Children in Foster Care, Education, Forgotten Fridays, Foster ParentingNov. 10, 2017

Forgotten Friday | Understanding Reactive Attachment Disorder

Our kids (both adopted from foster care) have Reactive Attachment Disorder. Kids with RAD engage in intense power struggles with their caregivers because they have learned their previous caregivers didn’t do a good job of meeting their needs.

For our kids, here’s what these power struggles look like: If we give our kids a two-step instruction, they do the second step before they do the first step. If we 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 our 50-60 degree weather 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.

If we issue a consequence to our kids, they will yell that we are mean and scream and kick for sometimes up to an hour. When I ask J to walk, he runs. When I ask K to run, she walks. Our 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 go play while the two of us talk. Sometimes our daughter even refuses to complete basic hygiene tasks (hand-washing, wiping after pottying, showering, etc).

In therapy we’ve been working on trust–so, the therapist blindfolds the kids and has one of us lead the child around the office. Immediately, their arms and hands begin to feel for something familiar. They stick out a foot and feel around before taking a step. A nervous giggle sometimes turns into out of control laughing. Our kids fight for control in nearly every situation.

Conversely, they are totally sweet and compliant around strangers or those who 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. K demonstrates this by giving lots of hugs and wanting to be right next to others (teachers, day care staff, relatives) at all times. She’ll play with their hair, touch their jewelry, compliment them on their clothes/house/hair/etc.

J exercises perfect compliance in new situations with new people. At every school he’s ever attended, he’s gone three months with no behavioral incidents. After three months when he sees he’s not going anywhere, the deal is off. This year the principal and teachers were so concerned and emailed us multiple times in October when J let his guard down; I explained that this is the real J–that now he feels safe at school and knows he’s not going anywhere…I’m sure they thought I was a nut-bag.

This morning on the way to school J argued with me about something; I replied by saying, “Thank you for letting me know that we still need to practice being compliant” (a phrase our therapist has instructed us to use). J 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 my car. He was still out of control when the bell rang, so I scooped him out of the car–shoeless–and carried him into school. The principal, the secretary, and a handful of kids stared, mouths open. I sat him down in the front foyer and we practiced following instructions until he was ready to go to school…late for the fifth time this year thanks to these morning power struggles.

Admittedly: I am EXHAUSTED. The mental effort and physical restraint it takes to parent my children is leaving me feeling like an overused simile. My body aches on a regular basis. My nerves are shot. Taking my kids both into public places alone is my nightmare because it inevitably elicits judgmental stares from strangers when I use the integrative parenting techniques suggested by our therapist and RAD literature.

And still, I love them. I love them so much that I’ll quit my full-time job (that I love) to be more free to take them to counseling and occupational therapy and psychiatry appointments or just to run to school to eat lunch with them. I love them so much that I’ll fight my instinct to spank them when they’re defiant because physical consequences don’t work for RAD kids. I love them so much that I’ll drag all of us to a store in the evening so we can practice being appropriate while I shop. I love them so much that I’ll bypass reading my new memoir to read a book on parenting kids with attachment trauma.

I love them so much that I’ll try to ignore the judgmental stares and comments from people who have no clue what it’s like to parent my children. I will love them through their tantrums–I’ll pop in my ear plugs and rub their back while they scream and kick out all their mad. Parenting kids with attachment trauma is tough work…so find a foster or a foster-adoptive parent and give them a hug, withhold advice (especially if you’re not or have ever been a foster parent), and tell them they’re doing a good job because they need this encouragement so desperately.

Danielle Helzer

Danielle Helzer is a wife and a new mother of two hilarious and resilient second graders she and her husband adopted from foster care. Professionally, Danielle is a Writing Coach at a community college. Her work has appeared on Her View From Home, The Huffington Post blog, Parent.Co, Sammiches and Psych Meds, and Scary Mommy. You can connect with her on Facebook and read more of her writing at her blog, A Failed Millennial.



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