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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.
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.
|Physical aggression to mother||71%|
|Physical aggression to siblings||66%|
|Physical aggression to pets||46%|
|Weaponizing bodily fluids||39%|
|Physical aggression to others||37%|
|Physical aggression to father||26%|
- 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.
|Lack of boundaries||85%|
- 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.”
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.
- 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.
Are you parenting a child who came to you from hard places? If your child is suffering from the effects of early childhood trauma, also called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), they may have extreme behaviors that seem impossible to manage.
Unfortunately, you may not fit into typical parenting support groups. Your child’s behaviors and emotions may be so extreme that other parents can’t relate. As their parenting-101 and common sense advice falls flat and over time, their lack of understanding can feel an awful lot like blame.
You may be feeling:
Developmental trauma (often diagnosed as Reactive Attachment Disorder) is a very serious disorder that requires specialized and specific treatment. You’re unlikely to find the support you need in typical mommy-and-me, ADHD, or other types of parenting support groups. The approaches to those parents use may not be effective with your child.
First, know you are not alone. There are thousands of us going through the same things. It’s just difficult to find each other and connect for support.
So where can you find the support and community you so desperately need? One fantastic option is a private online support group. Here are the two I like to recommend, and am most active in. (Tell them that I sent you!)
These groups are for parents and caregivers only and have strict confidentiality rules. They are a great place to ask for advice, vent, and feel understood. However, always keep in mind that only conversations with your attorney (and sometimes your therapist) are legally privileged).
You don’t have to do this alone!
I opened the closet door to find my son Devon squatting in the shadowy darkness with a belt looped loosely around his neck. He was 9. Confident that he wasn’t actually trying to hurt himself, and was only trying to get attention, I hid my fear. I knew if I showed my alarm, he’d be more likely to do it again. And again.
“Stop being silly,” I said in as carefree of a tone as I could manage. I took the belt, which wasn’t even buckled, from him. Unfortunately, in spite of my nonplussed response, his behavior escalated until I had no choice but to bring him to the mental health emergency room.
The intake nurse explained to me that he was experiencing “suicidal ideations,” that is thoughts or plans to commit suicide. “But he’s not actually thinking of harming himself,” I insisted, surprised by her diagnosis. “He wouldn’t even know how to kill himself with a belt. He’s only nine.”
Looking down her nose at me, the nurse said, “We don’t really know that, do we?”
It’s a complicated scenario faced by many parents of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) – kids like Devon who are sometimes willing to up the ante sky-high, even threatening self-harm and suicide. This is because kids who have RAD are desperate to control the people and situations around them. While there are certainly some who are suicidal, it’s not uncommon for kids with RAD to use these behaviors as a coping mechanism, with no genuine intention of harming themselves. And, the payoff can be huge. They avoid consequences, side-step difficult conversations, garner sympathy and attention, and gain control of virtually any situation.
My son, now 16, routinely threatens to kill himself over the smallest of triggers – breakfast cereal he doesn’t like, being told no, having to wait his turn. He’s attempted to slit his wrists with paper cuts, tried to hang himself using a belt on a closet rod, and tried to strangle himself with his shirt. Perhaps the scariest incident was when he climbed to the top of the rail of a second floor stairwell at school and threatened to jump. During the subsequent suicide assessments, Devon always admits he was bored, mad, or frustrated – not actually wanting to kill or hurt himself. Therapists, nurses, and social workers who have witnessed these incidents agree they are motivated by a desire for attention or a desire for control. We also all agree that the attempts are inherently dangerous, regardless of his motivation.
In some cases, his behavior is deliberate and calculated. Other times, it’s caused by dysregulation, lack of cause-and-effect thinking, and poor impulse control. In these situations, it has been helpful to me to remember that my child’s innate need to control situations and people is borne of childhood trauma. I am better able to respond from a place of empathy when I keep in mind the neglect or abuse that has causes my child to go to such desperate lengths.
What to do
Though the initial incidents of suicidal ideation are alarming, parents of kids with RAD can become weary and calloused over time. It is, after all, counterintuitive to give credence to threats that seem designed to manipulate or control, but these behaviors are simply too serious to ever be minimized or ignored. Even if you’re 1000% certain your child has no intention to kill himself, you must take suicidal ideations seriously every time, and here’s why:
You may be misinterpreting the situation and they may really desire to harm themselves.
They can accidentally hurt themselves, even if that’s not their intention.
These behaviors are clearly indicative of an underlying problem that needs to be addressed.
If your child is having suicidal ideations here are some steps you can take to keep them safe and find a way forward.
Know what mental health resources are available in your area including contact information, hours, and crisis services offered.
Be vigilant. What this looks like in your home will be unique to your situation, but it may include locking away knives, removing belts, or installing collapsing closet rods.
In the Moment
De-escalate the situation at all costs in order to stop your child from endangering themselves.
Lower your expectations – now’s not the time to quibble about tone of voice, cursing, and other unacceptable behaviors. Your only goal is to keep your child safe.
Seek emergency help by calling a crisis team or taking your child to the mental health emergency room. In some cases, you can schedule an emergency session with an outpatient therapist.
After the fact
Follow-through with recommendations for therapy, medication management, and other services.
Identify and address underlying triggers.
Update your safety plan based on the latest episode.
When our children use suicidal ideations to manipulate and control situations it can be tiresome and frustrating. It’s easy to begin reacting to these behaviors like we do any other attention-seeking behavior. But, with suicidal ideation the risks are simply too high. Always take them seriously and make safety your priority.
“It’s like living in a prison. We can’t go anywhere. All doors are locked. Alarms everywhere. We can’t have friends over. Stuff goes missing. We’ve all had black eyes, split lips and bite marks…we’re the ones who suffer.” – Grace, 14, on living with a sibling with reactive attachment disorder.
Grace’s experience is not uncommon for siblings of children who fall on the moderate to severe range of reactive attachment disorder (RAD). The dysregulation and other challenges of RAD restrict family activities, cause stress and chaos, and require a disproportionate amount of parental attention and energy.
Siblings are too often the overlooked victims of the disorder.
I initially thought that adopting another child would enrich the lives of my other kids. I certainly never imagined that it’d be a traumatizing situation. For years, my children were routinely exposed to scary outbursts and stressful conflicts. They were humiliated and embarrassed at school – especially after their brother who has RAD punched a teacher in the stomach. They missed out on sleepovers, birthday parties, and were late to basketball and soccer practices. Doing my best in the moment – surviving – I didn’t realize how difficult things were for them until much too late. They had internalized fear, anxiety, and anger.
Doing my best in the moment – surviving – I didn’t realize how difficult things were for them until much too late. It was only later that I realized how traumatized siblings internalize fear, anxiety, and anger.
The struggles and emotions of brothers and sisters of children with RAD—siblings like Grace—can best be understood through their own words. I put up a post on two online Facebook support groups to gather those sentiments. In those posts, I requested parents to ask their children what it’s like having a sibling with RAD. I’ve included their responses throughout this article and only edited their comments for grammar.
Living in Fear
Many siblings are trapped in a perpetual state of anxiety and vigilance, fearful for their own safety and the safety of their parents. They’re often targeted with physical aggression and witness terrifying situations.
Here’s what siblings are saying:
“I can feel her getting all angry and I get worried and feel a little sick in my stomach. When she gets really bad and is yelling and screaming and hitting you [mom] I feel upset that I can’t stop her, that I can’t protect you from her.” – Chad, 10
“Mommy, I am scared. She hurts me.” – Susie, 6
“Is the door locked?” – Jake, 15, sleeping on his parent’s bedroom floor with his 10 and 12-year-old brothers.
“I’m scared she’s going to do something to me. But I won’t let her know I’m scared.” – Mia, 11
“I wish she could live somewhere else. I don’t like her anymore. She’s never nice.” – Ava, 4, whispered to her mother afraid her sister with RAD would overhear and retaliate.
“No, Sis!” – Emma, 2, screamed in a nightmare after watching her 12-year-old sibling with RAD physically attack her mother.
“Why is she always so mean to me? She’s always hateful and yelling at me.” – Ashley, 10. A middle child, Ashley also has a brother with RAD. Of him she says, “He lies to get me in trouble. He hits me and threatens to kill me and swears at me.”
What you can do
Put alarms on sibling’s doors to help them feel safe. Give them the option of sleeping on a daybed in your bedroom. Make a concerted effort to minimize their exposure to violence and danger with an escape plan out of escalating situations. This may mean calling grandma to be picked up, going outside to play or another option that works best for your family.
For many siblings, family life can be highly dysfunctional and confusing. This can lead to a warped view of normal family relationships with devastating, lifelong impacts. Siblings often struggle to differentiate the person from the disorder and come to hate their brother or sister who has RAD.
Here’s what siblings are saying:
“She always says she’s sorry and goes right back to being so happy when I’m still hurt. I can’t trust her anymore because she always says she won’t do it again and then usually does in the very same day.” – Beth, 10
“I never want children of my own. What if something goes wrong and they end up like her? I just couldn’t handle raising a child like that!” – Marie, 29
“Mom, does he have to come home? You are so much nicer when he is gone.” – Brandon, 12
“Sometimes I feel like no one can see me because my mom and dad give [my sister with RAD] constant attention.” – Honor, 6, who after having to help out with her RAD sister says she never wants to have children.
“It breaks my heart to hear my baby sister say she hates me and is going to kill me tonight! It’s not fair.” – Samantha, 15, said weeping.
“They’re always mad, sad, and don’t like their mom or dad, and lie all the time.” – Addison, 10, on why all siblings are bad.
“Don’t you get it? She is a horrible person.” – Kayla, 12, when she found her mom sobbing over something her sister with RAD said.
What you can do
Let siblings be honest about their feelings and don’t minimize their experiences. Find a good therapist who can help them process and gain some perspective. An outside person, like a therapist, can help them develop empathy and compassion while maintaining healthy boundaries.
Many people think that time apart is counterintuitive in helping a child with RAD and their family heal and attach. Yet, it’s quite the opposite with the right model.
Losing their childhood
Siblings don’t live the carefree lives of others. They miss basketball practice and piano lessons when their sibling flips into a rage. They aren’t able to go on family vacations and outings are often cut short. Their treasures and toys are broken. Their allowance is stolen. For them, growing up can be less than ideal and full of heartache and challenges.
Here’s what siblings are saying:
“I’m only 10-years-old! I’m too little to have to deal with this stuff!” – Ethan, 10, once a happy-go-lucky boy who is in therapy.
“It was depressing and exhausting. I was never allowed to have fun.” – Michael, 10, who has been in therapy for the last two years.
“It feels like living in a minefield. Looks peaceful and nice one minute, war zone the next.” Jeffrey, 8
“I never get to have friends over and I missed my best friend’s birthday party. I already had a present and had to give it to her at school on Monday.” – Abby, 11
“They have no idea what it’s been like!” Skylar, 8, cried after neighborhood kids blamed her when her sister with RAD, 11, was removed from the home. Her sister was removed because she was planning to murder Skylar and her family.
“I can’t wait to move out.” – Hunter, 17. When Hunter’s sister Ava, 10, also traumatized by their sibling with RAD heard this she said, “You can’t leave me here with her!”
“Sometimes it feels like it will never end.” – Emma, 15, who has started cutting to “release” the pain, is severely depressed, and has lost 40 pounds in the last year after witnessing the tantrums, explosions, anger, aggression, violence, and threats of a sibling with RAD.
Siblings don’t live the carefree lives of others. They miss basketball practice and piano lessons when their sibling flips into a rage. They aren’t able to go on family vacations and outings are often cut short…For them, growing up can be less than ideal and full of heartache and challenges.
What you can do
Enlist family and friends to help siblings with rides to practice, science fair projects, and other important activities. When accomodations cannot be made, acknowledge your child’s feelings and validate them. Enroll them in camps. Let them stay with grandma or auntie for long vacations to get a break and enjoy their childhood.
Many parents, myself included, are so consumed with the minute-by-minute challenges of raising a child with RAD that they underestimate, or don’t fully recognize, the impact on siblings. It was only after my son was admitted to a residential treatment facility that I began to fully understand how his disorder had impacted my other children. To this day my youngest son who lived in fear of his brother for the first five years of his life is highly anxious and at age 11 is afraid to sleep alone. I often wish for a do-over.
When assessing treatment options for your child with RAD, be mindful of the needs of siblings. Many people think that time apart is counterintuitive in helping a child with RAD and their family heal and attach. Yet, it’s quite the opposite. “Time apart allows the parents and other children to heal from their own trauma while, at the same time, kids with RAD learn how to attach and to live in a family,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “When the children return to their own families after the Institute, everyone is stronger. They can live together safely. We’re strengthening families so they don’t fall apart forever.”
Don’t make the mistake of imagining siblings are coping and doing okay. Don’t, like me, realize only once the damage has been done. There are no perfect answers, but understanding how RAD impacts siblings is a good starting place. Don’t let them be collateral damage.
Don’t miss these posts:
Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of these children.
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Also published by The Mighty (upcoming)
Nearly half of America’s children are exposed to one or more adverse childhood experiences (ACES). ACES include being neglected or abused, witnessing domestic violence, having a substance addicted or incarcerated family member, and being forcibly separated from a primary caregiver.
Children with a single ACE often have positive long-term outcomes. However, as ACES begin piling up, they can have very serious long-term impacts. This is most common among kids who have spent time in foster care and in high-risk families.
Chronic ACES that occur before a child reaches the age of five can cause “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert and researcher Bessel van der Kolk.
Trauma and Brain Development
Developmental Psychopathy, the study of how trauma impacts the development of the mind and brain, is an emerging field. What we do know is the impact of trauma depends on what stage of brain development the child is in when they experience the trauma.
For example, if a child experiences chronic trauma at six months this is the peak of primitive brain development. Limbic brain development is underway and the cortical brain is in the beginning stages. Chronic abuse or neglect at this time has the potential to affect the primitive brain functions including coordination and arousal.
In addition, because the brain develops like sequential building blocks, any impairment of the primitive brain may cause the limbic and cortical brain to not develop normally. In this way, trauma can cause a devastating domino effect.
It’s important to understand developmental trauma is a brain injury. It’s caused by chronic trauma endured in the first five years of life when the developing brain is most vulnerable.
Diagnosing the effects of Developmental Trauma
Unfortunately, there’s no single diagnosis in the DSM-5 (the manual used by clinicians to diagnose mental illness) that covers all the symptoms of developmental trauma. For this reason, kids are often given several different, seemingly unrelated diagnoses.
A few of the most common are:
• Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
• Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
• Sensory Processing Disorder
• Anxiety disorders
• Learning Disabilities
• Developmental Delays
• Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
Visualize each of these diagnosis as their own umbrella with the associated symptoms beneath. Kids with developmental trauma are often balancing two, three, or more of these umbrellas. It’s not uncommon for a child to be diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD, RAD, and ODD – or any number of other combinations.
Unfortunately, this diagnostic method is a disservice to children who have developmental trauma.
Let’s take ADHD as an example. The ADHD diagnosis is for kids who have persistent symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity that manifest in more than one domain, for example both school and home. ADHD is caused by a, often hereditary, chemical imbalance. Stimulant medications work because they increase certain chemicals in the brain.
Kids with developmental trauma may also be inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive. However, the symptoms are not caused by a chemical imbalance as they are with ADHD. They are caused by underdeveloped and impaired brain functions or an over-sensitive fight-flight-freeze response. Stimulant medications can exacerbate other symptoms of developmental trauma.
Unfortunately, ADHD is not the only insufficient diagnosis commonly given to kids with developmental trauma. In many cases this can result in a child receiving ineffective treatment. Worse still, these diagnoses may mask the real issue and it will go untreated.
Developmental Trauma Disorder
To better serve children with developmental trauma, Kolk has proposed adding a new diagnosis to the DSM called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD). The new diagnostic criteria requires exposure to chronic trauma before the age of 5. This diagnosis would fully encompass the symptoms of developmental trauma bringing them under one umbrella.
The DTD diagnosis would enable clinicians to more accurately diagnose developmental trauma. In addition, comprehensive treatments for DTD could be developed. This an area of neuroscience Dr. Bruce Perry is pioneering with his Neuro Sequential Model of Therapeutics. His approach includes mapping of underdeveloped brain functionality and a process to stimulate healing in the order of natural brain development.
Largely due to political and financial forces, the DTD diagnosis was not included in the latest version of the DSM. Advocates are working to have it included in the next revision which is several years away. In the meantime, parents must know how to successfully navigate the current diagnoses to get their child proper treatment.
Getting your child the best care
Because DTD is not in the DSM, it is not an official diagnosis and not covered by health insurance. Until this changes your child will be given other diagnoses to fully describe his or her symptoms.
Here’s what you can do to ensure the best treatment:
- Early intervention is key so seek professional help as soon as you recognize there may be a problem or become aware of your child’s trauma history.
- Go ahead and accept the alphabet soup of diagnoses. These are essential to get health insurance coverage for the very expensive treatments and therapies your child may need.
- Get a psychological evaluation from a psychiatrist. If you know your child has a history of trauma, don’t settle for an ADHD diagnosis from your pediatrician. Ask for a referral to get a full evaluation.
- See a psychiatrist for medication management. For your convenience, most pediatricians will continue refilling prescriptions once the patient is stabilized. However, get started on the right foot with a psychiatrist.
- Seek out therapists and other practitioners who have experience working with traumatized children.
As your child’s primary advocate, it’s critical for you to keep the entire team focused on the trauma underlying his or her symptoms. Learn all you can about developmental trauma and keep it at the forefront when you discuss your child’s treatment plan with mental health professionals, educators, therapists, and pediatricians. These steps will ensure your child gets the best treatment available.
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.
Yes, in the real-world of RAD parenting, we know the in-your-face motivations are every bit as real as the unconscious, underlying motivations. In fact, they’re what make the behaviors so painful to deal with emotionally. As a result, parents often focus on the in-your-face motivations and find themselves angry, frustrated, and easily triggered.
Let’s consider that in many children, both sets of motivations co-exist.
My child is arguing just because they enjoy pushing my buttons. It gives them a feeling of control which they unconsciously crave because they intrinsically believe the world is unsafe.
When we look at the motivations for the behavior more holistically like this we are able to have greater empathy, more patience, and find energy to invest in long-term approaches. Below are some resources I’ve found useful for specific strategies and approaches. Please be sure to comment and share what’s working for you.
The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting
Sara Naish’s book “The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting” it a balanced approach that’s both therapeutic and practical. She covers behaviors from Absconding to ZZZZ (sleep issues) and everything in between. For each behavior she helps us understand the broad range of reasons why a child might be doing it. She also provides strategies to prevent the behavior, to manage it in the moment, and to address it after the fact. These suggestions are refreshingly practical and obviously written by someone who has been in the trenches themselves. Read my full review or pick up a copy here: The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting.
How-to blog post
Check out this excellent post on how to discipline a child with RAD. This is one of the most complicated topics related to RAD. Most ‘discipline’ is ineffective and it can be quite risky.
Annie watched in horror as Charlie, red-faced with rage, snatched a picture frame off a wall and slammed it against the bedpost. The glass shattered. He picked up a long shard and brandished it like a dagger. Stalking towards Annie, he growled, “I’m gonna kill you.”
This type of abusive behavior in relationships is far too common. 29% of women and 10% of men in the US will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Child protective services investigates more than three million reports of abuse and neglect annually. However, Charlie and Annie’s altercation isn’t included in either of these statistics.
That’s because Charlie is a 13-year-old boy. And Annie is his mother.
What the parents living next door may be hiding
Like Annie, I’m the mother of a son who acts out. Both our boys are products of the foster care system, adopted as toddlers, and who are diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Conduct Disorder (CD), serious behavioral disorders. They have both received medication and thousands of hours of treatment, but nothing has helped.
When Annie and I tell friends, family, and mental health professionals about our sons’ behaviors, we are met with disdain and disbelief. In the same way many sex abuse victims are treated, parents like us are blamed and shamed into silence. We have been forced underground, into private Facebook groups where we find non-judgemental support from thousands of other parents in similar situations.
Four years ago, Lillyth Quillan founded the online parent support group, Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder. She says, “More than 1,000 families have come together to share their stories; to know they are not alone. They are emotionally raw and shredded to the marrow at how they’ve been treated and not believed by close friends and family.”
How many families this affects
The general public assumes these situations, where children are violent towards their parents, are isolated to a handful of sensationalized episodes of Dr. Phil.
This is simply not the case.
While the anecdotal evidence of children with serious disorders abusing their parents is abundant, quantitative data is desperately lacking. This is why I recently surveyed more than 200 parents of children diagnosed with, among other behavioral disorders, RAD and CD. This type of informal survey is an invaluable way to begin to understand the scope of the problem.
According to my survey, Are You In An Abusive Relationship? more than 90% of the respondents are in chronically abusive relationships – and the abuser is their child.
- 93% say their child threatens them, other family members, or pets with physical violence.
- 65% say their child grabs, hits, kicks, or otherwise physically assaults them.
- 71% say their child hides their behavior from others and blames them for their outbursts.
These aren’t merely numbers; each one is a tragic story. Here are just a few of the examples shared anonymously by survey respondents:
“My son purposely hurts the cat to get my attention.”Anonymous parents
“My daughter attacked me with a steak knife.”
“My son choked me and broke my wrist.”
These findings show that it is alarmingly common for children with serious behavioral disorders to abuse their parents.
When children abuse their parents
Intentional Child to Parent Violence (I-CPV) is deliberate, harmful behavior by a child to cause a parent physical or psychological distress. These are purposeful behaviors intended to gain control over, and instill fear in, parents. I-CPV takes many different forms and varies in severity. It is often chronic and usually directed at the child’s mother figure. 
One surveyed mom has a moon-shaped scar on her forehead from her 14-year-old daughter grabbing her by her hair and slamming her face onto the stove. Another mom says her son tried to push her down the stairs and makes homicidal threats towards her.
Parents like these sustain physical injuries and may develop mental health disorders including PTSD. They are isolated from friends and family. Their marriages can become irreparably damaged. They frequently lose jobs and friends. Other children in the home suffer secondary, if not primary trauma.
Without highly specialized treatment, the child perpetrating the abuse will not get better. Far too often, it becomes necessary to have them institutionalized, or end up incarcerated, for the safety of their siblings, parents, and themselves.
Hypervigilance – and fear – are common for parents in these situations. One mom describes how, “Before my son was taken to the hospital, then jail, and then a treatment center, I had to sleep with my door locked and a chair jammed under the knob because he knows how to pick locks.” She suffers with PTSD after years of chronic abuse.
Why children abuse their parents
While there is no one clear “cause” leading to antisocial behaviors like I-CPV, there are a number of underlying factors to consider. Perhaps the most significant is “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, MD. When a child is chronically neglected or abused at a young age, their brain development may be impacted, causing long-term issues sometimes including physical aggression. This is called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) and is commonly diagnosed as CD or RAD.
While developmental trauma can explain much of RAD, not all children who are violent towards their parents have a trauma background. Some children from nurturing families are diagnosed with CD. Psychologist Stanton E. Samenow, PhD specializes in working with juvenile offenders and says early identification of emerging antisocial behaviors is key. He points to a study that found “aggression at age 8 is the best predictor of aggression at age 19, irrespective of IQ, social class or parents’ aggressiveness.”  He believes, regardless of environment and parenting, children become antisocial by choosing the bad behaviors that eventually become an entrenched pattern.
As a parent, I don’t believe these are mutually exclusive views and find both to be informative. My son has a history of developmental trauma. As a result he struggles with impulsivity, attachment, and cause-and-effect thinking. At the same time, his behavior is not involuntary. He is making a choice when he acts aggressively and knows right from wrong.
Why families can’t get help
Even once parents understand the complexity and seriousness of the abuse taking place, there is nowhere to turn for help. Unfortunately, the systems designed to protect victims of other types of abuse don’t have a mandate to protect the victims of I-CPV.
Most domestic violence shelters are for intimate partners, and, for example, offer no help to a mother whose son or daughter beats her. Advice commonly given to victims of domestic violence simply doesn’t work. Take for example the following from the online article, “What to Do if You Are in an Abusive Relationship“:
1. Talk with someone you trust
Parents are rarely believed by friends, family, teachers, and mental health professionals. Instead, they’re blamed for their child’s misbehavior and labeled bad parents. One mom says, “My son can be incredibly sweet and charming when he wants to be. My friends, his teachers – my own mother – don’t believe my 9-year-old son is dangerous because he’s so good at hiding his behavior.”
2. Call the police if you are in immediate danger
Parents receive little assistance from police, especially if their child is under the age of 16. They also hesitate to press charges knowing incarceration is not the “treatment” their child needs. One mother called 911 after her son beat her. The officer said to her son, “It’s okay, Buddy, you’re not in trouble. Let’s talk.” The next time her son beat her, she ended up in urgent care.
3. Make a plan to go to a safe place such as a shelter
Despite their child’s abusive behaviors, parents are still legally and morally responsible for them. Even if parents want to seek safety, their hands are tied. “If I were treated this way by a man,” says one mother, “I would have left long ago. But because this is my daughter, my options are limited.”
Unfortunately there are no good solutions for these parents, and no quick and easy cures for their children. Few therapists and mental health professionals are equipped to offer the highly specialized treatment needed. While there are promising advances in neuroscience, emerging treatments are not accessible for most families. They’re expensive, rarely covered by health insurance, and unavailable in most areas.
Out of all the families she’s worked with, Quillian says only one family has ever received appropriate treatment. “One. One family experiencing what I believe to be the absolute bare minimum of care. One.”
What needs to change
I-CPV isn’t merely talk-show fodder. It’s happening behind closed doors in your neighborhood. It’s happening in Annie’s home. It’s happening in mine.Intentional Child on Parent Violence (I-CPV) isn't merely talk-show fodder. It's happening behind closed doors in your neighborhood. These parents need support and viable treatment options for their kids. Click To Tweet
While the US lags behind, there appears to be growing awareness of I-CPV in the UK where a new domestic abuse bill includes I-CPV. US citizens can support these families by asking their legislators to draft similar legislation which would not only provide legal remedies, but more importantly, facilitate funding for research, prevention and treatment.
We need viable treatment options for our children, as well as resources to combat the violence and destruction we face in our daily lives,. We need help and the support of our communities. That begins with a national dialogue about I-CPV and viable treatment options for serious behavioral disorders.
Parents deserve the same support and understanding that all victims of abuse deserve. Until then, they will suffer physical and psychological harm while their child faces a lifetime of relational, educational, financial, and legal struggles.
It can be challenging to Christmas shop for kids who are living in residential treatment facilities (PRTFs, RTFs, or group homes). There are almost always restrictive rules about personal items along with special rules for Christmas gifts. For example, in most facilities electronics, candy, and hardback books are not allowed.
So what can you give your child for Christmas? Below is a list curated from parents who have successfully navigated the holiday season while their child is living in an RTF.
But first, here are some tips.
- Gifts deemed inappropriate or against policy will likely be thrown away and not returned to you.
- Most facilities do not allow wrapped gifts because they need to approve the items.
- Often gifts must be dropped off on a specific day.
- You may not be allowed to open Christmas gifts with your child. If this is important to you, ask their therapist about doing so during a family therapy session or home visit.
- Kids in higher level facilities aren’t allowed to have “dangerous” item which may include shoe laces, belts, hard back books, calendars with staples, etc.
- Ask the facility if your child will be getting additional gifts from local charities or the facility. As you shop, it can be helpful to know if you are supplementing gifts or supplying all your child’s gifts.
- Plan for the gifts you buy to be lost or destroyed. Shop at Walmart and don’t give expensive gifts. Label what you can with your child’s name.
- To successfully navigate Christmas gift giving with the least amount of frustration and waste, email your child’s therapist your planned gift list ahead of time for approval.
Christmas Gift List
(For kids in RTF)
- Stuffed animal
- Markers and coloring books
- Dot to Dot books
- Playing cards
- Family Pictures
- Art Supplies
- Basket ball
- Soccer ball
- Foot ball
- Hygiene supplies
- Hair bands
- Pillow case
- Picture book of “happy” memories
- Paperback books
- Teddy bear
- Funky Socks
- Magic 8 Ball
- Comic books
- MP3 Player/iPod Shuffle with no internet access
- Crazy Aaron’s thinking Putty
- Blanket – burrito etc
- Calendar (no staples)
Please let me know your additional ideas so I can add to this list!
A few thoughts about realistic expectations…
Kids with developmental trauma, especially those diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) are likely to turn any situation into a power struggle, including their Christmas gifts.
Even if you give them a gift they’ve been asking for – that you know they’ll love – you can expect them to:
- Tell the therapist they know you aren’t planning to give them any gifts because you don’t love them.
- Complain to staff about the gifts they do get, and say they don’t like them.
- Destroy the gifts even if they love them and desperately wanted them.
It may feel personal, but it’s simply how your child relates to the world because of the lasting effects of early childhood neglect and abuse. Unfortunately, you may end up feeling manipulated, lied about, coerced, and judged. It can be tempting to withhold gifts because of these behaviors or because your child is not cooperating with treatment, but that’s not a good strategy.
First, keep in mind that it will be very difficult to execute. Staff will likely compensate by giving your child extra gifts creating an opportunity for triangulation.
Additionally, your child’s therapist will almost certainly see your lack of gifts as a sign you are a cold, and unloving parent – and the focus of your child’s treatment will be side tracked.
Most importantly, your child will internalize feelings of rejection and this will not be a learning lesson no matter how well-intentioned you are. Jessie Hogsett, who was diagnosed with RAD as a child, reminds us that our child’s actions aren’t necessarily reflective of what’s going on inside. He says “I remember being in an RTF during Christmas. So lonely. And I felt totally unwanted. Horrible times. A gift would have made me feel wanted, special, and thought about.”
So, plop on your Christmas hat, sip a peppermint latte, and go shopping.
Learn about a Dad’s struggle with awareness and acceptance of a Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) diagnosis and helpful tips to overcome the challenge of accepting related Developmental Trauma Disorders.
At my teenaged kids’ insistence, I took them to watch Joker in the theater, expecting a typical action-packed, comic book movie – not a genre I typically enjoy. Instead, I sat in the darkness, stunned to near-tears by it’s devastating portrayal of how early childhood trauma and untreated mental illness can spiral into tragedy.
The poignant film explores the backstory of comic book villain Joker: a man named Arthur Fleck who has a disturbing past and a troubling present. It is a compelling and nuanced portrayal of untreated trauma and mental illness.
Joker is incredibly violent and disturbing, certainly earning its R-rating, but at the same time reflects a reality we are already seeing in our society today. Early childhood trauma is at epidemic levels. Our mental health system is in disarray. We aren’t meeting the needs of the vulnerable around us and sometimes violence and tragedy are the price we pay as a society.
There’s a huge amount of controversy swirling around the film and it’s portrayal of mental illness. After watching the movie, I believe the real controversy we should be focused on is why we don’t have affordable, accessible, effective treatment for mental illness and early childhood trauma!"You think Joker is controversial? What's really controversial is that we don't have affordable, accessible, effective treatment for mental illness and early childhood trauma." – Keri Williams Click To Tweet
*** Spoilers Below ***
In the film, Joker, we meet Arthur Fleck shortly after he’s been discharged from a mental health institution. He’s receiving mediocre city mental health services, living in poverty, and attempting to build a semblance of a life for himself.
While the film does not specify all of Arthur’s diagnoses, his symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and feelings of despair, loneliness, and worthlessness. Arthur’s one obvious diagnosis, Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), fits of uncontrollable laughter, results in severe bullying. We also learn Arthur was abused and neglected by his mother during early childhood. This included severe head trauma as well as psychological and emotional abuse. Arthur has never been able to access the treatment he needs to manage his condition, much less heal, or thrive. He’s completely lacking social skills, unable to hold down a job despite his best efforts, and even with medication, unable to feel happy or optimistic.
Unfortunately, Arthur is not simply a far-fetched character. We have “Arthurs” living and breathing all around us – in our daycare centers, classrooms, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Early childhood trauma is a hidden epidemic affecting millions of people. While victims of early childhood trauma and/or people who have mental illnesses aren’t necessarily violent, the combination of untreated trauma and mental illness with psychosis can be dangerous. Furthermore, high-risk children are not receiving effective treatments in residential treatment facilities. They are aging out ill-equipped to function in the adult world and at high risk of criminal behavior and incarceration. Like Arthur, most of these individuals want to be happy. They want to have good lives. However, we, as a society, fail them by not providing effective, affordable, accessible treatments for trauma and mental illness. Like Arthur, these people struggle to navigate even the basics of life.
Arthur, though teetering like a wobbling house of cards, is trying to build a life for himself. He’s trying to find some happiness. But it’s obvious to the viewer that he simple doesn’t have the resources or skills to do so. And so begins Arthur’s devastating spiral that should be a warning for us all.
- Arthur loses his services (therapy, medications, etc) due to city financial cuts.
- He’s fired from the job he loves – sure he made a mistake, but he’s given no mercy or compassion.
- He follows his dream to be a comedian, and falls flat. He’s mocked mercilessly.
- He’s physically assaulted for laughing (his Pseudobulbar Affect) and in self-defense shoots and kills two men on a train. In a panic, he kills another.
- He’s cruelly rejected by the man he believes to be his birth father.
- He learns his mother abused him as a child and anger that has been festering in his unconscious for decades surfaces.
The spiral tightens. Arthur is drawn to the rioters who praise him as a vigilante for the killing on the train (which was in fact, self-defense). He becomes more violent and murders several people. In his mind, his path has become inevitable as all other doors – all other options – have slammed closed in his face.
Does this not reflect the crumbling path of so many young people in our society today? People who struggle on the edge of society: to hold down a jobs, to form relationships, to find their next meal, or place to sleep. This instability is the fate of so many people who have experienced early childhood trauma and/or are mentally ill because they are unable to access effective treatment and services. Is it any wonder that they are hopeless, desperate, and caught in a downward spiral? Is it any surprise that some end up engaging in criminal behavior? That some act out violently?
Towards the end of the movie, Arthur has fully transformed into the Joker. Wearing chalky make-up and a sardonic smile, he sits on a talk show stage and casually confesses to the train murders, Before shooting the talk show host point-blank in the face, Joker says, “I’ve got nothing to lose. Society has abandoned me.” And we can’t disagree: He has got nothing to lose. Society has abandoned him.
It only takes thumbing through the headlines to know that far too many of our most vulnerable have been abandoned by society and with nothing to lose have picked up guns and lashed out violently too. Read more about one recent incident here. This will continue until we prioritize affordable, accessible, effective treatment for early childhood trauma and mental illness.
NOTE: In case it wasn’t clear in this post, I am not saying that mental illness or childhood trauma lead to violent behaviors. What I am saying is that untreated mental illness and untreated childhood trauma can put people on a dangerous spiral.
Recently I’ve seen several headlines about schools who are introducing yoga as a way to address student behaviors. The West Fargo Pioneer (link no longer available online) explains this way:
Behavior issues stem from a multitude of reasons. However, studies show that students today are more likely to experience trauma and have mental health needs, increasing the likelihood of classroom disruptions and behavioral issues.
In a classroom of 20, one or two students on average will be dealing with serious psycho-social stressors relating to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, or a psychiatric disorder, according to the Child Mind Institute.
This type of stress can shorten periods of brain development and limit brain growth in early years, making it harder for students to regulate emotions and concentrate on learning.
And while schools can’t control students’ experiences outside the classroom, they can help students learn how to cope with stress and regulate emotional outbursts. Social-emotional curriculum aims to help students recognize and deal with emotions and tackle the increased presence of stress and trauma.
It’s absolutely true that every classroom has children who have experienced trauma. Early childhood trauma is an epidemic. It’s absolutely true that these experiences affect a student’s ability to learn and cope in school. It’s also absolutely true that some students will benefit from yoga. It will help by,
- Reducing stress
- Improving concentration
- Increasing self-esteem
- And more…
This is why PBS suggests Managing School Stress by Bringing Yoga Into the Classroom. And Education Week applauds Ditching Detention for Yoga: Schools Embrace Mindfulness to Curb Discipline Problems.
Great ideas, however news articles like these give the impression that yoga is an inexpensive, quick fix for childhood trauma. For kids on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum, this simply isn’t the case.
Here’s the problem
Many kids with developmental trauma are so dysregulated they cannot follow instructions or calm themselves enough to even choose to participate in yoga. A 10-year-old who flips desks, curses at the teacher, and fights with other kids is likely not able to safely or effectively participate in yoga.
Furthermore, kids who have extreme behaviors and emotions may be extremely disruptive during yoga activities. This can cause other students to be unable to focus and benefit from the exercises. A 6-year-old who refuses to follow instructions, pesters other kids, and runs around in circles, will disrupt the entire atmosphere.
If a child has a cold, a spoonful of honey does wonders. However, that same spoonful of honey is not able to cure a child who has strep throat. Here’s the ugly truth about trauma: Some kids who have experienced trauma have needs far beyond what a spoonful of honey can heal. Without comprehensive and specialized treatments, these children are unlikely to benefit from yoga at school. They probably won’t even be able to successfully participate.A spoonful of honey soothes a sore throat, but it can't cure strep throat. Yoga in schools is wonderful, but kids with developmental trauma need comprehensive, specialized treatments. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions. Click To Tweet
I cringe at the “yoga in school” headlines because they minimize the devastating, often debilitating, effects of trauma on our kids. Most people who read the articles, or just skim the headlines, will assume childhood trauma is easily treated.
Don’t get me wrong – I applaud schools incorporating yoga into their curriculum and behavior programs because it can be helpful to so many children. However, yoga cannot curb extreme behaviors caused developmental trauma. It is a far more complicated and challenging issue.
Let’s get our kids to a healthy place where they can benefit from yoga. You can help by learning how trauma effects kids and sharing our video to help raise awareness for the need for accessible, affordable, and effective treatments.