What is Reactive Attachment Disorder?

An infant learns about the world from the moment of he enters it and before. He learns to trust because someone is there to sooth every cry, assuage every hunger, change every diaper. He learns to read his mothers face because it is constantly there smiling, worrying, laughing, mimicking. He learns to understand because there is someone who tries to understand him and introduce him to the wonders of his new world. He learns to trust because the face is the same.

As Jessica Murphy, MSW, LICSW explains, when this doesn’t happen…

…If we are severely neglected, food comes occasionally and randomly, not when we cry from hunger pains. Diaper rashes and urine burns cause constant pain and we give up crying (or asking for anything) because crying brought either nothing or we got yelled at or hit, squeezed, shaken or thrown. And yet somehow some of us fight to survive (some fail to thrive).

For some of us survival means believing that we can meet our own needs either directly, by stealing what we need or indirectly by tricking people into giving us what we need (also known as lying). Because we desperately need human interaction, and we’re not getting love, we will evoke anger just to confirm that we exist and that we are in control. This is called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Reactive, because this survival behavior is in reaction to early neglect and abuse, Attachment Disorder because the inability to form healthy attachments to others including primary caretakers.

How Attachment Impacts Learning

“For children whose early history leads to attachment problems, the following long-term cognitive problems may ensue: poor cause and effect reasoning, difficulties with logical or abstract reasoning, and difficulties in thinking ahead.” – Martha Bordwell

A child who feels unsafe cannot concentrate on learning. A brain that is constantly on guard for danger cannot develop. When you feel that you must take care of yourself, you can’t listen to what others tell you to do or follow directions that do seem to be in your immediate best interests. A child who is struggling to believe that his or her parents can keep her safe is especially vulnerable to feelings of being unsafe in settings away from the home like school.

The insecurely attached child is often hypervigilent causing her to be easily distracted or have difficulty concentrating on school work. They often respond to multiple sensory and emotional triggers in the classroom, have difficulties with transitions and low self-esteem. What separates this child from others with seemingly similar profiles and outward behaviors is that they are driven by deep seated fears and required substantially different interventions and accommodations to allow them to access an appropriate educational environment. Additionally, “traumatic experiences can affect development and cause emotional challenges that interfere with developing social competence. Skills related to reaching out and accepting friendship may take them longer to acquire, further compromising their social success.” – Debbie Riley, M.S. and Ellen Singer, LCSW-C

My Journey as a Parent of a Child with RAD

My daughter is beautiful, loving and kind. She cares about her family and her friends; loves animals and parties. She may treat a total stranger like her new best friend then act like her Papa is someone from Mars. She can be helpful, polite, friendly and sweet or run screaming and slamming doors in her wake. She yells that I am hurting her in the grocery store and pushes me away when she needs me the most. She writes me long letters to say she hates me and signs them “with love, Natalya.”

My daughter has Reactive Attachment Disorder. She spent the first 2 1/2 years of her life in Russian hospitals and orphanages where she learned that she couldn’t trust adults to take care of her. She learned in a very basic and neurological way not to express her feelings and that she must fend for herself – others could not be trusted to keep her safe.

While we know the source of her intense emotions and difficult behaviors, we have often been overwhelmed by them. Starting with breath taking tantrums at 2 ½ and continuing through 14 diagnoses in first grade, heart breaking academic failures, multiple emotional crises, crisis interventions and emergency room visits.

There have also been amazing strides forward when we found the right academic, therapeutic, medical and legal supports. Through persistence and with faith in our daughter, we have sought and found gifted and dedicated teachers and healers who have helped her along the way.  As a family, we have participated in a variety of attachment therapies, intensively and regularly over several years. Natalya has made tremendous progress in learning to trust, becoming self-reliant, and in advocating for her needs.

Working with teachers and administrators has been part of the ongoing challenge as Natalya struggled with multiple educational issues. Because the underlying reasons for many of her academic concerns are different, but her presentations similar to her substantially separate classroom peers, it has been difficult to convince administrators that her placements have not been appropriate. Currently she is attending 12th grade at a private school that addresses her emotional needs and is doing well. Our home is again filled with laughter and our dinner table subject to talk of a busy and multi-faceted school day.  At 19, her focus is on transitioning into adulthood and learning the vocational skills that will allow her to succeed in the field of healthcare.