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RESOURCE: An Overview of Reactive Attachment Disorder for Teachers

Many thanks to Art Becker-Weidman for allowing me to copy directly from his website. This is one of the most thorough descriptions of RAD I’ve found online.

 

An Overview of Reactive Attachment Disorder for Teachers 

If a parent has given you this to read, you are teaching a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder.  The family of this child has apparently decided to share this information with you.  That sharing is a big step for this family and one you have to treat gently and with the respect it deserves.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is most common in foster and adopted children but can be found in many other so-called “normal” families as well due to divorce, illness or separations.  Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) develops when a child is not properly nurtured in the first few months and years of life.  It is causes by early chronic maltreatment such as neglect, abuse, or institutional care.  The child, left to cry in hunger, pain or need for cuddling, learns that adults will not help.  The child whose parent(s) are more involved in getting their next drug fix than they are in nurturing the developing child learns that the child’s needs are not primary to the caregivers.  Children born of drug or alcohol addicted parents learn even in the womb that things do not feel good and are not safe for them. In severe cases, where the child was an abuse or violence victim, the child learns adults are hurtful and cannot be trusted. The child with RAD may develop approaches or “working models” of the world to keep the child safe.  The child may try to control a world the child experiences as dangerous if not controlled by the child.  Without therapy child with RAD may not develop the attachments to other human beings which allow them to trust, accept discipline, develop cause and effect thinking, self-control and responsibility.

Children with RAD are often involved in the Juvenile Justice System, as they get older.  They feel no remorse, have no conscience and see no relation between their actions and what happens as a result because they never connected with or relied upon another human being in trust their entire lives.

What you may see as a teacher is a child who is, initially, surprisingly charming to you, even seeking to hold your hand, climbing into your lap, smiling a lot, you’re delighted you are getting on so well with such a child.  At the onset of your contact with the child who has been reported from prior grades as “impossible” you will wonder what those previous teachers did to provoke the behaviors you have not (yet) seen but which are reflected in the prior grade reports. A few months into what you thought was a working relationship the child is suddenly openly defiant, moody, angry and difficult to handle; there is no way to predict what will happen from day to the next; the child eats as if he hasn’t been properly fed and is suspected of stealing other children’s snacks or lunch items; the child does not seem to make or keep friends; the child seems able to play one-on-one for short periods, but cannot really function well in groups; the child is often a bully on the playground; although child with RAD may have above average intelligence they often do not perform well in school due to lack of problem solving and analytical thinking skills; they often test poorly because they have not learned cause-effect thinking.  In addition, having experienced at an early age that nothing they do matters, they do not “try” or put in effort; why try when what you do has not effect?

A child with RAD may climb into your lap and pretend to be affection starved.  Children with RAD may talk out loud in classrooms, do not contribute fairly to group work or conversely argue to dominate and control the group.  Organizational abilities are limited and monitoring is resented. There may be a sense of hypervigilance about them that you initially perceive as no sense of personal space and general “nosiness”. They seem to want to know everyone else’s business but never tell you anything about their own. There is no sense of conscience, even if someone else is hurt.  They may express an offhand or even seemingly sincere “sorry,” but will likely do the same thing again tomorrow.  They are not motivated by self or parental pride, normal reward and punishment systems simply do not work.  

They may omit parts of assignments even when writing their names just so that they are in control of the assignment, not you.  This stems from a deep feeling that adults are not to be trusted, so the best strategy when you don’t trust someone may be to not do what that person asks you to do.  When assigned a seat they may choose an indirect, self- selected path to reach the seat.  When given a certain number of things to repeat or do, they often do more, or less than directed. They destroy toys, clothing, bedding, pillows, and family memorabilia.  They may blame parents, siblings, or others for missing or incomplete homework, missing items of clothing, lost lunch bags, etc.  They may destroy school bags, lose supplies, steal food, sneak sweets, break zippers on coats, tear clothing, and eat so as to disgust those around them (open mouth chewing, food smeared over face).

They may inflict self-injuries, pick at scabs until they bleed, seek attention for non-existent/miniscule injuries, and yet will seek to avoid adults when they have real injuries or genuine pain.  These children have not learned how to seek and accept comfort and care from caregivers because their early experiences have taught them that adults don’t care.  Children with RAD may have multiple falls and accidents and frequently complain about what other children have done to them (“he started it!”, “Suzy kicked me first”).  Children with RAD can walk around in significant physical pain from real injuries and may minimize the injury until it is detected.  They may not wipe a running nose or cover a mouth to sneeze or conversely will overreact or exaggerate a cough or mild illness.  They often have not had experiences of being taught in a loving responsive manner how to wash, bathe, brush teeth, and engage in other self-care activities. 

They are in a constant battle for control of their environment and seek that control however they can, even in totally meaningless situations.  If they are in control they feel safe.  If they are loved and protected by an adult they are convinced they are going to be hurt because they never learned to trust adults, adult judgment or to develop any of what you know as normal feelings of acceptance, safety and warmth.  Their speech patterns are often unusual and may involve talking out of turn, talking constantly, talking nonsense, humming, singsong, asking unanswerable or obvious questions (“Do I get a drink any time today?”).  They have one pace – theirs. No amount of “hurry up everyone is waiting on you” will work – they must be in control and you have just told them they are. Need the child to finish lunch so everyone can go to the playground.  Need the child to dress and line up, the child may scatter papers, drop clothing, fail to locate gloves, wander around the room – anything to slow the process and control it further.  Five minutes later the child may be kissing your hand or stroking your cheek for you with absolutely no sense of having caused the mayhem that ensues from his actions.  Again all these behavior are NOT intentional.  The behaviors are the result of having experienced significant early chronic maltreatment.  These early experiences have created an internal working model of the world and relationship that mirror those early experiences and which are projected onto current relationships. 

You can begin to understand what this child’s parents must face on a daily basis.  The parents are often tense; involved in control battles for their parental role every minute they are with the child, they adopted the child thinking love would cure anything that had happened to her before the adoption. They have only recently learned that normal parenting will not work with this child; that much of what they have tried to do for years simply fed into the child’s dysfunction. They are frightened, sad, stressed and lonely. Many feel unmerited guilt for their perceived “failure” with this child. The mothers often bear the brunt of the child’s actions.

It takes a tremendous amount of work and therapy to turn these kids around so that they can experience real feelings and learn to trust. Parents who have embarked on this healing journey for their child need support and consistency from other adults who interact with the child.

What can you do as a teacher?  CALL THE PARENTS. Have them in to talk with you about this issue.  Call them and talk about what you see in the classroom and ask if they have any other strategies for managing things. Parents who are in counseling and therapy with this child will eventually open up to you and you’ll all be able to help the child get healthy or at least not contribute to his dysfunction.

Parents will tell you if time is precious on a particular occasion due to ongoing therapy, or whatever, don’t feel put off or shut out.  They will talk to you when they have time and time is one of the things parents often run out of as they work desperately to save their child’s future.  The therapy and home parenting techniques are exhausting and time consumptive. Try to respect that if it seems they are not focusing on your goal of home or class work. Do not trust schoolbag communication or expect things sent in a “communication envelope” to be as complete as when they left the school with the child.  Use the phone, e-mail, and regular mail – it works.

Don’t feel you need to apologize if you have believed this child and blamed the parents. If they have given you this information they already trust you and do not blame you for not having the information you needed – likely they only just recently got it themselves. Make it perfectly clear in your interactions with the child that you will take care of the child and the classroom or activity.  Remind the child, unemotionally but firmly, that you are the teacher, you make the rules.  You can even smile when you say it if you can get the “smile all the way up to the eyes”, just remember to get the child to verbally acknowledge your position.  Do it every day for a while, and then use periodic reminders. Insist upon use of titles or prefixes (Miss Jane, Teacher Sarah, Ms. Philips), they establish position and rank. Structure choices so that you remain in control (“do you want to wear your coat or carry it to the playground?” “you may complete that paper sitting or standing”, “you may complete that assignment during this period or during recess”). Remember to keep the anger and frustration the child is seeking out of your voice. Try to “smile all the way to your eyes” if you can, otherwise simply stay as neutral as you can. Structure and control without threat.

YOU ARE NOT THE PRIMARY CAREGIVER for this child.  You cannot parent this child. You are the child’s teacher, not therapist, nor parent.  Teachers are left behind each year, its normal.  These children need to learn that lesson.

Establish EYE CONTACT with this child.  Be firm, be consistent, and be specific.

Try to remember to ACKNOWLEDGE GOOD DECISIONS AND GOOD BEHAVIOR

CONSEQUENCE POOR DECISIONS AND BAD BEHAVIOR.  Poor decisions and choices like incomplete homework, wrong weight jacket for the weather, also need to be acknowledged (“I see you didn’t complete work from this activity period.  You may finish it at recess while the other children who chose to finish their work go outside and play.”)  Nothing mean or angry or spiteful – it’s just the facts.  Remember they have difficulty with cause and effect thinking and have to be taught consequences. Normal reward systems like treats and stickers simply do not work with these children.  Standard behavior modification techniques do not work with this child.

Consequencing is a good teaching technique– there is a consequence associated with each good behavior, each poor behavior – teach them what those consequences are – they will not think of or recognize them without your direction.

BE CONSISTENT, BE SPECIFIC.  The child with RAD may be “good” for you one or two days or even weeks and then fall apart.  This is normal.  No general compliments like “you’re a good boy!” or “You know better.”  Be specific and consistent – confront each misbehavior and support each good behavior with direct language. “You scribbled on the desk – you clean it up”, “You hit Timmy, you sit here next to me until I decide you may play again without hitting.” “You did well on the playground today, good for you!”  “You completed that assignment, that’s a good choice!”  Be positive when you can.

This NATURAL CONSEQUENCES thing is important.  Do not permit this child to control your behavior by threatening to throw a tantrum (let him, out in the hallway or in another room -“You can have your tantrum here if you choose to”),  “I see you’ve wet the rug, here is a rag and bucket to clean it up”, or puttering around doing his own thing when it delays the class’ departure for a planned activity (“I see you’ve not gotten ready to go, you can wait here in the supervisor’s office until we get back”).

Time-outs do not work for these children – they want to isolate themselves from others.  Bring the child near the activity he has had to be removed from and have them stand with or sit in a chair along side you. It’s called a “TIME-IN.”  If you can take the time, speak quietly about how much fun the other children are having and how sad it is that she cannot join in right now. No raised voices, no anger. Don’t lose your temper if you can avoid it; remember he is manipulating you to do just that. If you are going to lose it, seek assistance from another adult until you are back in control of yourself.

RESPONSIVE, ATTUNED, EMOTIONALLY ENGAGED INTERACTIONS with this child.  It is very important that this child experience positive regard and that the child is good, even is the behavior is not acceptable.  This helps the child move from feeling overwhelming shame to experiencing guilt. 

SUPPORT THE PARENTS.  The child who is losing control at home and in the classroom because folks are “on to him” will get a whole lot worse before he gets better. Listen appropriately. Absolutely redirect this child to parents for choices, hugs, decision-making and sharing of information you believe is either not true or is designed to shock or manipulate you.  Follow up with the parents.

REMAIN CALM AND IN CONTROL OF YOURSELF.  No matter what the child does today.  If the child manages to upset you, the child is in control, not you.  Remove yourself or the child from the situation until you are able to cope.  The child may push your “buttons.”  But remember, these are YOUR buttons and it is your job as a professional to disconnect the buttons so that pressing them has no negative effect.

If your classroom is out of control because of this child, get help.  Many school counselors and administrators have not had exposure to the RAD diagnosis or how to handle it in schools. There are many resources available. Don’t give up. These children are inventive, manipulative and very much in need of everything you can offer to help them get healthy. Remind the child you will be speaking with her parents on a regular basis. Report to the child’s home as often as you can without feeling burdened by the effort. Expect notes to be destroyed. Use the phone. If you do not get a response to written communication and the parents seem to be out of touch with general information, do not blame them. Chances are they never got the message, never saw the right number of papers and have no clue what is going on because that is just how the child likes it. It takes control from the parent. Give it back by communicating directly whenever possible.

This child can and will be helped to get healthy and you can be a part of that process with the right tools. Keep in touch with the family. Remember that what you see in school is only the tip of the iceberg – family life is terribly threatening to these children and what the parents have to deal with every day is nearly unimaginable to other uninformed adults. Blaming the family or failing to communicate with them adds to the dysfunction and puts the child at greater risk of never getting healthy. This child is learning in therapy to be respectful, responsible and fun to be around. It will take time, it will be an effort, if in the end it is successful it will be because the adults in her life were consistent and the child decided to work in therapy. Your contribution as his teacher cannot be underestimated or undervalued – his parents will be grateful for the support and the therapist will have fewer inconsistent venues to sort out while helping the child to heal.

BOOK AND RESOURCES

Creating Capacity for Attachment, Edited by Arthur Becker-Weidman & Deborah Shell, Wood ‘N’ Barnes, Oklahoma City, OK, 2005.

Attachment Facilitating Parenting video/DVD.  Center for Family Development, Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D., 5820 Main St., #406, Williamsville, NY 14221

Building the Bonds of Attachment, 2nd.  Edition, Daniel Hughes, Jason Aaronson, NY, 2006.

www.ATTACh.org

WWW.Center4FamilyDevelop.com

Arthur Becker-Weidman, PhD
Center For Family Development
www.Center4FamilyDevelop.com
(c) all rights reserved

To Her Teacher

Dear Miss Stacey, 

You have hit the jackpot. I say this without sarcasm or irony. My daughter is every teacher’s dream.

At times, she will hang on your every word. She will work to keep her classmates in line. Will absolutely follow every directive and do everything you ask with a smile on her face. If you need extra help in the classroom, she’s your girl. She will do everything in her power to ensure you see her as the sweetest, brightest, most charming child.

And for the most part, she is that child.

At school. 

When I tell you she refused to do her homework, you’ll eye me with suspicion.

When I describe how she pretends not to understand simple math calculations, it will sound like delusion. Especially after you watched her complete the work easily with you.

When I explain that we’re late to school because she intentionally poured a cup of water down the front of her outfit just before leaving the house, you’ll assume I’m crazy. 

Her charming, adorable—angelic, really—demeanor will belie every detail of any stories I might share with you.

But I’m not making it up.

In the beginning, she truly will be your ideal, perfect student. This may last well past Christmas if you’re lucky.

Once the school honeymoon has worn off and she begins to recognize you as an authority figure, you will likely begin experiencing RAD.

This doesn’t mean you won’t still enjoy her. Her third and fourth grade teacher (she looped with the class) absolutely loved her. But she was fully informed about the RAD symptoms and messaged or talked with me several times a week.

Last year, RAD manifested in the following ways: 

  • Wandering into class late or at the last minute (even though she was dropped off on time)

  • Taking excessive time to get organized

  • Obsessive playing with items in her desk instead of doing her work

  • Dropping pencils or other materials

  • Multiple bathroom trips

  • Difficulty getting along with peers in more than surface interaction

  • Bossing or controlling other children (she’ll call it “helping” them)

  • Not reading or following the directions on assignments

  • Ignoring, daydreaming, “zoning out” during teaching

  • Sitting by herself and “looking sad” to get other kids to ask her what’s wrong (at which time she regales them with stories of her past and of being adopted)

    These may sound like “regular kid” issues but are actually her bid to control her life…and your classroom.

 

A prime example of her determination to have control: she decided she “won’t” be good at math. Her refusal to learn endangered her ability to graduate 4th grade. We’re still dealing with this.

 

She’s willing to crash and burn

in order to live life on her own terms. 

 

(RAD kids) are in a constant battle for control of their environment and seek that control however they can, even in totally meaningless situations.  If they are in control they feel safe.

If they are loved and protected by an adult they are convinced they are going to be hurt because they never learned to trust adults, adult judgment or to develop any of what you know as normal feelings of acceptance, safety and warmth.  Their speech patterns are often unusual and may involve talking out of turn, talking constantly, talking nonsense, humming, singsong, asking unanswerable or obvious questions.

They have one pace – theirs. No amount of “hurry up everyone is waiting on you” will work – they must be in control and you have just told them they are… Need the child to dress and line up, the child may scatter papers, drop clothing, fail to locate gloves, wander around the room – anything to slow the process and control it further.  Five minutes later the child may be kissing your hand or stroking your cheek for you with absolutely no sense of having caused the mayhem that ensues from his actions.

-Arthur Becker-Weidman, PhD
Center For Family Development
www.Center4FamilyDevelop.com
(c) all rights reserved

Our girl is a beautiful, bright kid. She has the potential to do anything she wants in life.

Right now, what she wants is control.

We want her to have some control but she needs to learn she can’t control the people around her in negative ways. 

We are working with a therapist to help her resolve her issues. She’s made slow progress in the five years with us. She may try to discuss this with you or other students in order to garner sympathy. If that happens, please remind her she can talk with us or her counselor but may not share life details at school.

A couple years ago, she convinced a teacher we were mistreating her and Social Services paid us a visit because the teacher called. If she says anything concerning, please ask the principal to call her counselor. School administration is aware of her situation.

Please don’t try to counsel her yourself; if you have any concerns (or if you see the behaviors listed above) please text or call me as soon as is convenient. I will be happy to work with you to find creative solutions. 

Our goal is to show her that adults can be trusted to protect and care for her. We appreciate your understanding and willingness to work with us. It’s not easy.

Trying to help her develop trust is exhausting.

Someday, though, she’ll graduate. She’ll be a healthy, happy adult. She will succeed. 

And you’ll be one of the people we thank.

 

 

 

Forgiveness with a Side of Chocolate

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Photo Credit: Jenn

Our daughter harbors heartbreaking, heart-aching, anger toward her birth mother.

Thanks to a fun little disorder called RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder, not the cool 80’s “rad”), most of that rage is directed at me. One of RAD’s hallmarks is misdirection of anger toward the person who most closely represents the individual who caused pain. Most children with RAD aren’t aware of what’s happening; it’s not intentional, and it’s important for the “target” to understand that most of the child’s behavior is not a personal attack.

In general, she presents as an almost perfect child and is great at surface interactions. Anyone outside our home or very close inner circle of friends would be shocked that she’s anything but an angel. I did not immediately realize she creates that image on purpose, so was taken aback the day she complained about a classmate who did not like her, stating, “but I’m so sweet!” If you’ve ever seen The Bad Seed (which, in an ironic twist, has always been one of my favorite classic movies), imagine Rhoda. That’s my girl (without the homicidal tendencies, thank goodness).

For much of our time together, she has repressed her true feelings. Sometimes she references “pushing the feelings down” or “keeping myself from coming apart.” Once, she told the counselor that she has “a line,” and she has to make sure she stays “below this line,” tracing a chest-high line in the air. If she feels herself getting “close to the line,” she removes herself from the situation and stays by herself for a while. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, she opens up a little bit; two years ago she told me, “it’s not fair that you get to see your mother.”  This year, her play therapist suggested we try something different. I sat in the waiting room to see if she would talk freely without me. She told the therapist that she is angry at her birth mom. The therapist suggested that she write a letter.

Later that week, Hubby had our son elsewhere, so I asked if she’d like to write a letter. (We’ve made a rule not to discuss the bio family in front of her brother. He’s allowed to bring it up if he likes, but if she references them when he’s present–and not mentally prepared–he has a very negative reaction.) I told her it was just for her, and I wasn’t going to read it unless she decided to share it. She wrote her feelings in large, scrawled letters (she asked me to read it), stating, “I wrote messy because I am VERY ANGRY.”

Several other times, when her brother was away, either she or I have suggested letter writing. The letters have been shorter each time, but still very angry. This past Saturday, in addition to writing the letter, she wanted to talk as we sat in the kitchen. “Why did she get rid of me? Why was she so mean to us?” Still angry, her tone was plaintive. I don’t have good answers. Or any answers, really.

Social services told the kids their mother was unable to provide care because she was “sick,” which then made our girl feel guilty for not being able to be nurse for her mother. On arrival with us, the kids had convinced themselves that social services kidnapped them from their home, had “taken” them from their family. They hated social workers, police, judges and anyone in authority. The few answers I do have are ones I don’t want to give. “Your mother put herself first, neglected and abandoned you, wouldn’t do the few, easy things the judge ordered she must do to keep you and didn’t show up to what she knew was your final meeting.” No. I refuse to break their hearts further. I remained silent and let her talk, praying for the words to help her.

My eyes snapped to the cookbook shelf, and I had an idea. “So, you’re really angry, right?” I asked. “Yes, SO angry. She took my heart and did this,” she said, making a breaking-in-half motion with her hands. “So, do you think she knows that you’re angry?” I reached for my enormous Asian cookbook. She nodded. “She knows.” As I pulled the book down, I asked, “Do you think it’s hurting her back when you’re really mad?” She stood up, always interested in cooking. “Yes. It hurts her. What are you doing?”

I held the heavy cookbook out to her. “I want you to hold this over your head with both hands. Don’t let go, okay?” She took the book, eyeing me with suspicion. “So,” I asked, “how heavy is it?” She shrugged. “Not that heavy. I can handle it.” I smiled. “Great! So, that’s my cookbook. If I held it over my head, it would be heavy, but you’ve got it and you can handle it. Do you think you can hold it up all day?” Her eyes widened. “It might get heavy.”

“So, you’re holding the cookbook. Is it heavy for me?” I asked. She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “It’s not heavy at all for you; you’re not holding it.” I smiled. Maybe this would work. I pulled out one of her Christmas stocking gifts, a sealed plastic candy cane full of chocolate kiss candies, and placed it on the table. “Okay. You can have as many of these as you want.” She gasped happily (candy is usually well-rationed at our house). She started to put the book on the table, but I held out my hand. “Wait. You can have as many of these as you want, BUT you must keep both hands on the book.” She narrowed her eyes, determined. “I can do that.”

I let her try for about two minutes. She attempted to use her elbows, her nose, her mouth. Finally, frustrated, she said, “I have to put the book down.” I smiled. “So. In order to get to the candy, you have to let go of the book, right?” She nodded. “I just said that.”

“Before you put it down, tell me this. Does it affect me one way or another if you’re holding the book?” Slyly, she said, “I can’t give you any candy unless I put the book down. So I should put it down and give you some candy, right?” I laughed. “No, I can get the candy, because I’m not carrying the book. So does it matter to me if you hold the book?”

I reached for the candy. Now she was annoyed. “No. It doesn’t matter to you if I’m holding the book. Are you going to eat my candy? That’s not fair.”

I didn’t want her to lose focus on the idea, so I said, “Okay. Put the book on the table.” As she did, I asked, “So, now you can get to the candy, right?” Ripping open the plastic cane, she said, “Yep.” Praying I wouldn’t lose her to the chocolate, I said, “You know, when we hold onto anger, it only hurts us. When you held my book, it didn’t make a difference to whether I could get the candy. It only kept YOU from getting the candy.” Her eyes held a spark of recognition. “You’ve been holding a lot of anger against your birth mom. Who is it affecting?” Her mouth dropped open. “Me.”

“Is it affecting her?” Mouth full of chocolate, she shook her head. “When we hang onto anger, it hurts us and keeps us from getting to the love,” I pointed to the chocolate kisses, “but it doesn’t affect the other person. It can make us have bad behavior, though, and sometimes we find someone else to treat badly when the person we’re really mad at isn’t here.” She squinted at me, not getting it.

“When you first came to live here, were you nice to everyone?” She nodded enthusiastically. I ask, “Were you nice to Daddy?” Nod. “Were you nice to your brother?” Nod. “Were you nice to me?” Nod–then, “Not really very nice to you.”

“Why do you think that happened?” Eyes wide, she said, “I was mean to you, but I wasn’t mad at you. I was mad at her.” Completely floored she made the connection, I continue, “Right. And I always knew you weren’t mad at me. That’s why I didn’t get mad back.” (Honesty here: even knowing her motivation, it was definitely a lot of work not to take it personally, and sometimes I still did, but I worked hard not to react.)

“If you keep holding the anger against your birth mom, will it hurt her?” She opened another chocolate, one eye on me. “No. It just hurts me.” She slid a foil-wrapped kiss my way.

“Right. That’s why God tells us to forgive. Forgiving is deciding to let go of the anger, like deciding to put the book on the table. He doesn’t want us to forgive so the other person will feel better. He wants us to forgive because holding the anger keeps us from being able to get–and give–love.” I picked up the chocolate. “Could you give this to me while you were holding the book?” She shook her head.

“Forgiving is hard. People have hurt me, too, and when it’s a really big hurt, I think about what happened and get mad all over again. But I have to decide to forgive them over and over, because if I don’t, I can’t love others the way I should, and I can’t get the love I need. You don’t have to forgive her today, but when you’re ready to decide to forgive, I know you’ll feel better.”

“I don’t know if I can forgive her yet,” she said, thinking (and unwrapping more chocolate). “I know,” I say. “Sometimes it takes time. But now you know what you can do to feel better.”

***

The next day, she hugged me. “Can I write a letter to tell her about what I got for Christmas? I’m not going to write a mad letter this time. I forgave her. I’m still a little mad, but I feel better.” I hugged her back, tight.

Blogger JoyRoses13 has a great quote, which I’m stealing: “Bitterness is the poison that we drink ourselves, hoping to kill our enemy.”

Who do you need to forgive? It’s time to put the cookbook on the table.

Reddit.com/r/Adoption

If you’re part of an adoptive family (or know one), I highly recommend checking out https://www.reddit.com/r/Adoption. The community has almost 4500 members (birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted children are all welcomed).

This is a recent interaction I had with one of the members. If you have experience with RAD, please chime in!

How long did it take to bond with your child before she started to really see you as parents? What are your current struggles?

Join the conversation on Reddit!

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Photo Credit: Martin Lafrance

I’m Thrilled about This!

Yesterday my 11 yr old daughter (if you’re new here: she came to us 5 years ago & has Reactive Attachment Disorder), hugged me almost ten times of her own volition. Normally it’s tough to coax one hug.

Either she’s confused me for a barely-known acquaintance 🙂 or we’ve made some serious headway! Sooooooooooo excited.

Now I just have to figure out if there’s a trigger I can replicate. Most likely not, but if there is, you better believe I’ll find it.

She’s Driving Me Crazy (Reactive Attachment Disorder)

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How I feel on the inside.         Photo Credit: Greg O’Connell

Reactive Attachment Disorder SUCKS. (Sorry. Feel free to substitute another word that means “is horrible in every way and makes me want to shoot myself in the face.”)

So, we’ve made some progress in the last few weeks. I was already making some minor efforts (mostly guilt-induced) to connect with our girl before posting about my commitment to do better.

In the five days since, I’ve stepped up my game. Some of my tactics:

  • Look straight into her eyes when speaking with her (this is harder than it sounds)
  • Hug her or touch her shoulder every time she walks by
  • Hug her every time I feel like shaking her (this is harder than it sounds)
  • Listen to the nonsense chatter (this is a RAD thing)
  • Attempt to craft a conversation from the nonsense chatter
  • Spend time explaining homework that I know she can do alone
  • Be extremely clear and repeat directions
  • Make food she likes
  • Immediately praise/encourage when she does something right
  • Try to ignore negative behaviors or react as little as possible
  • Smile and remain calm

And it’s working.

It’s working because

  • she’s become incredibly rude to me
  • she disobeys me at every turn
  • she pretends to be sick
  • she spends time screaming

In the past, rudeness was subtle; muttered words or nasty glances. Now, she’s turned it on full-force. Previous disobedience was generally minor or “forgetting.” Now we have outright defiance. Sickness and screaming are behavior regression; I haven’t seen them at this level in a couple years.

***

 

During the month before arrival at our house, they lived with a respite family. I talked daily with the mother. This conversation happened several times each week:

Experienced Respite Mom: “Well, last night she screamed herself into a fever and threw up.”

Naive Casey: “Is she in bed with chicken soup?”

ERM: “Nope. She’s at school.”

NC: “Doesn’t the school have a rule about no school with a fever?”

ERM: “Uh, yeah, that’s if the child is sick. She’s not sick.”

NC: “But she had a fever. And she threw up.”

ERM (chuckling): “Yes, she did. Her temp was up because of the screaming. She threw up on purpose. She’s at school. You’ll learn.”

NC (thinks to self): Dang, that’s harsh.”

 

When the kids came to live with us, our girl told me that at their last placement (prior to respite), the family made her clean up her own puke.

What horrible foster parents, I thought.

NAIVE NAIVE NAIVE Casey: “Oh, honey, I promise you, that will never happen in this house. Every child throws up. Parents should clean it up.”

Yeah.

Then I found out she could hurl on command.

Yes, I know about bulimia. This was different.

She didn’t like a consequence? Regurgitate

Didn’t want a certain food? Toss the cookies. (Ok, not cookies. She likes dessert.) 

Hoping to skip school? Upchuck.

Have to do homework? Do the technicolor yawn

Holding to my promise, I never made her clean it up.

New foster/adoptive parents: promise NOTHING. “Probably” and “maybe” are your new favorite words.

On occasion, she took a break from chunder tactics. During refusal to perform a simple homework assignment, she began to scream.

I picked her up, carried her to her room and deposited her upon the bed. “You stay here. Let me know when you’re done screaming AND ready to cooperate with homework.”

She screamed for half an hour. I thought for sure she’d lose her voice.

Nope.

As she became more comfortable with the routine at our house (and learned that consequences can be positive or negative—her choice), screaming and barfing waned, then disappeared altogether.

For the last four years, she’s directed her anger at bio-mom toward me. Like a laser beam.

She’s terrified of connection and is afraid that if she lets me in I’ll fail her, too. 

Once, when she first arrived, she spat,

“You don’t KNOW me. And you WON’T know me because I won’t LET you know me!”

Self-fulfilling prophecy.

She pushes me away, hoping I’ll leave her alone. And hoping I won’t.

I admit that she wore me down. For a while, I didn’t even want to be around her (although I tried very hard to never let it show). Over the past months, I’ve been working harder to connect and bond.

This week, I turned on the fire hose. She’s getting all kinds of love from me.

Here’s the thing.

RAD kids really DO want to connect, but are scared that if they allow themselves to be vulnerable, the adult will fail them. 

The unfortunate truth: most adults fail most kids at least once. I have failed both our kids, at times.

Since I’ve increased my intent to communicate love, her defenses are dropping. And rocketing skyward.

She wants to connect. She wants to let me know her.

 

But for a RAD child, connection = DANGER.

So, instead of returning the hugs like a typical child, she stands rigid. Sometimes she puts her arms around my waist, barely touching.

And she fights in every way she can.

Last week, she became “sick” when she didn’t want to do something. Her head ached, stomach hurt. Finally, I told her to stay in bed. Or, she could choose to join us but must stop complaining.

Because I wasn’t 100% certain she was faking, I took her temperature. Normal.

Five minutes later, she began calling me. The first time, I dropped by her room. “My head hurts,” she whined.

I told her to close her eyes and try to rest. Three minutes later, she was yelling again. I opened her door. “My stomach!”

Explaining that I had chores to finish, I told her to come get me if she needed something. I went upstairs. She started yelling.

I called down to remind her that she could come get me if she needed me, but I wasn’t coming back downstairs for a while. She started screaming. I shut my door.

Several of my RAD-experienced friends might say I missed an opportunity to bond with her by showing my availability to meet her needs. Unfortunately, we’ve found that whatever behavior gets attention becomes her “thing.”

If I ameliorate imagined aches, they become worse. Much worse. We’ve worked with several counselors; they agree we have to be vigilant about what behaviors receive attention

Half an hour later, she still screamed my name, which told me two things:

  1. She’s determined.
  2. There’s no way she has a headache.

I heard the clothes dryer stop. As I walked down the hall, I called, “Had to come downstairs to get the laundry. If you need me, come get me.”

She called, “My legs don’t work!”

This was new.

I bit.

Opening her door, I asked, “What?”

“I wanted to come get you, but my legs don’t work right now.”

Right.

“That’s too bad,” I said, “but you still may not scream. If you need me, come get me. If it’s an emergency, your legs will work.”

I went back upstairs. She started screaming. I put a movie in for our son, to drown it out.

When she finally stopped, I ran downstairs. “Hey. Just checking on you, now that you’re quiet. How are you feeling?”

She groaned. “Horrible. I think I’m very sick.”

“Oh.” I paused. “Too bad. You have that event tonight. We would need to leave in half an hour. But if you’re sick, you’re sick.”

She sat up. “I forgot!”

I started to close her door.

“Wait,” she said, “I think I’m better! We’re going to eat before we go, right.” It was a statement, not a question. I didn’t like her tone, but ignored it.

“Sure, if you’re hungry.”

She hopped out of bed. I went to the kitchen, heated ravioli and put about a quarter-cup in her bowl.

She sauntered into the kitchen and wrinkled her nose. “I can’t eat.”

I reminded her she’d “asked” whether we’d eat before leaving. In a petulant tone, she informed me she simply wanted to know whether we were going to eat; she didn’t want to eat.

I smiled (not on the inside) and said, “Well, that’s why I only gave you a little bit. Since you’ve been sick.”

“If I eat too much, I’ll throw up,” she said.

Oh, geez. This again.

“Okay, well, if you don’t think you should eat it, don’t. I have to run upstairs.” And I did.

Five minutes later, our son yelled, “I think she’s puking!”

Sure enough.

I put her back to bed.

“But we were going to my event!” she wailed.

“Right,” I said, “but you felt sick, and now you threw up. Sounds like the flu to me, and we can’t risk it. Stay in bed.”

She began to argue, but I stopped her.

“I’m not accusing you of anything, but you and I both know that you can choose to puke. I’m not asking whether you did, because it doesn’t really matter. If you didn’t, and you’re sick, you need to stay in bed. If you did make yourself throw up, you’re still staying in bed as a consequence.”

She huffed and flipped over.

Hubby arrived home, already aware of the situation. When he opened her door, she acted sick for about thirty seconds. Then, wrapped up in their conversation, she dropped all pretense. (Surprise: she wasn’t really sick.) He bade her an early goodnight. We didn’t hear another peep.

The next morning, she “had a headache” before school.

Hubby can always see right through her. “If you complain to your teacher even once, or if you go to the nurse, your afternoon activity is cancelled.”

I worried a bit that she’d be truly ill and try to power through instead of asking for the nurse. I imagined her passing out, falling out of her desk.

Those concerns? For nothing.

That afternoon, she bounced out to the car. “I had a great day! I didn’t feel bad even ONCE!”

***

Here’s the thing. RAD kids use negative behavior to push the “dangerous” loving adult away. When they start to feel connection, they push even harder in reaction.

When I told the counselor about our week, she said, “Congratulations! We’re making progress!”

And then she reminded me that this will probably continue for the next four years. It might get worse before improving.

Super.

I have to go…I think I feel a headache coming on. And I might throw up.

But in the meantime, I know you have a thought to share. How would YOU handle this? What’s worked for you?

If you want more information about RAD, the very first link in this post is a great place to start. 

Jump, It’s Worth It!

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Photo Credit: Ben Becker

Our boy has had some great days in recent weeks. Happy, fun-filled, laughter-ringing, group-hugging kinds of days. Snuggly, wiggly, tickly kinds of days. “Really proud of that kid” kinds of days. Can’t-get-better-than-this kinds of days.

Today was not one of them.

For the last few weeks in particular, he has been generally well-behaved, even at school. Our girl has continued her pitched battle for freedom and control on every possible front. On this particular Tuesday, he’s joined her. Well, to be fair, he hasn’t actually joined her. 

Part of the problem of late is a “wish-I-had-no-sister” attitude. Considering how she goads him, we understand his thought process but he’s still not allowed to be mean. Call it normal sibling rivalry if you like, but we don’t allow it under this roof. (She’s not allowed to be nasty to him, either—sis is just sneakier, so we have to really pay attention to catch it.)

His actions—at home and school—have not been stellar. He’s sort of acted like a Gremlin. Not the fuzzy ones, either.

Her consistent struggle to control is wearing; add his craziness and I’m edging toward the ledge. Hmmmm…should I jump?

Food issues are common among children of neglect. Our little guy fluctuates between eating healthy and eating everything in sight—in the middle of the night.

On one hand, yes, I could not buy unhealthy food, and I’m working on that. In fact, during today’s shopping trip I filled a cart with yogurt, milk, fruits and veggies. The only sweet item was my pumpkin spice coffee creamer mmmmmmmm.

But sometimes (like when we go camping and want to make insanely awesome S’mores using dark chocolate, marshmallows and cinnamon Pop Tarts instead of graham crackers) I buy treats. And then we have leftovers in the pantry.

Other times, I have a craving for Edy’s ice cream, when I’m missing my grandfather. I enjoy a bowlful, after which I forget it’s in the freezer.

This morning we found the empty tart boxes. This afternoon, while cleaning out the freezer, I found two empty ice cream cartons. Likely a direct result of sugar intake: two horrible-not-so-good-rather-bad days at school for the boy.

The silver lining?

I started researching attachment issues again. I found a pretty cool blog called Last Mom.  The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) website showcases some phenomenal articles like this one by Dr. Bruce Perry. More articles are available here. Dr. Perry is with The ChildTrauma Academy.

If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the red-headed-step-mama of education. Sometimes I forget how much information is available, if only I’ll take the time to find it.

For the time being, I’ve scooted my rear end away from the ledge. Reading good information is emotionally settling; I highly recommend it.

And now I have to go check to be sure my little Mogwai is enjoying sound sleep. No snacking after midnight, or we’re in big trouble tomorrow…

Fighting Migraines

Coming soon: resources for parenting RAD kids.

Just as soon as I kick this migraine.

Adoption = Brain Scan, No Cats

So, Friday we went for a CT scan for the girl. Hopefully this will give us more information about what’s going on in her head (literally).

She’s always had academic difficulty, and last year we held her back to repeat second grade. It was the best thing we could have done for her learning; through the first part of third grade, she excelled. She exhibited pride in her work and seemed infinitely happier than we’d ever seen her. Once the class moved past reviewing second grade information, though, she’s had a lot of trouble grasping new concepts.

We have some additional concerns (confusion and tremors, for example), so the doctor sent us for a CT. Actually, the pediatrician, CT tech and her manager all agreed that what we actually need is an MRI, but insurance will only pay for the MRI if we do the CT first. Evidently the MRI is more expensive and they want to know that we’ve exhausted all other options. Never mind exposing a 10-year old to more radiation than necessary.

Not knowing how much of her academic struggle is a result of RAD or defiance, and how much is a result of possible missed connections in the wiring of her brain has been very frustrating. If a child has a brain deficiency, you can’t fault her for not being able to do school work. If a child is pretending not to know how to do something simply to get attention or be oppositional, that’s a completely different issue.

Either way, she’ll need something, but the remedy will be different.

If there’s a problem with her brain thanks to any number possible of factors (bio-mom’s drug habit, pre-natal difficulty, problems during birth, etc.), we’ll likely be looking at additional therapy, more help in school, stricter adherence to routine and checklists, as well as a bigger dose of patience. We won’t allow her to use it as a crutch–in fact, if there’s something wrong with her brain, we don’t plan to tell her–but knowing there’s a weakness, we’ll give her some leeway.

If her brain is running fine with perfect wiring, we’ll rely more on behavior modification and work harder on practicing the concepts that she appears not to cotton. If it’s RAD, she responds very well to tighter boundaries and expectations, because they give her a level of security. She knows how far she can go. As odd as this may sound, she likes to know there are consequences for her behavior.

However, we don’t want to give her consequences for something she can’t control.

Really hoping the tests will give us the answers we need. She needs.

Just a note: if your child needs a CT (aka Cat scan), you may want to prep for the absence of cats. She was somewhat disappointed there were no felines involved.

Adoption = Forgiveness with a Side of Chocolate

Our daughter harbors heartbreaking, heart-aching, anger toward her birth mother.

Thanks to a fun little disorder called RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder, not the cool 80’s “rad”), most of that rage is directed at me. One of RAD’s hallmarks is misdirection of anger toward the person who most closely represents the individual who caused pain. Most children with RAD aren’t aware of what’s happening; it’s not intentional, and it’s important for the “target” to understand that most of the child’s behavior is not a personal attack.

In general, she presents as an almost perfect child and is great at surface interactions. Anyone outside our home or very close inner circle of friends would be shocked that she’s anything but an angel. I did not immediately realize she creates that image on purpose, so was taken aback the day she complained about a classmate who did not like her, stating, “but I’m so sweet!” If you’ve ever seen The Bad Seed (which, in an ironic twist, has always been one of my favorite classic movies), imagine Rhoda. That’s my girl (without the homicidal tendencies, thank goodness).

For much of our time together, she has repressed her true feelings. Sometimes she references “pushing the feelings down” or “keeping myself from coming apart.” Once, she told the counselor that she has “a line,” and she has to make sure she stays “below this line,” tracing a chest-high line in the air. If she feels herself getting “close to the line,” she removes herself from the situation and stays by herself for a while. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, she opens up a little bit; two years ago she told me, “it’s not fair that you get to see your mother.”  This year, her play therapist suggested we try something different. I sat in the waiting room to see if she would talk freely without me. She told the therapist that she is angry at her birth mom. The therapist suggested that she write a letter.

Later that week, Hubby had our son elsewhere, so I asked if she’d like to write a letter. (We’ve made a rule not to discuss the bio family in front of her brother. He’s allowed to bring it up if he likes, but if she references them when he’s present–and not mentally prepared–he has a very negative reaction.) I told her it was just for her, and I wasn’t going to read it unless she decided to share it. She wrote her feelings in large, scrawled letters (she asked me to read it), stating, “I wrote messy because I am VERY ANGRY.”

Several other times, when her brother was away, either she or I have suggested letter writing. The letters have been shorter each time, but still very angry. This past Saturday, in addition to writing the letter, she wanted to talk as we sat in the kitchen. “Why did she get rid of me? Why was she so mean to us?” Still angry, her tone was plaintive. I don’t have good answers. Or any answers, really.

Social services told the kids their mother was unable to provide care because she was “sick,” which then made our girl feel guilty for not being able to be nurse for her mother. On arrival with us, the kids had convinced themselves that social services kidnapped them from their home, had “taken” them from their family. They hated social workers, police, judges and anyone in authority. The few answers I do have are ones I don’t want to give. “Your mother put herself first, neglected and abandoned you, wouldn’t do the few, easy things the judge ordered she must do to keep you and didn’t show up to what she knew was your final meeting.” No. I refuse to break their hearts further. I remained silent and let her talk, praying for the words to help her.

My eyes snapped to the cookbook shelf, and I had an idea. “So, you’re really angry, right?” I asked. “Yes, SO angry. She took my heart and did this,” she said, making a breaking-in-half motion with her hands. “So, do you think she knows that you’re angry?” I reached for my biggest cookbook. She nodded. “She knows.” As I pulled the book down, I asked, “Do you think it’s hurting her back when you’re really mad?” She stood up, always interested in cooking. “Yes. It hurts her. What are you doing?”

I held the cookbook out to her. “I want you to hold this over your head with both hands. Don’t let go, okay?” She took the book, eyeing me with suspicion. “So,” I asked, “how heavy is it?” She shrugged. “Not that heavy. I can handle it.” I smiled. “Great! So, that’s my cookbook. If I held it over my head, it would be heavy, but you’ve got it and you can handle it. Do you think you can hold it up all day?” Her eyes widened. “It might get heavy.”

“So, you’re holding the cookbook. Is it heavy for me?” I asked. She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “It’s not heavy at all for you; you’re not holding it.” I smiled. Maybe this would work. I pulled out one of her Christmas stocking gifts, a sealed plastic candy cane full of chocolate kiss candies, and placed it on the table. “Okay. You can have as many of these as you want.” She gasped happily (candy is usually well-rationed at our house). She started to put the book on the table, but I held out my hand. “Wait. You can have as many of these as you want, BUT you must keep both hands on the book.” She narrowed her eyes, determined. “I can do that.”

I let her try for about two minutes. She attempted to use her elbows, her nose, her mouth. Finally, frustrated, she said, “I have to put the book down.” I smiled. “So. In order to get to the candy, you have to let go of the book, right?” She nodded. “I just said that.”

“Before you put it down, tell me this. Does it affect me one way or another if you’re holding the book?” Slyly, she said, “I can’t give you any candy unless I put the book down. So I should put it down and give you some candy, right?” I laughed. “No, I can get the candy, because I’m not carrying the book. So does it matter to me if you hold the book?”

I reached for the candy. Now she was annoyed. “No. It doesn’t matter to you if I’m holding the book. Are you going to eat my candy? That’s not fair.”

I didn’t want her to lose focus on the idea, so I said, “Okay. Put the book on the table.” As she did, I asked, “So, now you can get to the candy, right?” Ripping open the plastic cane, she said, “Yep.” Praying I wouldn’t lose her to the chocolate, I said, “You know, when we hold onto anger, it only hurts us. When you held my book, it didn’t make a difference to whether I could get the candy. It only kept YOU from getting the candy.” Her eyes held a spark of recognition. “You’ve been holding a lot of anger against your birth mom. Who is it affecting?” Her mouth dropped open. “Me.”

“Is it affecting her?” Mouth full of chocolate, she shook her head. “When we hang onto anger, it hurts us and keeps us from getting to the love,” I pointed to the chocolate kisses, “but it doesn’t affect the other person. It can make us have bad behavior, though, and sometimes we find someone else to treat badly when the person we’re really mad at isn’t here.” She squinted at me, not getting it.

“When you first came to live here, were you nice to everyone?” She nodded enthusiastically. I ask, “Were you nice to Daddy?” Nod. “Were you nice to your brother?” Nod. “Were you nice to me?” Nod–then, “Not really very nice to you.”

“Why do you think that happened?” Eyes wide, she said, “I was mean to you, but I wasn’t mad at you. I was mad at her.” Completely floored she made the connection, I continue, “Right. And I always knew you weren’t mad at me. That’s why I didn’t get mad back.” (Honesty here: even knowing her motivation, it was definitely a lot of work not to take it personally, and sometimes I still did, but I worked hard not to react.)

“If you keep holding the anger against your birth mom, will it hurt her?” She opened another chocolate, one eye on me. “No. It just hurts me.” She slid a foil-wrapped kiss my way.

“Right. That’s why God tells us to forgive. Forgiving is deciding to let go of the anger, like deciding to put the book on the table. He doesn’t want us to forgive so the other person will feel better. He wants us to forgive because holding the anger keeps us from being able to get–and give–love.” I picked up the chocolate. “Could you give this to me while you were holding the book?” She shook her head.

“Forgiving is hard. People have hurt me, too, and when it’s a really big hurt, I think about what happened and get mad all over again. But I have to decide to forgive them over and over, because if I don’t, I can’t love others the way I should, and I can’t get the love I need. You don’t have to forgive her today, but when you’re ready to decide to forgive, I know you’ll feel better.”

“I don’t know if I can forgive her yet,” she said, thinking (and unwrapping more chocolate). “I know,” I say. “Sometimes it takes time. But now you know what you can do to feel better.”

***

The next day, she hugged me. “Can I write a letter to tell her about what I got for Christmas? I’m not going to write a mad letter this time. I forgave her. I’m still a little mad, but I feel better.” I hugged her back, tight.

Blogger JoyRoses13 has a great quote, which I’m stealing: “Bitterness is the poison that we drink ourselves, hoping to kill our enemy.”

Who do you need to forgive? It’s time to put the cookbook on the table.

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