I have two 7-year-old kids adopted from foster care, and recently their therapist suggested that they both fit the bill for Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Essentially, kids with RAD engage in intense power struggles with their caregivers (especially mothers) because their previous caregivers didn’t meet their needs.
For my kids, here’s what RAD looks like: If I give my kids a two-step instruction, they do the second step before they do the first step. If I ask them to put on their coat before school, they’ll put on their backpack instead. I laid out a lightweight coat for my daughter last week during a warm streak; she asked for a warmer one. I explained why we were wearing our spring coats, and she insisted she wear her winter coat throughout the week despite complaining that she was hot every afternoon. If I issue a consequence, my kids will yell that I am mean and scream and kick for sometimes up to an hour. When I ask my son to walk, he runs. When I ask my daughter to run, she walks. My daughter has to know everything that is going on: what we are doing each day, when we are leaving, when we are coming home, what we are eating, etc. Our son “spies” on my husband and me when we’re having conversations — he simply cannot play while the two of us talk. Sometimes my daughter even refuses to complete basic hygiene tasks (hand-washing, wiping after pottying, showering, etc.). My kids simply do not trust me and my husband, and because of this, they fight for control in nearly every situation.
Conversely, they are totally sweet and compliant around strangers or those they don’t have a deep relationship with because they’ve learned how to “work a crowd.” In the past they’ve used others to get what they need: food, attention, hugs, diaper changes, etc. My daughter demonstrates this by giving lots of hugs and wanting to be right next to others (teachers, daycare staff, relatives) at all times. She’ll play with their hair, touch their jewelry, compliment them on their clothes/house/hair/etc. When we go to a new house, she heads straight for the kitchen and will ask a thousand questions about visible food until she is offered some. My son exercises perfect compliance in new situations with new people for a period of three months. But when he sees he’s not going anywhere, the deal is off and behaviors start in full swing leaving teachers and other caregivers stymied and wondering where the perfect child they once knew went.
There’s no cure for RAD, no medicine to offset the symptoms, and no timeframe as to when kids will form healthy attachments to their new caregivers. In many foster care training programs, RAD is presented as affecting a small amount of kiddos. Literature on trauma informed parenting and integrated parenting techniques have made helping my kids a little easier, and I’m beginning to see my kids attach to me in small ways (like saving the notes I leave for them in their lunch boxes).
Unfortunately, though, parenting a child with RAD takes an incredible amount of patience and puts parents in embarrassing situations. For example, a few months ago on our way to school, my son argued with me about something; taking our therapist’s advice, I replied with the phrase, Thank you for letting me know that we still need to practice being compliant. My son retorted with a top-of-his-lungs scream, throwing his backpack at me, yelling I was mean, and kicking the back of seat until we arrived at school. While at a stop light, I reached behind me and took his shoes off so he didn’t damage the car. He was still raging when we arrived at his school. From the car, I heard the bell rang. I could’ve let him sit in the car and rage — safely away from the eyes (and judgement) of near strangers, but it was time to go to school, and my son needed to know that no amount of terrible behavior would prevent me from taking him to school. So I swallowed my pride, scooped him out of the car — shoeless — and carried him into school, kicking and screaming. The principal, the secretary, and a handful of kids stared, mouths open. I sat him down in the front foyer and waited until he was calm. We practiced following instructions until he was ready to be compliant, and then I sent him off to his classroom... late for the fifth time this year thanks to morning power struggles. More often than not, I’m left wondering if have what it takes to parent my children.