment.

And it leads to criminality, and drug addiction, and chronic illness, and people going to prison, and repetition of the trauma on the next generation. 

BL: Are there effective solutions to childhood trauma?

BK: It is difficult to deal with but not impossible. 

One thing we can do – which is not all that well explored because there hasn’t been that much funding for it – is neurofeedback, where you can actually help people to rewire the wiring of their brain structures.

Another method is putting people into safe environments and helping them to create a sense of safety inside themselves. And for that you can go to simple things like holding and rocking.

We just did a study on yoga for people with PTSD. We found that yoga was more effective than any medicine that people have studied up to now. That doesn’t mean that yoga cures it, but yoga makes a substantial difference in the right direction.

Trauma-Informed Care: School Counselors Take On At-Home Trauma In The Classroom.

BL: What is it about yoga that helps?

BK: It’s about becoming safe to feel what you feel. When you’re traumatized you’re afraid of what you’re feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness.  I think these body-based techniques help you to feel what’s happening in your body, and to breathe into it and not run away from it. So you learn to befriend your experience. 

RAD, DTD – What’s all the controversy about?

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 certainwe 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.

What can we agree upon?

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Footnote: http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/preprint_dev_trauma_disorder.

Originally posted by IACD.