Understanding the long-term impact of early childhood trauma

Published by IACD here.

When Amias was born, I was totally and immediately infatuated with him. I breast-fed and co-slept. I almost never used a stroller or carrier – he was always in my arms. At his slightest whimper, I was there. When he was a toddler, Amias hated the bright Florida sunshine in his eyes. He would hold up a palm to shield his face as he rode in his car seat. When I hung a shade from the car window with suction cups, Amias knew for sure his mom would always take care of him, even if it meant “moving” the sun for him.

My adopted daughter Kayla didn’t grow up in this type of loving environment.

As a baby and toddler, Kayla would cry and scream to get someone’s attention when she was wet or hungry. Sometimes she was cared for. Sometimes she was ignored. Many times, she fell asleep still wet and hungry – having finally exhausted herself.

Kayla, age 3.

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.

Raising a Child with Developmental Trauma

Published by Fostering Families Magazine (May/June 2019)

Three-year-old Devon, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, had big, chocolate brown eyes and was eager to please. His sister Kayla, 2, was feisty, with gobs of curly hair and dimples. During our pre-adoption waiting period, Kayla screamed for hours on end, seemingly for no reason at all, and couldn’t be consoled. I found Devon elbow deep in the toilet playing with his feces. At mealtime, he’d eat fast and furious then throw up all over the table. Once, I found Kayla hiding in the pantry and clutching a jar of peanut butter.

Despite all this, my husband and I jumped heart-first into the adoption. We understood these behaviors weren’t uncommon for foster kids. We believed all Devon and Kayla needed to heal was the love of a forever family.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple.

By referring to these concerning behaviors as “normal for foster kids,” it’s easy to lose sight of the why behind them. For example, Kayla was frequently left alone in her crib for hours as a baby. When she cried because she was hungry or wet, no one came. These experiences etched an innate sense of insecurity on her psyche. 

Devon lost his birth mother at 6 months when he was removed from her care and her parental rights were eventually terminated. His mind couldn’t understand, but his body absorbed the loss. 

Leading trauma expert Bessel A. van der Kolk uses the expression, “The body keeps the score,” to illustrate how the body remembers trauma with tragic, long-term impacts for kids like Kayla and Devon – even if they find a loving forever family.

What is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental trauma occurs when a child experiences chronic abuse or neglect before the age of 5. These are the years when the brain is developing rapidly and is particularly vulnerable. 

Trauma may disrupt a child’s sequential brain development, according to psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry. This can cause, for example, impaired cause-and-effect thinking and poor self-regulation. Their behaviors, emotions, and thinking are developmentally immature because they’re literally “stuck” at earlier developmental levels. 

Also, when a child experiences frequent activation of their fight-or-flight response due to abuse, their brains can be overexposed to the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, their fight-or-flight pathway may activate in even minimally threatening situations. Forrest Lien, executive director for the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, explains: “These children live in constant ‘survival mode’. They are hyper vigilant, do not trust others, and feel the need to control their environment at all times to feel safe. Therefore, they do not allow adults to parent them and cannot have healthy relationships.”

Devon and Kayla

Developmental trauma affects each child uniquely and its impact varies in symptoms and severity. The symptoms can include attachment difficulty, self-esteem problems, anxiety, sleeplessness and a lack of impulse control.

Kayla has overcome a math learning disability, has close friends, and is a creative and independent 15-year-old. However, the trauma symptoms haven’t disappeared entirely. She still sleeps on the floor instead of in her bed, and won’t eat in front of non-family members.

Devon, unlike his sister, falls on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum for developmental trauma. Now 17, he lives in a psychiatric treatment facility. He’s physically aggressive and has no close friendships. He has pending criminal charges for assault and will turn 18 with an 8th grade education. 

Early Intervention is Key

Like many foster and adoptive parents, I was unfamiliar with developmental trauma and didn’t know the warning signs. I only realized we needed professional help when Devon, at 9, karate chopped his adoptive little brother in the throat and pushed him down the stairs. Regretfully, those early missteps and missed opportunities exacerbated his condition. 

To determine if your child needs professional intervention watch for:

  1. Behaviors that don’t respond to discipline (particularly therapeutic parenting methods)
  2. Tantrums that last far past the terrible twos and threes
  3. Persistent struggles severe enough to interfere with home life, school, or friendships
  4. Feeling frightened for the safety of the child, yourself, or other children in the home

Trust your instincts and err on the side of caution. There’s no harm in getting a professional evaluation, while the cost of not getting help early can be devastating. If you delay, your child may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms including drugs, promiscuity, and self-harming.

Untreated developmental trauma can result in behaviors that cause kids to be expelled from school, institutionalized, or face criminal charges. Other siblings in the home are at high risk for primary and secondary trauma. Parents, especially mothers, may develop PTSD

This doesn’t have to happen. Your child’s future isn’t yet written. Early intervention can change their trajectory academically, vocationally, legally and relationally.

How to get help

The best place to start is with your child’s pediatrician – but be wary of the ADHD diagnosis they might dole out at first. While developmental trauma may cause attention deficits and poor impulse control, an ADHD diagnosis doesn’t tell the full story. Also, the stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD can exacerbate symptoms. Instead, ask for a referral to a psychiatrist for a comprehensive psychological evaluation and diagnosis.

Developmental trauma doesn’t currently map to any single diagnoses. As a result, your child will likely be given multiple diagnoses to fully cover their symptoms. These may include:

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (OD)
  • Sensory Processing Disorder
  • Developmental Delays
  • Learning Disabilities 

For a child with developmental trauma, these diagnoses are interconnected and need to be addressed in the context of the underlying trauma. For example, PTSD-like symptoms caused by developmental trauma requires different treatment than PTSD caused by combat according to Dr. van der Kolk. 

This is why it’s critical to engage clinicians who have experience working with traumatized children, foster kids, and adopted kids. Work with a psychiatrist to explore medication choices. Get an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in place at school to ensure your child receives the services and supports to be successful.

Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy fixes to developmental trauma, but there is hope with early intervention. 

Love is critical, but it’s not enough

Devon with adoptive brother Amias

Raising a child with developmental trauma can be incredibly difficult and isolating. The more you understand your child’s trauma history, and learn about the science of trauma and therapeutic parenting, the better equipped you will be to help your child heal. Join a local or online parents support group (I recommend, The Underground World of RAD or Attach Families Support Group), prioritize your self-care, and consider seeing a therapist if you begin to feel overwhelmed.

“Love and time will not erase the effects of early trauma,” says Lien. “The best first step is to secure the child in a healthy family but that is only the beginning.”

Children who have experienced developmental trauma desperately need the love of a forever family, but love alone isn’t enough. Get professional help early, before the behaviors and emotions grow too big and overwhelming.

15 Practical Self-Care Ideas for Parents

via Blog – Institute For Attachment and Child Development

A self-care list for the exhausted, frazzled, frustrated parents without a minute or ounce of energy to spare.

Buy little indulgences that help calm you. Nestle scented candles strategically throughout your home to provide scents for instant relaxation and calm. Pamper yourself with essential oils to make the most of your shower (perhaps one of the few moments of privacy you get).

Use simple tricks to feel better physically. Splurge on a really great refillable water bottle and stay hydrated to improve your overall energy and health. Stock up on grab-and-go healthy snacks (but don’t beat yourself up when you grab for a high-carb, high-satisfaction treat during a rough patch).

Look for support in the nooks and crannies of life (that can be so difficult to find from friends and family). Fill up your social media feeds with encouragement at your fingertips by following pages, people, and accounts that post motivational quotes and memes. Please, use the comments to share your favorites to follow.

Find creative ways to make up for enjoyable activities you don’t have time for anymore. Don’t miss your favorite shows. Consider DVR to enjoy them when you can sneak a few moments to yourself.

Seek the small feel-good moments in life. Open your curtains and let natural light nurture your mood and improve your concentration. Get your endorphins pumping by walking laps while your child is occupied in baseball, soccer, or football practice.

Make those few hours of sleep you get as rejuvenating as possible. Purchase a pillow that provides good support. Check out a Weighted Stress Blanket or neck wrap. (I sleep so much better with mine).

Don’t sacrifice your daily coffee even on the most chaotic of mornings. Use the app for your local coffee shop to order ahead and skip the line. (I use both Dunkin Donuts’ and Starbucks’ online apps to order ahead and earn rewards.)

Pamper yourself. Get a pedicure or manicure. Just a glimpse of my strawberry pink nails helps me feel good about myself even as I clutch the steering wheel, flip through paperwork, and wipe up messes. Drop in for a 15 minute walk-in chair massage at your local shopping mall for instant relief from tension headaches and tight muscles.

Escape into that guilty pleasure read with an audiobook. I’ve always got at least one audiobook* downloaded onto my phone for those endless hours of chauffeuring kids, sitting in waiting rooms, and idling in carpool.

Hire some help for everyday tasks. Look for a maid service to clean your bathrooms and kitchen every other week. This is a big bang for your buck in terms of getting a little relief. Don’t let lawn work be a time suck when there’s probably an eager teenager in your neighborhood looking for pocket cash.

Just say ‘no’ to extra activities and volunteer work you’re signing up for only out of a sense of obligation. It’s okay to prioritize yourself right now.

Ask for help that’s actually helpful when friends and family offer. Suggestions include, “Would you bring by a meal on Tuesday? Could you drop my daughter off at piano lessons this afternoon? When you swing by would you bring a gallon of milk?”

Surround yourself with people who support the incredibly challenging work you’re doing and limit time with naysayers. Don’t seek advice or support from people, even family members, who don’t ‘get’ the very real challenges you’re facing.

Join a support group. Online support groups can be a great way to feel less alone and get practical suggestions for busy parents. A favorite of mine is the private Facebook group The Underground World of RAD.

Be your own greatest fan. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Remind yourself of all the things you do well. Give yourself a generous ‘A’ for effort for those things you don’t do so well.

Photo by Pete Bellis on Unsplash

*  As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

A white mother on her black son: He’s treated differently

My Op-ed published by The Charlotte Observer

My biracial son Amias and his white cousin Jacob – middle school honors students – stood a few paces apart at a local shoe store . Clutching my debit card, Amias glanced at a Nike price tag as a store clerk approached. “You can’t be in here without a parent,” he said. Apologetically placing the shoe back on the display, Amias jogged to the exit then sat on a bench waiting while Jacob continued to browse uninterrupted.

When Amias asked why he was treated differently than his cousin, overt racism was an easy, but insufficient, answer. The clerk probably didn’t attend neo-Nazi rallies on his days off It probably wasn’t intentional at all. Instead he likely acted on an unconscious gut reaction. This type of implicit bias, the unconscious prejudice that underlies our actions, is tricky because it’s often subtle and ambiguous. Some argue it doesn’t exist. As the white mother of a black son, I assure you it does.

The compounding effect of implicit bias sets Amias’ future on an entirely different trajectory than that of his white cousin. According to a new study, Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States, even though Amias and Jacob started life on the same rung, Jacob has upward mobility while Amias is far more likely to fall down the ladder than climb up it.  Read more here.

Open letter to a therapist from a mom of a child with RAD

Dear Therapist,

I am desperate for your help. I apologize ahead of time if I seem angry and defensive. I’m just burnt out and afraid you won’t understand. My son is completely out of control and nothing works.

I’ve tried to get help before from therapists and teachers, even police officers, but no one understands. They all think I’m exaggerating, or maybe even lying. My own mother says, “He’s just a kid,” and can’t understand what I’m dealing with is way beyond normal, way beyond safe, and way beyond what I can handle. My son went through trauma at a young age and has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.

I’m not exaggerating when I say my son screams for hours. He’s torn his bedroom door off the hinges and put holes in his walls. His siblings are afraid of him. Sometimes I’m afraid he’ll burn down the house when I’m asleep.

When you meet my son, he’ll look like a very different child than he is with me. You’ll think I’m overreacting. I’m not. You see, my son is an expert at triangulating the adults around him. Due to his early trauma, he manages his surroundings and the people in them to feel safe. In doing so, he’s good at making everyone think I’m mean and crazy. Sometimes I start to believe it too.

I have a secret I should probably share with you—it’s true that I’m not perfect. I’m very aware of that fact. I’ve screamed at my son and lately I’m always angry and frustrated. I’m afraid to tell you this because you’ll think I’m a bad mom and blame me for everything. Most people blame me for my son’s problems. Yet, I’m the one person whose life has been turned inside out and upside down to try to help him.

[bctt tweet=”Even though I’m not a perfect mom, I’m still a good mom trying my best. ” username=”RaisingDevon”]

I’ve turned into an unhappy, negative, impatient person whom I don’t even recognize anymore. Sometimes I wonder if I have post-traumatic stress disorder, but feel stupid suggesting that dealing with a child could cause PTSD. It would be helpful for you to encourage me to get some therapy for myself.

Even though I’m not a perfect mom, I’m still a good mom trying my best. Before we get started, here’s what you need to know (because my son will tell you otherwise):

    • I feed my son three meals a day, plus snacks.
    • I don’t hurt my son.
    • I’m not the one who rips up his homework and throws it away.
    • He locks himself in the closet under the stairs. I don’t and wouldn’t ever do that to him.
  • Our house isn’t haunted, he’s not best friends with Justin Bieber, and he’s not going to live with his birth mom next week.

My son will tell you things in individual therapy that will take up all of our time to untangle.

In the meantime, we’ll be distracted from working on the really serious problems for which we need your help. This is why I’m going to insist on being present during all therapy sessions. Please understand it’s not because I have something to hide. I just want to keep things from getting worse than they already are.

Typical parenting strategies like sticker reward charts don’t work for my son. We’ve already tried all sorts of behavior modification strategies. I can’t ignore my son’s negative behavior either. I can’t just watch him hurt himself, his siblings, or destroy everything we own.

Please understand, our family is in crisis.

This is an emergency. We need help and we need it fast. That play therapy you do in the sand…I don’t know, maybe it works for some kids–but not for him. I’m not trying to be unreasonable; I just know what doesn’t work. If you don’t have experience working with trauma-exposed kids, please refer us to someone who does. I understand this is a very specific and serious issue that not all therapists have expertise in.

I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help my son heal and to fix our family. Please help us.

Sincerely,

Keri

Originally posted by the Institute for Attachment and Child Development here.

When a mom struggles to love her child

Originally published by the Institute for Child Development.

Carol was bitter and angry—on edge. Shortly after we met through a mutual friend, she told me about her three adopted sons. She adored her youngest son. The older two were regularly suspended from elementary school, lied incessantly, and threw screaming fits daily. They teased and bullied her 10-year-old daughter.

Her husband Ted listened to us and nodded patronizingly, as if Carol was exaggerating or over-sensitive. He sighed and said that he had told her how to fix the issues but she wouldn’t listen to him. Like my son, Carol’s boys were good in front of their dad. And, like my husband, Ted just didn’t get it.

I know Carol’s desperation well because I lived it myself for years. I told Carol and Ted about adopting siblings Devon and Kayla from foster care. Devon’s behaviors had grown so extreme and dangerous he was now living in a residential treatment facility. He was ten. “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep him there,” I told them. That’s how bad life had been with Devon at home.

I confessed that, although I feel a strong sense of responsibility for Devon, I don’t love him.

Carol burst into tears. I struggled to make out her words through her gasping and sobbing. She said that she didn’t love her two boys and she’d never been able to say it out loud. It was a dark secret she kept, afraid of what others would think.

I’d kept the very same secret as Carol for years, smothered beneath a plastered smile. Love came surely and steadily with Kayla. But it never did with Devon. I was sure something was wrong with me and was driven nearly mad in my quest to love him. I struggled to bond with this little boy who spit in my face, kicked and hit me, threw objects at me, destroyed my home, dismantled my marriage, and tormented my other children.

People understand why a woman wouldn’t love an abusive husband or partner. But this is a child.

We don’t like to admit that even a young child can perpetrate domestic violence. In fact, well-meaning family, friends, and professionals insist that all these children need is love from a “forever family.” With these platitudes condemning us, adoptive mothers struggle to find help.

Carol and I kept what was happening in our homes a secret. Here’s why—

  • We didn’t realize we were being abused. We refused to believe it’s happening because child on parent violence is taboo in our society.
  • We felt responsible. We believed our children would behave differently if only we could be better mothers.
  • We believed things can change. We kept trying to fix it, holding onto hope that we can keep our adoption dreams alive.
  • We feared how others would react. We worried about letting down family and friends who have supported our foster care or international orphan adoptions.

It took years to get help for myself and Devon. Eventually, I learned he had gone through early childhood trauma and he was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). While not all children with RAD are violent, some can be.

In my own therapy, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the relentless stress of raising a child with RAD.

I came to understand that my emotions of anger, frustration, exhaustion, and bitterness were normal. My therapist helped me see that feeling love for a person abusing me–even a child–was not natural, normal, or healthy. It’s unfair to expect adoptive mothers to love children with these extreme behaviors and issues. Faking-it-until-you-make it in front of friends, family, and professionals is not the answer. “It’s unreasonable to force a parent to bond with a child whose behaviors have led to his or her PTSD,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments.” These mothers need compassion, understanding, and support rather than shame and guilt.

[bctt tweet=”The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments. These mothers need compassion, understanding, and support rather than shame and guilt.” username=”RaisingDevon”]

With the proper support and therapy there is hope for healing. There are treatments for kids with RAD that can help them learn to have healthy relationships. Their adoptive families can come to embrace and genuinely care for them. Keeping our uncomfortable, but true, feelings a secret makes it harder, if not impossible, to get the help we need.

For the sake of Carol, and countless other moms who have been shamed into the shadows, I choose to be a silence breaker. I’m not proud that I don’t love my son in that emotional way, but I’m no longer ashamed.

6 Steps to protect yourself from false allegations

Published by Institute for Attachment & Child Development

A sweet little kindergartener, with a Blues Clues backpack and big brown eyes, Devon went to school every morning with a hungry belly. At least that’s what he told the bus driver, his teacher, and the cafeteria ladies. When I got the call from his school, I was positively indignant. Not only did Devon eat breakfast every day, but he usually had seconds.

Within a few years, Devon’s lies had become dangerously calculated deceptions. “I’m gonna hurt myself and tell them you did it. They’ll arrest you,” he’d say cooly, before punching himself in the jaw. Other times he’d twist the tee-shirt he was wearing round-and-round, cinching it against his neck until it left a puffy, red ligature mark. He’d accuse me of strangling him.

Unfortunately, many children with reactive attachment disorder are capable of false allegations. “Due to early trauma, children with reactive attachment disorder feel safe when they can control their environments and push away people who try to get close to them,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “False allegations are one way for them to achieve both.”

Even if we understand the diagnoses and social histories that prompt our children’s false allegations, however, being lied about can be infuriating and hurtful.

A child’s allegations, however outrageous or unlikely, will be investigated. 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. “By law, police officers or child protective service workers investigate all allegations of child abuse, as they should. Child abuse allegations need to be taken seriously,” says Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “On the other hand, it’s also harmful for children to falsely accuse adults of abuse charges.” The consequences of false allegations can be devastating if our children, master manipulators, manage to convince a guidance counselor, therapist, or police officer they’re telling the truth. Parents can unjustly face jail time and lose their children without reason.

Here are 6 steps you can take to protect yourself and your family if your child makes false allegations against you:

1. Keep a daily log. I use small notebooks that fit easily in my purse and document conversations with social workers and teachers, write notes after therapy appointments, and record details of any behavioral incidents. I also write down what my son eats for breakfast, what activities we do, and what time he goes to bed. The key is to be consistent and document even the mundane. Your log will be much less credible if you only log when an incident occurs.

2. Gather documentation. To establish a pattern of behavior, keep school disciplinary records, ask people to follow up on calls with an email, and, if your child is admitted to a treatment program, request their records when they are discharged. These documents may have mistakes or minimize your child’s behaviors so comb through them and request any corrections. Discuss false allegations with your child’s therapist. Your child may admit the truth to them and this can be documented.

3. Don’t lose your cool, or your credibility. When a therapist, teacher, or others bring an allegation to your attention, listen. Breathe. Keep the frustrated tone out of your voice,  don’t jump to defend yourself and never exaggerate. Sometimes you’re going to find yourself in a she said–he said and your credibility will be everything. A non-defensive response might sound like: “Gosh, I fed Devon eggs and toast this morning, but thanks for letting me know that he told you he hadn’t eaten. If he ever does miss breakfast, I’ll be sure to email you so we’ll be on the same page.”

4. Use video/audio recordings (sparingly). This is a tricky one that can backfire. First, remember that your words and actions on any recording will be judged, probably more harshly than your child’s. Second, you may be accused of provoking your child by recording them, especially if they scream at you to stop. In a few instances, I’ve been successful flipping my cell phone recorder on without my son seeing it. Give that a try.

5. Don’t go it alone. If things are spinning out of control, call a family member or friend to come over to act as a witness. Sometimes you may have to resort to desperate measures. For example, my son currently lives in a group home and I’ve refused to have visitations with him unless we are in a room with cameras and a staff member. We’ve had to cancel and reschedule visits because of this, but I cannot risk being alone with him.

6. Have a backup plan. Have a contingency plan so your other children do not end up in foster care if social workers remove them during an investigation of a false allegation. My sister and her husband have agreed to take my children if this should ever happen to me. It’s a worse case scenario, but you need to be prepared with a plan.

Though my son has hurled devastating false allegations against me, I’ve been able to avoid the worst potential outcomes by being proactive and meticulous about documentation. It’s extremely sad that I’ve had to do so. Yet, it’s a devastating reality that many parents of children with reactive attachment disorder must face to save their families.

Here’s a great resource with advice and information: Responding to Investigations Manual

3 Reasons Traditional Parenting Doesn’t Work With Kids From Trauma.

For years I pulled out my hair not understanding why my parenting strategy was working with my birth and other adopted children, but not with my son, Devon. NOTHING worked. Learning that traditional parenting methods don’t work with kids who have a trauma background was a milestone for us, something I wish I’d know much earlier than I did.  How to work with these kids is counter intuitive. Check out this great post by adoptive parent Mike Berry

via 3 Reasons Traditional Parenting Doesn’t Work With Kids From Trauma. | Confessions of an Adoptive Parent

How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

It’s the million-dollar question. How do we manage the behavior of children with RAD?

Therapeutic approaches can seem scarily permissive. Meanwhile, traditional parenting approaches backfire spectacularly.

At the root, most behaviors children with RAD engage in are intended for self-preservation – by sabotaging relationships and controlling their environments. It’s unlikely, however, that they’re introspective enough to be consciously doing this. These underlying motivations are etched like scars on their psyche.

Most likely, the in-your-face motivations of these kids are far more concrete. For example, our kids may be arguing incessantly because:

  • it’s a habit like biting their nails or spinning a pencil
  • they want to test our boundaries to see how flexible the rules are
  • they don’t really care about anyone else’s feelings or needs
  • they love to push our buttons and get a reaction

When we’re in the trenches trying to manage these behaviors it’s sometimes difficult to embrace therapeutic parenting approaches because they seem to discount these in-your-face motivations entirely. Instead, they focus completely on the underlying, unconscious motivations.

[bctt tweet=”I’ve had therapists tell me that my son has no control over his behaviors – as if they’re as involuntary as a sneeze. I sure know that’s not the case.” username=”RaisingDevon”]

Yes, in the real-world of RAD parenting, we know the in-your-face motivations are every bit as real as the unconscious, underlying motivations. In fact, they’re what make the behaviors so painful to deal with emotionally. As a result, parents often focus on the in-your-face motivations and find themselves angry, frustrated, and easily triggered.

Let’s consider that in many children, both sets of motivations co-exist.

For example,

My child is arguing just because they enjoy pushing my buttons. It gives them a feeling of control which they unconsciously crave because they intrinsically believe the world is unsafe.

When we look at the motivations for the behavior more holistically like this we are able to have greater empathy, more patience, and find energy to invest in long-term approaches. Below are some resources I’ve found useful for specific strategies and approaches. Please be sure to comment and share what’s working for you.

Recommended Resources


The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting

Sara Naish’s book “The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting” it a balanced approach that’s both therapeutic and practical. She covers behaviors from Absconding to ZZZZ (sleep issues) and everything in between. For each behavior she helps us understand the broad range of reasons why a child might be doing it. She also provides strategies to prevent the behavior, to manage it in the moment, and to address it after the fact. These suggestions are refreshingly practical and obviously written by someone who has been in the trenches themselves. Read my full review or pick up a copy here: The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting.


How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder-2

How-to blog post

Check out this excellent post on how to discipline a child with RAD. This is one of the most complicated topics related to RAD. Most ‘discipline’ is ineffective and it can be quite risky.

How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder – Every Star Is Different

Believing “children are resilient” may be a fantasy | Psychology Today

How did resilience become a standard? How did we come to view children almost as nuisances who just need minimal support? How did children’s needs become dismissable?

via Believing “children are resilient” may be a fantasy | Psychology Today

Social Services: Beat Burnout

Mental health “workers” are chronically overworked, underpaid, and not appreciated. “Workers,” given a variety of job titles, are the day-to-day staff who work in group homes and residential treatment facilities, and provide some in-home services. Unlike licensed clinicians and supervisors they’re in the trenches with us and our kids. They’re often just as exhausted as we are.

[bctt tweet=”It’s a sad truth we must face: even the most well-intentioned worker doesn’t have the capacity to give our child the quality care they otherwise would if they’re burnt out. ” username=”RaisingDevon”]

A few summers ago Natasha was one of our Intensive In-Home services workers. She was absolutely wonderful and dedicated to our success. She was on call 24-7 and when Devon flew into a rage she would hurry over, once rolling straight out of bed in her pajamas. “You go on and do your stuff,” she would say waving me away. “I’ll take care of him.” Natasha knew how much control Devon had over our family during his rages. It was debilitating, keeping me from my job and Devon’s siblings from soccer practice. Natasha was determined to put a stop to it. Day-after-day she spent hours shut in the garage or a back room with Devon while he screamed and raged.

While this respite breathed some life back into me, Natasha burnt out before my eyes. She was working 60+ hours a week plus taking paperwork home every night. Her employer was sometimes ‘late’ on her paychecks and she was over loaded with clients. 

It’s a sad truth we must face: even the most well-intentioned worker doesn’t have the capacity to give our child the quality care they otherwise would if they’re burnt out. 

Here are some ways you can counteract mental health worker burn out and make sure you child receives the highest quality of care possible.

Be Kind–Be polite. Often these workers can’t control the things that are upsetting you so it’s unfair to yell at them. Compliment them when you’re impressed with their work, or even just to tell them you like their new haircut. Offer the in-home workers a cool drink and snack. It is these in-the-field, on-the-ground workers that can make a huge difference in the quality of services your child receives so investing kindness is well worth it.

Do Your Research–Carefully research the agencies you receive services from. In most cases, the ones that can “get you in right away” are the ones to steer clear of. A long waiting list, or at least a few weeks wait for an intake appointment, bodes well for the quality of service you can expect. Ask for referrals from your pediatrician. It can be difficult to find people to ask for personal recommendations when you are first starting to get services, but once you’re “in the system” you’ll find yourself sitting in a lot of waiting rooms chatting with other parents. Take advantage of these opportunities to ask about their experience with various agencies even if you aren’t currently looking to switch services.

Demand Quality Service–Your first priority is your child. Don’t accept sub-standard services! When you first start services with any provider they hand you a stack of papers that outline your rights and the policy to file complaints. I used to dump those in the trash as I walked out of the building, but now I know how valuable they are. You need to know what you are entitled to and what procedures to follow if you need to escalate a complaint. If it becomes necessary, switch agencies or providers in order to get better services. Also check for a parent advocate organization in your area. They can refer you to services and will send an representative with you to meetings to advocate on your behalf.

Whenever you can, advocate for better working conditions for mental health workers. Our kids are only going to be safe if workers are qualified, well-trained, and fairly compensated. Not long ago, there was a riot in a psych facility in my area and the workers were blamed for not handling the situation better. I wrote an op-ed suggesting that we’re asking too much of these entry-level, hourly employees and that working conditions must be improved. You can read my full op-ed here: Charlotte Observer/Don’t blame workers for psych center woes