Bracelets for Our Brothers
Help Us Bring Our Brothers Home
Attachment Disorders
Posted on December 31st, 2016

I am far from a perfect parent.  In fact, I've only been up for a couple of hours, but I'm sure I've already made some mistakes today.  I'm letting my children sleep in a long time this morning so they can stay up all hours of the night tonight to celebrate NYE, but any adoption therapist would tell you that this is probably a huge parenting fail-- letting them be all out of routine can prime them for major dysregulation.  But, sometimes my desire to be "normal" outweighs what I know is right.  And, sometimes, I have no idea what is right.

Before we completed our first home study back in 2014/2015, we had to complete 40 hours of training.  10 of those hours of parenting training were on the general challenges and unique rewards of international adoption in general.  The other 30 were focused on the difficult parts of raising older internationally adopted children.  We learned a lot.  We are also both voracious readers, researchers, and belong to a myriad of different discussion posts, support groups, and attend weekly attachment therapy and have since we came home.  Yet, we still face, every single day, behavior challenges that are related to attachment disorders.

I'd like to share some truths with you first:

1. Many in the Adoption Community are very protective over adoption and want as many people to adopt as possible because it is a cause they feel very passionate about.  I do, too.  If you don't know that about me by now... well, this is probably the first time you've stumbled across my blog.  However, where I may differ in some ways in my philosophy is that I would never want a family to adopt without knowing the reality of doing so.  We absolutely are committed to our decision to adopt, and to do it again!  But, we still have hurdles that are enough to bring me to my knees some days, and we also wake up every day to face our children's past trauma that we will never be able to erase.  That's a difficult pill to swallow for a parent.

2.  Because many in the Adoption Community do not want to dissuade others from adopting (a noble and respectable goal), fostering etc. people tend to write about the positive rewards of adoption.  Guilty here!  And, believe me, there are many.  I would never, ever choose another path for my family-- ever!  However, I think most people also realize that nobody likes a "Debbie Downer" and we tend to scroll past or block out negative posts, and people are also sometimes embarrassed to talk about the things in their family life that are not perfect.

3.  Been to the movies lately?  There are a lot of movies in theaters right now that talk about adoption, reference it, or the main characters are orphaned etc.  We, as a society, have an idealized view of adoption.  There's an orphan, a set of parents save the orphan, it's all good for the orphan now.  While the adoptive parents start their lives with that child at that moment, both the adoptive parents and the child(ren) bring heaps of baggage into the relationship.  Think it is just the kid that has baggage?  Nope.  Some of my greatest parenting struggles have been working through things I need to deal with.  So, again, the rewards are great, but the work is so hard, and I fail every single day.

4.  "All kids do that" or "Sounds like typical teenage behavior to me" are completely false statements.  To say that to an adoptive parent borders on insulting.  Behavior is a direct reflection/manifestation of emotion.  Especially in our case, where our children still struggle to express their feelings verbally, behavior is their avenue for expression.  We have to view behavior through this lens. Our children, as are most adoptive and foster children are, are working through all sorts of emotions that well-attached and well-adjusted children and teenagers will probably never have to work through.  So, yes, when my teenager rolls her eyes at me and gives me the bird, or my youngest has a meltdown tantrum, it probably is a "typical" response to an outside observer, but what that behavior morphs into outside of the public eye is something very atypical.  I'm not saying this to sound like I deserve a gold medal for parenting my children.  I fully realize I signed up for this, and I regret nothing.  I also realize that I am still learning them, and failing more than succeeding.  What I am saying, however, is that there is nothing "typical" about their behavior most of the time, and that is OK.  If we continue to pretend that it is "normal kid stuff" we can't treat the problem.

5.  Reactive Attachment Disorder is real.  I see it every day in my house in both of my children, more so from one than the other, and that will make sense to you as you read more about it.  Because RAD is something often limited to children who have had some sort of disruption in the attachment process early in life (adoption, removal from home, lengthy stays in orphanage, death of parents or some other sort of trauma related to parents/primary caregivers), it is not a heavily discussed diagnosis and leads to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding in our day to day interactions with others-- even medical professionals who are not well-versed in this diagnosis.  Neil and I have sat in countless doctor offices, school meetings, etc. trying to get others to understand this disorder.  We also have faced shaming, judgement, comments about our parenting style and/or our children's behavior.  Most we can dismiss, but it still hurts.

As a quick example, one of my children is prone to extreme meltdown emotional outbursts.  She will scream for hours (literally, the longest we've clocked was 6 hours straight, no break, no tears, just blood-curdling screaming), hit, punch, kick, throw things, self-harm, etc.  We left Bulgaria in bruises, and I still get clocked in the chest, arm or face sometimes if I am not careful (but I bet you could never picture my child doing this if you know her!).  We have gotten much better at knowing her triggers and when these episodes are coming (they are always exclusively at home, I'll tell you more why later), preventing them, or shortening duration of them.  

However, recently when we were staying at a hotel she became triggered into one of these episodes as we were loading the van and getting ready to drive off to our destination.  Inside the van she became out of control- screaming, kicking, hurting us and her sister, destroying property in the van etc.  We have been trained to remove her from places where she can self-harm or harm us.  This is SO much easier at home!  We have a safe space that she can go to until she is ready to regulate and return to our family life.  Also putting her in public view helps (again, I'll explain more about RAD momentarily) because she typically reserves these behaviors for us, so we will often go for a walk.  However, when we are on the road, it becomes harder.  We sat her on the curb in the nearly empty hotel parking lot.  We sat with her for a few minutes until she was calm, and let her sit there to regulate herself before getting back into the car (about 7 minutes).  We were never more than 2 feet from her, she was never out of our watchful eye.  However, within seconds of us placing her there outside of our car, we had people calling the police stating that we were abandoning our child (we were sitting right there...), the hotel staff began photographing and video recording our family for the entire duration of the event and wrote a written report about us.  When our child was calm, we walked inside to the hotel and I addressed the videos and pictures.  I explained, in the easiest way I could about RAD, and that she was always in our care.  And, then, the hotel staff said the unthinkable: "We thought you kidnapped her because she doesn't look like you, and that you brought her here to abuse her.  We were concerned and were about to call CPS and the police."

And, there you have it, folks.  The silent nightmare that nearly EVERY adoptive family lives in.  Most of us live in perpetual fear that our child's behavior, different appearance, how we parent because we know it's the right way for OUR family will be called into scrutiny.  I have lost count of how many stories I've heard from other families just like this one.  I know of multiple children who have lied through their teeth to the teachers or any other adult who will listen about stories of abuse, neglect, not being fed at home etc.  And, because RAD children are typically rather charming to adults who are not their parents, the adults buy the story.  I know, personally, of many adoptive families who have been questioned by schools, police, and CPS.  For many of us, it is a matter of time.  As if we didn't go through enough scrutiny by these institutions BEFORE we brought our children home...

Because we were out of state and left the hotel quickly after this exchange, no police involvement ever came of our story.  But, we know many people have video footage and pictures of our family they could spin any way they want to.  We live in concern that these items will one day surface on social media.  Because they don't understand THIS:

Reactive Attachment Disorder: 

A simple definition via google search looks a little something like this:
​Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is one of the few disorders listed in the DSM-IV that can be applied to infants. It is a disorder caused by a lack of attachment to any specific caregiver at an early age, and results in an inability for the child to form normal, loving relationships with others.

But, I know that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, so let me elaborate:

Normal attachment goes a little something like this-- parents have a child, infant has needs (food, diaper, sleep, shelter, soothing, etc.), those needs are repeatedly met by one or both parents on a regular basis.  Think about how many times those needs are met in just the first few weeks of infancy.  As the child grows older, those needs become more complex: child falls down, needs a band-aid and kiss on the boo-boo, child accomplishes something and receives praise, child gets sick and needs comforting medical attention, child struggles with new task, the same caregiver steps in to help.  Meanwhile, the cycles of feeding, nurture, and affection are still being repeated over and over again by the same caregiver(s)-- mom and dad.

In adopted children, most have a parade of caregivers.  The word "transient" defines their childhood.  When their needs ARE met (and oftentimes they are not-- my children often went hungry, did not receive medical attention, did not receive praise for good efforts, did not receive help with difficult tasks etc.), they are met by a myriad of staff, most of whom (in our empirical observation) do not have the best interest of children at the center of their motivation.  

So, what happens when a child has cycle after cycle of unmet attachment needs?  They often develop RAD.  They also learn to survive.  This can look different by the child, we see it manifest differently in both of our children, even though their circumstances were very similar.  One child survives by sheer determination and a desire to be fiercely independent.  The other child survives by controlling everything she possibly can and by exerting learned helplessness (often looks like laziness).  

Most commonly, though, these children learn to survive through charming adults.  Chances are, if you've interacted with my children, you've walked away saying that they are so charming and cute!  Especially my little one!  Oh my goodness, what a cutie and a little charmer.  Watch out, she's working you.  If you've had interaction with my youngest, you probably immediately noticed how friendly, outgoing, and affectionate she is-- even when she didn't know you.  That might make you feel good, but it makes us as parents very concerned.  This is called "indiscriminate affection" and is a red flag for RAD.  It can lead her into many dangerous situations, and can later manifest into promiscuity and reckless choices.  Our youngest child will hug anyone, charm anyone, touch anyone, follow anyone, and would transition right on into a new place if she had to.  If one day someone told her, "hey, you're going to come live with me now", she'd be like "ok, cool!" and the only thing she'd really miss would be her sister, because that is the only true attachment she's ever had (her sister functioned as a caregiver for years).  Think I'm kidding?  I'm not.  And, I used to take it personally, until I really did my homework about RAD.  It's not personal.  It's not about me.  It's about her trauma, and we are going to work on it as long as it takes.

The problem for us as parents comes in when trying to explain RAD to others who are unfamiliar with it.  The worst interactions, we've discovered, are professionals who work with children in some capacity, and therefore think that they know what is best for our child, and it often backfires.  It is difficult to explain to someone "please don't hug, kiss, pick up my child, give her special treats etc." because people look at you like you have three heads-- believe me, I know a lot of people who have a solid opinion about me that I am crazy for making these requests, in writing sometimes when there was a refusal to comply with our wishes as parents.  But, taking time to really understand RAD can allow for healing.  The only way to redirect these children and give them hope of understanding how to function in a family and how to build attachment correctly, is to have needs met by the parents as often as possible.... and not to fall for the charm!

Based on the many discussion forums I participate in, I know adoptive parents are dealing with this diagnosis daily.  I also know they are frustrated with the lack of accessible literature to help others in their lives understand RAD.  Let's change that!  I will plan to post candidly about our struggles and the behaviors we see.  Our successes.  Our failures.  I will always protect our family's privacy to the greatest extent possible, but if we are not honest, we cannot heal.

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Shannon - December 31st, 2016 at 4:25 PM
Thank you for writing this. Dealing with RAD behavior has been my life for 14 years. You are not the only mother who has been hit. My heart goes out to you. My daughter "charmed" other adults but I had to start calling it what it really was. Manipulating. When she was young it wasn't deliberate other than to appease adults. You as so right that the system puts many transient helpers in their path. As you point out, the special behavior is saved for home. It hasn't been until more recently that we have had to deal with judgement from other adults about lies that have been told and we never know when we will be confronted by someone. My reality has been so different that what she prjoects.
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