Tag: Reactive Attachment Disorder

Demons and Saviors: The unexplored side of Hulu’s documentary on Christina Boyer

The Missing Piece: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

Hulu’s documentary on Christina Boyer (formerly known as Tina Resch) raises puzzling questions that seem to defy answers: 

  • Did teenage Christina Boyer possess paranormal powers? If not, what was really going on?
  • How could someone remembered as a selfless mother kill her own 3-year-old daughter?
  • Why hasn’t Christina given up claiming innocence after 30 years, even when it hinders her chance for parole?

The answers to these questions may lie in a little-known but serious mental health disorder called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). 

The Unfamiliar Crisis: What is RAD?

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is a rare but devastating mental health disorder caused by early childhood trauma. It is most common among people who have spent time in foster care or have been adopted. Newly identified by psychiatry in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Christina was growing up, it was virtually unknown to parents and many clinicians. Decades later, RAD remains relatively unknown compared to other mental health disorders, but is a significant crisis within adoptive and fostering communities. 

Children suffering from RAD struggle to form healthy attachments with adults and display a spectrum of symptoms ranging from aggression to manipulation. They may have violent outbursts, weaponize bodily fluids, or fly into uncontrollable rages. Their indefatigable need for control stems from a lack of safety and trust due to neglect and abuse they experienced before the age of five.

Recognizing RAD in Christina: All the hallmarks

Christina’s story exhibits several key hallmarks of RAD, including: 

Childhood Background: Time in foster care, adoption, neglect, and potential abuse, all of which are high-risk factors for RAD.

Behavioral Traits: Aggressive tendencies, extraordinary destruction during tantrums, superficial charm, manipulation, and controlling behavior. 

Family Dynamics: Parents’ anger and frustration, descriptions of potential demon possession, alleged false claims of abuse, and consideration of re-adoption.

Misdiagnosis: Misinterpreted symptoms, misdiagnosed and treated as hyperactivity (ADHD) instead of RAD

As the parent of a child with RAD, I immediately recognized the intangible and nuanced clues of the disorder throughout the documentary’s clips and pictures. The aftermath of her rages, her beguiling nature, and the enamored reactions of adults who interacted with Christina are all consistent with RAD.

RAD: A Complex and Nuanced Disorder

Christina’s situation reflects a profound misunderstanding of the impacts of early childhood trauma during her time, particularly as her parents came to believe she was demon possessed and turn to exorcisms. Today RAD is still misunderstood and often not properly diagnosed.  

Though there’s no indication that Christine was diagnosed with RAD, there are specific indicators in her case.

Manipulation: Convincing lies and control over adults and professionals. Learn more here.

Violence: Potential for destructive rages and physical assault. Learn more here.

Family Impact: The frustration, fear, and desperation seen in her parents. Learn more here.

These signs are compelling evidence that Christina likely suffered from RAD, though it remained undiagnosed.

A Closer Look at Christina’s Story

Taken through the lens of undiagnosed RAD, Christina’s story represents a web of trauma, psychological struggles, and societal misunderstandings about early childhood trauma. It challenges us to consider how the system failed her, and continues to fail troubled children and their families.

This is my interpretation of the story, based on my understanding of the facts as well as the potential impact of early childhood trauma.

A tragic tale retold: Christina’s story viewed through the lens of RAD

Born in 1969 to a drug-addicted mother, Christina is abandoned at just 10 months old and placed into foster care. At the age of two, she’s adopted by Joan and John Resch. Despite the love and care Christina finds in her new home, her early months have already scarred her in hidden ways that will shadow her entire life. She’s suffered neglect at the hands of a substance-addicted mother, and erratic care that leaves her emotionally wounded. Even if her removal to foster care rescued her from neglect and abuse, being taken from the her birth mother is a traumatic loss nonetheless. Christina is too young to understand what’s happening around her, but her body and subconscious mind are permanently crippled with feelings of insecurity and chaos.

The prevailing wisdom of the time wrongly assures Joan and John that Christina will be fine because of her young age, but the damage is done. The neglect and abuse Christina suffered during her formative years likely have caused her to develop Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

By the time she turns eight, the signs are unmistakable. Christina’s tantrums spiral out of control. She’s aggressive and disruptive at school. Misunderstanding her condition, medical professionals prescribe medication for hyperactivity which only exacerbates the symptoms. Christina’s outbursts are more than mere tantrums – she “boils over” into destructive rages of extreme emotion that leave her parents bewildered.

Years go by, and Joan and John’s frustration grows as they struggle to parent Christina. Conventional methods fail them, and their home becomes a battlefield of screaming fights. They turn to corporal punishment, timeouts, and religious reprimands. Nothing works.

The year 1984 arrives, and Christina is now 14. Mysterious occurrences begin to plague the family home: lights flicker on and off, the television changes channels by itself. John and Joan suspect Christina of playing pranks, but she eludes them, fueling their fears that she may be demon-possessed. In the grip of the satanic panic of the era, they resort to an exorcism, clinging desperately to any solution. Christina, aware of her parents’ religious beliefs, exploits their fear to gain control over them.

Word escapes to the media, and Christina becomes a sensation. Her alleged paranormal abilities draw attention from journalists, psychiatrists, and investigators. Her flair for manipulation, combined with the public’s hunger for the supernatural, makes her all the more compelling. When psychologist William Roll moves in to observe, Christina’s charm beguiles him and he becomes entangled, disregarding obvious signs of deceit.

Dr. Roll takes Christina to North Carolina for additional research, and she senses his disappointment as she fails to perform paranormal feats for him. She is returned to her troubled home and alleges abuse by her parents. Unable to cope, her family tries to put Christina back up for adoption or in a juvenile detention facility.

At 16, Christina runs away, marries, and gives birth. Independence brings temporary happiness and the paranormal activity subsides. Her marriage becomes abusive, however, and she leaves her husband. When faced with the challenges of single motherhood, Christina leverages interest in the paranormal for attention, support, and empathy. Frighteningly, the alleged paranormal activity threatens the safety of the child.

Christina’s frustration at her situation grows and she struggles with her unresolved anger and trauma. Her discipline of her child becomes abusive. Perhaps she allows her boyfriend to abuse her child as well. Her three-year-old daughter dies of chronic child abuse – and it’s ruled as murder.  

Christina’s grief at her child’s death is wrapped in self-pity. What matters most to Christina, is Christina. She takes an Alford plea to avoid the death penalty and for the next 30 years doggedly maintains her innocence. While those working for Christine’s exoneration see this stubborn clinging to her version of the truth as evidence of actual innocence, extreme denial is common for people with RAD.

What About The “Paranormal” Events?

Christina’s “paranormal” powers became a media sensation. This begs the question: Could a 14-year-old carry out such an elaborate fraud?


Kids with RAD are often clever, manipulative, and extremely convincing in their ability to garner attention and gain control over people and situations.

Photo: ABC News

Debunking the Phenomenon

The Floating Phone Photograph: UPI Science reports that the famous photograph of a phone hovering over Christina is a hoax. The photographer, influenced by his religious beliefs and confirmation bias, chose to hide additional photographs that prove the phone was thrown. A contemporaneous Indianapolis Star article offers further details. 

The Lamp Incident: According to the Hulu documentary, and other sources, a news crew captured footage of a lamp flying off a table in 1984. Later review of the footage revealed Christina throwing the lamp when she thought no one was watching. 

The Lack of Evidence: Investigator James Randi further concluded that the activity was a hoax, as no paranormal activity was witnessed or caught on film, even by Dr. Roll who moved in to observe. He said this paranormal activity “turned out to be so elusive that no one ever actually saw a single object even start to move of its own accord.” 

Lab Testing: According to Christina’s recollections in the Hulu documentary, when she underwent extensive testing in North Carolina, the paranormal events ceased. 

Manipulating Perceptions: “Eye witnesses” in the documentary did not actually witness paranormal activity. For example, hypnotherapist Jeannie Leagle adoringly shows the audience the silverware supposedly bent by Christina’s psychokinesis — but she only saw the objects after the fact. Similarly, a friend tells of how she was sitting in one room of the house and suddenly saw a piece of bent silverware fly through the air from another room. The most reasonable and logical conclusion is that Christina was manually bending the silverware.

But, why would so many people believe her?

Media Sensation: The public interest in paranormal events and confirmation bias led journalists to favor the interpretation of paranormal activity over the logical explanation of a troubled teenager perpetuating a hoax.

Professional Bias. Professionals working with Christina, eager to study paranormal activity, suffered from confirmation bias. They ignored facts and acted unprofessionally, even as RAD children are known for their ability to manipulate mental health professionals. 

Satanic Panic: During a time rife with fear of occult activity, called the Satanic Panic, the community was primed to believe in spiritual causes for the paranormal events.

Parental Desperation: Frustrated and overwhelmed, Christina’s parents found it easier to believe in demonic possession rather than face their own perceived failures as parents. Later, the hype around paranormal activity brought positive attention and notoriety to the family.

Career Benefits: Many who attested to Christina’s paranormal powers saw financial and career gains (selling books, professional expertise, notority), making retraction unlikely as it would dramatically impact their credibility. 

Conclusion: Where do we go from here?

The story of Christina and her supposed paranormal abilities unravels to reveal a deeper and more tragic truth when we consider the early childhood trauma underpinning it. It’s a narrative shaped by human frailty, societal obsession with the supernatural, professional malpractice, and likely an undiagnosed mental health condition: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). 

The key to unlocking this tragic tale lies in recognizing the implications of early childhood trauma and understanding the troubling threads that weave through our child welfare and mental health systems. Even after 30 years, these systems still fail to provide adequate prevention and treatment for the outcomes of early childhood trauma, including conditions like RAD. Sadly, there are too many cases today that lead to similar tragedies like the death of Christina’s daughter.

The story of Christina is not just a haunting tale from the past or a fascinating true crime binge watch; it’s a call to awareness and action. To learn more about Reactive Attachment Disorder, visit www.raisingdevon.com and www.radadvocates.com.

What are your thoughts on Christina Boyer’s story and the potential connection to Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)? Have you experienced or seen the effects of RAD in your own family or community? Share your insights, opinions, or questions in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!


Blanco, Juan Ignacio. “Tina Resch: Murderpedia, the Encyclopedia of Murderers.” Tina Resch | Murderpedia, the Encyclopedia of Murderers, murderpedia.org/female.R/r/resch-tina.htm.

Christina Boyer, www.christinaboyer.org/.

“The Columbus Poltergeist.” Skeptoid, skeptoid.com/episodes/4448.

“The Columbus Poltergeist: How a 14-Year-Old May Have Bamboozled Media.” UPI, 9 Apr. 1985, www.upi.com/Archives/1985/04/09/The-Columbus-Poltergeist-How-a-14-year-old-may-have-bamboozled-media/4116481870800/

“Demons and Saviors.” Hulu, 3 Aug. 2023, www.hulu.com/series/demons-saviors-05b16187-192e-40f3-b65a-399ac01f4f2a

Mann, Sophie. “‘demons and Saviors’ Hulu Documentary Looks at ‘Poltergeist Girl’ Christina Boyer Who Claims She Was Possessed as a Teen and Later Found Guilty of Murdering Her Three-Year-Old Daughter despite Not Being Home at Time.” Daily Mail Online, 5 Aug. 2023, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12366591/Demons-Saviors-Hulu-documentary-looks-poltergeist-girl-Christina-Boyer-claims-possessed-teen-later-guilty-murdering-three-year-old-daughter-despite-NOT-home-time.html

Wiki, Contributors to Unsolved Mysteries. “Tina Resch.” Unsolved Mysteries Wiki, unsolvedmysteries.fandom.com/wiki/Tina_Resch.

Here’s what being a RAD mama looks like…

In addition to being a RAD mama, I’m also a chicken mama. This is Chicken Nugget, my favorite hen (she was named by one of my kids, not me!). She’s a Buff Orpington and very friendly so I like to pick her up and carry her around with me when I am feeding my flock.

Recently I noticed a bald spot on her chest. It looked painful, like some feathers had been broken off and plucked out.

After doing some research I learned this is a called a “broody patch.”

“Broodiness” is for hens what “nesting” is for expecting mothers. When hens are broody they are wanting to be mothers. It’s when they’ll sit on eggs to hatch them. Broody hens will pluck the feathers from their chest and abdomen so their skin can be in direct contact with their eggs to better keep them warm with their own body heat.

This broody patch is a picture of the extreme self-sacrifice made by moms of kids with RAD. We want so desperately to take care of our children that we go to great lengths, to our own personal loss and detriment, to comfort them, help them, and heal them. Sadly, it’s often not enough because RAD isn’t something that can be cured by a mother’s love.

Worse, our sacrifice is not recognized as the mother love it is. As we stand in front of therapists, teachers, family and friends, broken and damaged from giving everything — we are criticized, blamed and shamed.

You may not be able to change the opinions of others, but you can be kind to yourself and use this powerful visualization to reject blaming and shaming.

If you’re a RAD mom, you can find help and support here.

5 reasons why this book is perfect for anyone in your life who doesn’t “get it”

I wrote my story, But, He Spit in My Coffee, with your family and friends in mind. I wrote it for your child’s therapist, teacher, and daycare worker. Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is a complex and nuanced disorder that is unlike any other common childhood illness. And the system is broken in ways that are hard to fathom unless you are forced to try to navigate it yourself. Our lives are literally unbelievable, which is why we are not believed – and why we struggle to put together the support system we so desperately need.

This is why I wrote my story in a way that would enable the reader to experience for themselves the nuances of a family in crisis and to see for themselves the dysfunctions for the system that is failing our families. This, I believe, is how we change hearts and minds.

Here are 5 reasons why But, He Spit in My Coffee is perfect for anyone in your life who just doesn’t “get it.”

It reads like a novel

Unlike traditional memoirs, this book reads like commercial fiction and gives people who do not have personal experience with RAD an immersive experience. It is written in the popular first-person, present-tense format which puts the reader in the story and allows them to feel like they are experiencing the story in real-time.

This book is well-written, engrossing and memorable. I couldn’t put it down. It gripped me from start to finish.
Chick Lit Café

My son gave his permission

Some of the first and loudest criticism of RAD parents telling our stories is about invasion of privacy[i] which can immediately shut down the conversation. However, I received permission from my son before publishing and he has benefited financially from it. I tell readers this in the FAQs of the book which serves to reassure readers and preempt this criticism, keeping the focus on the issue of the broken mental health and child welfare systems.

It’s realistic, but not gratuitous

The book is non-fiction and the events are true, but it does not cover every detail of our lives. Remembering the target audience does not have personal experience with RAD, it is important to show the range of RAD symptoms and problems, but the book also needs to be readable. Those readers are not going to slog through a book that is too heavy or unnecessarily gratuitous. This balance means that, for example, describing 3 tantrums is enough for the reader to “get it,” even though we endured 300.

This is an important read for those who have out of control kids but also for those who don’t… It makes us less likely to blame the parents without knowing what we are talking about.
SMS Non Fiction Book Reviews

It’s professionally produced

Many of our friends and family, and especially service providers are looking for reasons to dismiss the RAD resources we provide to them. According to Writer’s Digest But, He Spit in my Coffee is “exemplary and of professional quality” in terms of cover design, voice and writing style, structure, and pacing[ii] which sets it apart from many other Indie books. In addition, there is a professionally narrated version of the book available through Audible.

It’s not preachy

Because the book is written like a novel, you won’t find commentary throughout the story. Instead, the reader is left to come to their own conclusions as they “live” the story through the pages of the book. With a complex and highly controversial topic such as this one, this approach can be far more palatable. It also has the effect of “showing” instead of arguing the points to the reader. At the end of the book I do reflect on the events that happened in a short epilogue and include afterwords from highly qualified mental health professionals.

Here’s where you can find the book: Paperback, e-book, audiobook

Book Discussion Guide for anyone who works with RAD kids and their families

[i] Please know that there are some legal issues to consider under Invasion of Privacy when you publish information about your children (even if they are minors and even if you change identifying details). It is important to consult with an attorney, as I did, before publishing.

[ii] Judge, 30th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

Tips to survive parenting a child with RAD as an introvert

Being the the parent of a child who has Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) as an introvert can be incredibly challenging. Our child’s needs and the extensive interactions we have with service providers leave us drained and unable to recharge. Most days we don’t even have five minutes to ourselves and are bombarded with constant, mostly unpleasant stimuli. By understanding our strengths and needs as introverts, we can better parent our children and better care for our own mental health.

What is an introvert?

We think of the extrovert as the life of the party while the introvert curls up on their couch with a novel. In truth, the extrovert-introvert personality trait exists on a continuum.

These are some common qualities introverts share: 

  • Prefer calm, less stimulating environments
  • Introspective, reflective, and self-aware
  • Need to prepare to spend time in groups and crowds
  • Enjoy small, close circles of friends
  • Lose energy in social settings 
  • Need to spend time alone to recharge
  • Prefer to write/text instead of talking

Being an introvert is often confused with being shy or socially anxious and some introverts do have these personality traits. However, there are many introverts who are not shy and are not socially anxious. 

Playing to your strengths

First, as a fellow introvert, let me say, there is nothing wrong with being an introvert. In fact, one recent study found that introverts are more likely to be successful CEOs. That’s great news for parents of kids with RAD because we sure have our hands full!

So, let’s start by looking at 3 ways we can play to our strengths to be more successful in our role advocating for our children.

  1. Family-team meetings and therapy sessions are full of non-verbal communication and layers of context. TIME Magazine compares an introvert’s observation skills to a “superpower.” As an introvert you have the advantage of excellent observation skills and intuition to gain insight into these highly charged situations and navigate them safely and more effectively.
  2. Frustration, anger, outrage – big emotions – often lead to words we all wish we could take back. When working with service providers this is especially true. Introverts tend to think before they speak and choose their words wisely. Your introvert’s quiet nature is a huge advantage because it will help you be more cautions in your interactions and make you less likely to speak off the cuff.
  3. RAD is a nuanced disorder and untangling any situation with your child, a therapist, CPS person, or teacher can be seemingly impossible. “For an introvert, [active listening] is a natural way of being.”  As an introvert your natural listening skills are a big advantage to enable you to understand what each person is saying and better communicate.

You are your child’s best advocate, and remember that you you bring a lot to the table specifically because you are an introvert.

Tending to your needs

People with introverted personality types have two very specific needs:

  1. They need to mentally prepare for socialization
  2. They need regular alone time to recharge

Our child, their therapist, the parade of service providers, endless appointments, and dealing with extreme behaviors — make meeting these needs impossible. This leads to introverted parents quickly spiraling into depression and hopelessness. They literally have no energy left to draw from because they are running on empty. There is no silver bullet solution and in some cases you may need to consider if RTF is an option. But, there are some ways you can prioritize your needs to protect your mental health and enable you to better meet the needs of your child.

Here are a few simple ideas that worked for me:

  • Start each day with some alone time (even if it’s 5 minutes before you wake up the kids).
  • Use soothing techniques like a deep-breathing exercise or a calming meditation.
  • Pick your battles – know your limits. If letting the kids watch TV gives you some alone time, I say go for it. 
  • Create boundaries with service providers (ask that they schedule all calls ahead of time, or at least text to ask if you’re available before calling).
  • Ask for time to review any documents before you sign them – even if it’s just to buy you time to process the meeting you just had.
  • Take a coffee or soda to meetings so you can take a sip to give you a few seconds to gather your thoughts or get through an awkward moment.
  • Leverage emails. Write notes before phone calls and meetings. Practice, practice, practice.

What has worked for other parents:

“I commandeered a room in our house as ‘mine.’ I give notice before going in that they need to get what they need from me before the door closes. If I’m in there with the door closed, I’m off limits … usually doing yoga or meditating. However, it only works if they’re sleeping (i.e. 5am or 10pm) or if my husband is home.” – Thanks to Allison for this tip!

Are you an introvert? What other ideas do you have for leveraging our strengths and prioritizing our needs while parenting a child with RAD?

Remember to focus on the amazing strengths you bring to the table as an introvert and look for creative ways to meet your needs.

The Adoption and Fostering Podcast: Adoption Conversations – Keri

In this episode Keri talks with Al Coates about her adoption journey including how her son was diagnosed with RAD and her struggle to find treatment.

Be sure to follow The Adoption and Fostering Podcast for more great content and information around adoption and foster care. http://www.alcoates.co.uk/p/the-adoption-fostering-podcast.html

What is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)?

Also published on The Mighty

I visualize my son’s mental disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), as a tug-of-war. If I tell him to wear blue socks, he’ll wear white. If I make his favorite sandwich, he’ll toss it in the trash and tell his teacher I didn’t send him with lunch. If I ask him to write his spelling words three times, he won’t even pick up his pencil. And there’s no negotiation. If I compromise and ask him to write them only once, he’ll still refuse.

No matter how inconsequential or mundane the issue is, my son treats everything as though it’s a tug of war, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. For him it’s a life-or-death battle. He must win at all costs – no matter how long it takes, and despite any consequences he’s given or any rewards he’s promised.

Kids with RAD have an indefatigable need to control the people and situations around them because they only feel safe when they prove to themselves they are in control. To understand this, we must go back to the underlying causes of the disorder.

What causes RAD?

RAD is caused by adverse childhood experiences (also called ACES) that occur during the first five years of a child’s life. This is when their rapidly developing brain is most vulnerable.

In my son’s case, he was neglected before we adopted him out of foster care at the age four. Other ACES include witnessing domestic violence, having a substance addicted parent, and losing a primary caregiver.

These experiences can cause “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading trauma expert and researcher Bessel van der Kolk. Depending on the timing, duration, and severity of the adversity, a child can be affected in two key ways.

  1. Stuck in chronic survival mode. The fight-flight-freeze is not meant to be our “normal.” Its purpose is to kick in to keep us safe from danger. When kids are chronically abused and neglected, their brains are chronically bathed in adrenaline. As a result, they may begin to default to fight-fight-freeze even in minimally threatening situations. These kids can be hypervigilant and seem to overreact.
  2. Interrupted brain development. Our brain develops sequentially beginning with the primitive brain which controls our basic functions including our breathing and heart rate. The limbic brain comes next and regulates behavior, emotions, and attachment. The cortical brain – where critical, abstract, and cause-and-effect thinking live – comes online last. When kids experience chronic trauma, their brain may not develop properly. These kids can be dysregulated and lack high-level thinking skills.

The impact of developmental trauma is on a spectrum with a variety of symptoms and severity. This is closely related to stage of the child’s brain development at the time the trauma occurred. Unfortunately, there is no single diagnosis that covers all the symptoms of developmental trauma. Children are often given multiple diagnoses including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and RAD.

What is RAD?

RAD is a diagnosis given to children who have experienced chronic developmental trauma before the age of five and did not form at healthy attachment to a primary caregiver, usually their mother. They grow up without an inherent sense of being safe and loved. Instead their psyche internalizes the message they must take care of themselves because no one else will.

The world feels alarmingly unsafe and unpredictable – and that’s why they lock into a tug-of-war with their primary caregiver. Remember too, these children may be “stuck” in survival mode. They may literally perceive an innocuous situation as threatening and kick into fight-flight-freeze mode. Their higher-level brain functions like cause-and-effect thinking may be underdeveloped. This is why they cannot be reasoned with or talked down.

How to end the tug of war

As a parent, the constant tug-of-war, is exhausting, frustrating, and discouraging. Our impulse is often to tug our side of the rope even harder – to teach our child who is boss. We dole out consequences and insist on compliance. They need to learn to respect authority and obey, right? It’s parenting 101.

But traditional parenting backfires spectacularly with kids diagnosed with RAD. They dig in their heels and tighten their grip on their side of the rope. It will inevitably exacerbate the situation and strain the relationship with our child.

It may seem counterintuitive, but to help our child drop his side of the rope, we must first drop ours. This is accomplished by employing therapeutic parenting strategies that prioritize relationship building and focus on the communication and the needs behind the behavior.

Let’s look at how therapeutic parenting can transform the tug-of-war with my son.

  1. When I tell him to wear blue socks, he’ll insist on wearing white. It doesn’t really matter what color socks he wears. I decide to let him make these types of choices whenever possible which enables him to enjoy some sense of control.
  2. He’ll toss his lunch in the trash and tell his teacher I didn’t send one. Perhaps he’s lining up a backup food source because he’s unconsciously afraid I’ll stop feeding him one day. By providing consistent nurturing over time, this need – thus this behavior – will diminish.
  3. Instead of writing his spelling words, he’ll stare at his pencil. I can make this a non-issue by leaving it to his teacher to follow up. If necessary, I can pursue a 504 plan or Individual Education Plan (IEP) to ensure the accommodations he needs to be successful.

And with that, I’ve dropped my side of the rope. We are no longer locked in a tug-of-war.

Of course, it’s easier said than done and takes great patience and perseverance. RAD is a very challenging disorder to manage and there are no quick and easy fixes. A good starting point is recognizing the underlying causes and educating yourself on the therapeutic parenting approach.

Support groups for parents of children with Reactive Attachment Disorder

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 three 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!

When suicidal ideations may not be serious

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.

But why?

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.

Though the initial incidents of suicidal ideation are alarming, parents of kids with RAD can become weary and calloused over time. Click To Tweet

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.

Plan Ahead
    1. Create a detailed safety plan

    2. Know what mental health resources are available in your area including contact information, hours, and crisis services offered.

    3. 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
    1. De-escalate the situation at all costs in order to stop your child from endangering themselves.

    2. 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.

    3. 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
    1. Follow-through with recommendations for therapy, medication management, and other services.

    2. Identify and address underlying triggers.

    3. 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.

What it’s like being the sibling of a child with RAD

“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.

Internalizing dysfunction

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.

Collateral damage

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.

Find help for siblings of kids with RAD through RADSibs

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of these children.

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

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.

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. Click To Tweet

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.

How to discipline a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder – Part II

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

The Secret Next Door (Child on Parent Violence)

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.”
“My daughter attacked me with a steak knife.”
“My son choked me and broke my wrist.”

Anonymous parents

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. [1]

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.” [2] 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.

A Dad’s Struggle Accepting Reactive Attachment Disorder Diagnosis

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.