Recently, in an adoptive parent support group I lead, the subject turned to children with RAD. I remarked, that to parents unfamiliar with RAD, such a diagnosis for their child might feel akin to getting a cancer diagnosis. “That’s exactly what it felt like!”, exclaimed one parent in the group. It is true that for many parents when they receive news that their child has been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, there is a visceral emotional reaction that sends a shiver down their spine. But as with a cancer diagnosis, I always inform parents that RAD—although it presents parents with some long-term challenges—is certainly not a “death sentence” for their child.
Children diagnosed with RAD indeed require a lot of emotional and physical energy on the part of their parents daily. I remind parents that raising a child with RAD involves not only training them in new life skills but also undoing the ingrained emotional damage inflicted on that child. Please note that I said ingrained—NOT irreversible. They are two different things.
One of the key factors in parenting a child diagnosed with RAD is helping them to feel safe in their new environment. Dr. Karen Purvis and Dr. David Cross, authors of The Connected Child call this “felt safety.” This means that the child not only cognitively knows that he has enough food, clothing, toys, a place to sleep every night, etc.—but more importantly, he has that inner “gut feeling” that he doesn’t have to watch his back and control every part of his life anymore. A primary cause of RAD is the child’s deep fear of the loss of control, and for a child diagnosed with RAD, losing any amount of control is equated with dying.
Parents, if you have a child diagnosed with RAD, understand that it is a long-haul process. But do not despair, it is not an emotional death sentence. Here are some additional helpful suggestions:
For you as the parent(s), your self-care is vital. Whether it is through respite, having a trusted family friend babysit for a few hours so you can have a date night, or maintaining a personal hobby, you must carve out time to care for yourself.
Consistently model empathy and honesty with other family members.
Consistently use eye contact when communicating with your child, and place yourself in close physical proximity when addressing them (without getting into their personal space). Avoid “lobbying instructions” from a distance.
Encourage your child to express his feelings—even the strongest feelings—by using his words instead of behaviors. Give him lots of praise when he does so.
Habitual lying is a major problem for kids diagnosed with RAD. Do not respond in anger when your child lies—it only makes the child feel more powerful and makes him feel that you are weak. Be calm and matter-of-fact in your responses.
For more helpful info on dealing with a child who habitually lies check out the YouTube video by Dr. B. Bryan Post called “How to End Lying Now”. There are many other helpful resources on Dr. Post’s website: postinstitute.com.
Also, you may want to check out the book by Nancy Thomas, When Love is Not Enough. The author has many helpful approaches to parenting kids with RAD.