Developmental Trauma and Psychosis


When my son Devon 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 Devon 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 Devon 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.

95% of adoptive parents jump in heart-first, but unprepared

Our recent Facebook poll showed up to 95% of adoptive parents are not sufficiently trained on developmental trauma and the related diagnoses including Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

Survey by @RaisingDevon March 2019

While adoptive parents don’t understand the scope and magnitude of developmental trauma, they do do expect children coming out of foster care to have some issues. Among the adoptive and fostering communities, these are considered “normal for foster kids”:

These issues are indeed common among foster kids, but normalizing them is a problem.

Because parents are told these behaviors are normal, and will diminish once the kids are safe in their “forever home,” they don’t raise the alarm bells they should. We often lose sight of the fact these behaviors are usually symptoms of neglect or abuse.

All children adopted out of foster care or international orphanges have, by definition, experienced one or more adverse childhood experience (ACES). ACES are traumas including being separated from a caregiver, physical abuse, neglect, and more. Unfortunately, most adopted children have more than one ACE which can cause developmental trauma when experienced by a child before the age of 5. During those formative years, their brains are rapidly developing and so particularly vulnerable.

According to one study documented in The British Journal of Psychiatry, nearly 50% of children from deprived backgrounds (and from foster care) may meet the diagnostic criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

YET only 5% of adoptive parents are trained to recognize the signs of developmental trauma and get help for their child.

This is a staggering lack of pre-adoptive training considering the high likelihood (as high as 50%) their child will have developmental trauma.

Here’s what parents are saying about the lack of pre-adoption training

In foster parenting training we were told about RAD but that it was so rate that it was not worth much discussions as we would likely never see it in our home.”

Micci

We knew RAD was a likely thing when we started fostering, not because our agency bothered to tell us, but based on our own research.

Adrienne

We knew and were trained and immediately sought help through a therapist we were already using. It didn’t change a thing though. She still tried to have me killed this past November. All the resources, professionals, etc didn’t make it any better.

Christina

I recognized something was wrong on day 2. It took me 10 months of researching to find what it was.

Julia

Yes I knew, but NO I was completely unprepared for the extent to which the challenges would be.

Laura

We adopted 15 years ago and were told nothing and knew nothing about RAD. I should add that I am a medical professional and was never taught anything about this.

Nancy

We were not taught about it. In fact we were not even told he had been diagnosed with it. Of course we were told that he had had Leukemia and would need follow ups.

Beth

Love alone is not enough

While few pre-adoptive parents are trained on developmental trauma and RAD, they are consistently told “these kids only need the “love of a forever family” to heal and thrive.” While it’s true they need love in a forever family, love alone is not enough.

Just as love cannot heal a broken arm, strep throat, or leukemia – love alone cannot heal developmental trauma. Developmental trauma is a brain injury that requires highly specialized treatment.

Without adequate training, parents are unprepared to recognize the symptoms and get the early intervention these children so desperately need. Sadly, far too many families are already in crisis before they get professional help. In some cases the children end up institutionalized or incarcerated. Other families are forced to trade custody for mental health care. Some adoptions fall apart.

These are preventable tragedies, in many cases, if only pre-adoptive parents were trained and prepared.

What parents need in pre-adoptive training

For adoptive children to thrive, our pre-adoptive training (often called MAPP classes) must be reformed. The information needn’t be told in a way that scares away prospective adoptive families. But it does need to be comprehensive and allow each family to honestly evaluate their ability to care for a child from hard places. It also needs to equip parents to recognize when they need professional help and to know how to get it.

Prospective adoptive parents ned to walk away from training with:

  • A comprehensive understanding of developmental trauma – the science of trauma, the risk factors, and potential impacts to the child.
  • A familiarity with the hallmark symptoms of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).
  • Practical training on the how-to of therapeutic parenting.
  • A full understanding of the warning signs that a child needs professional help.
  • Guidance for how and where to find help.

Parents must understand that they are not able to heal developmental trauma on their own. Let’s give them the information, community supports, and mental health resources they need to successfully help their child heal and thrive.

Resources

If you’re an adoptive parent who wasn’t provided with training on this important topic, here are some resources to check out. More resources are listed on our Resources for Parents page.

Support Groups

(Let them know @RaisingDevon sent you!)


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 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.