My older two kids have RAD.
RAD stands for Reactive Attachment Disorder. What this means, in short, is that when they were babies through age 3, their needs were not met. They weren’t held a lot, nurtured enough, they were left to cry for large amounts of time, and, in my son’s case, he also had failure to thrive due to not being fed or given medical care. When these things occur, parts of the brain just simply don’t develop. RAD is, in a sense, a form of brain damage, as these parts of the brain only develop during the early years of a child’s life and cannot re-form later on.
How does this impact their lives today? Well, basically it affects the way they interact with others, the way they reason things out, how they process emotions, and the overall attachments they experience with people, things, places, etc. This type of diagnosis is seen a lot in adoptive or foster children. Growing up with parents of addiction who may have been present but not actually “present”, being moved from home to home via the foster system, or being removed from the home due to neglect or abuse… these are environmental factors that set the stage for developmental delays (at best), the inability to properly attach to others (my kiddos), and that can lead to very serious mental illnesses, even sociopathology (at worst).
Being a psychotherapist, I had worked with children suffering with this diagnosis for several years. The families, adoptive or not, were suffering right along with the child, possibly more so in some cases! I’ve done research to help parents find ways to connect with their children, manage disturbing behaviors, and learn to express emotions appropriately. Friends, this is a tough disorder. There are very few techniques found to modify behavior or help families bond, and the process is looooong. There is no “quick fix”. No immediate gratification. Families spend years, even decades, working hard to attach and help their children grow into adults that are capable of contributing to society and building their own relationships.
Remember, brain damage is irreversible. So, therapy, medication, and consistency from care givers over large periods of time is the treatment regime for children with RAD. And why, you may ask, does it take so long to see any progress (if any, in some cases)? Because the things that come easily to someone whose brain is working correctly, things like learning how to love, expressing your feelings, understanding right from wrong, learning from mistakes via consequences and rewards…. These things do NOT come easily to someone whose brain never developed in these areas. It would be like asking a man with no legs to walk, or a woman with no arms to hold a child.
Can a man without legs walk? Can a woman without arms hold a child? Yes. Through the use of prosthetics and LOTS of physical therapy, the impossible can, indeed, become the possible. With countless hours of practice using these new tools, these new body parts, their brains will actually rewire themselves in a way to cause the body to function properly with the prosthetics.
In the same way, children with RAD require a whole lot of work to help their brains rewire. How do you teach someone to feel an emotion? How do you show someone how to create a relationship with another person? How to you help someone learn right from wrong when consequences and rewards and relationships mean nothing to them? If you don’t know how to answer these questions, welcome to the life of a parent with a RAD child.
Depending on the severity of the case, it can be done. But there will be a lot of tears, screaming, throwing your hands up, quickly pulling them back down, and throwing them back up again. There will be feelings of love. There will also be feelings of hate.
Folks, I’m being real, here. RAD is no joke. Parents suffer right along with their children in this disease. When we fostered our older two children, adoption was immediately put on the table for us. But it wasn’t long before my husband and I (he is also a social worker) recognized the signs. We had both of the children tested by a child psychiatrist and he agreed. The conclusion was what we had feared.
Most days, you could find me in tears. I was angry at them, I was angry at myself for being angry at them, I was angry at my husband when he got angry at them, and then I was angry at him when he didn’t get angry and I was all alone in my anger! No one else lived with it. No one else understood the struggle. No one else could see the depth of the situation. And when I tried to explain it to them, I came off sounding like the most horrible person on the planet.
Who could be mad at two little children that came from such a bad background? It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t their choice. Why are you so hard on them? What kind of psychotherapist can’t figure out how to cure her own children? What kind of woman can’t keep her kids under control? How could you contemplate NOT going through with the adoptions?
These were the questions I faced. These were the feelings I experienced each day. I felt like I was failing them, my husband, my parents, myself, and my God. And to be honest, three-and-a- half years later, I sometimes suffer from those same feelings. I face guilt over not being more of what they need, over my lack of consistency, over my emotional ups and downs in our bad days, our RAD days. I feel helpless when I can’t find a solution. I feel overly strict when I try new and creative consequences, as I’ve more than used up the classic go-to’s long ago.
But let me tell you something. When there’s a break-through, a tiny glimmer of hope, you will find me ecstatic with joy, screaming it from the roof-tops, beaming with delight.
And let me tell you something else. There are more glimmers of hope today than there were last year, more than the year before, and more than the year before that.
Despite my flaws, my lack of ALL THINGS, God has covered our family with a crazy amount of grace. My knowledge of RAD could only get me so far. My ability to be a good mother could only get me so far. My desire to show my kids the kind of love they’d never had could only get me so far. GOD is the one who is covering all of my failed attempts, my emotional lapses, my insufficient abilities – He does this day in and day out. It only takes a few moments in a difficult situation to recognize how ill-equipped you are to deal with the big things on your own. And ooohhhh, how aware of this I am! God has not made my children perfect. (NOPE!) God has not made my mothering perfect. (NOT EVEN CLOSE.) God has not healed my kids of their disease. (SADLY.)
But what he has done is helped us grow and learn and use more wisdom in the day to day moments. To find more teaching moments within the chaos. To manage our emotions (if even just a tad) better than before. To find emotional prosthetics to learn how to walk in this life we’ve been given. Preachy or not, GOD IS GOOD, friends. He just is.
I don’t want to make this post too long, so I’m going to turn it into a 2-parter. Later this week, I’m going to share something that I found that helped my children relationally and that forced them to address their own behaviors without me having to exert quite as much effort ( http://www.mommyhoodsfs.com/the-blog/2015/6/28/my-kids-have-rad-part-ii ). Until then, thanks so much for all your prayers and encouragement over the years. Your kind words, bits of advice, and shoulders to lean on have kept at least one family afloat!
Much, much love.
(To join an online group of parents raising children with attachment issues, check out the membership program here!)