I am not a doctor, a therapist, or a psychologist. I don't have a college degree and I have no formal training dealing with Attachment Disorders. What I do have is the wisdom and knowledge gained from living with and raising two children with varying degrees of Attachment problems for the past (nearly) seven years. I have personal experience of the horrors of Attachment Disorder (or Reactive Attachment Disorder...I tend to use them interchangeably). I've talked to therapists, read many books and papers on the subject, and have listened to seminars. And I've prayed. A lot.
So what is an Attachment Disorder?
This is not a scientific explanation. It's mine, in my own words, based on my reading, conversations, and personal experience.
Children learn how to "attach", or bond, with other people in healthy relationships when they are infants. For the first three years of life, children are learning how to trust others to meet their needs, how to have compassion, how to feel and communicate various emotions, and how to love with a whole heart. Their brains are always making new connections, and they learn most of these things from interacting with their mother, or primary caregiver. Every time a baby cries and his needs are met in a loving way, he learns to trust. He learns compassion from his mother's reactions to his cues, and he mimics the emotions on her face and in her mannerisms, which will eventually become his own. A healthy mother-baby relationship in which the baby is lovingly and consistently taken care of by predominantly one person sets the stage for the rest of that baby's life, giving him the ability to trust other people, express his needs and wants, and communicate and bond in a significant way.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When the mother (or primary caregiver, such as father or daycare provider) is not loving or nurturing, and they fail to consistently meet the baby's needs in a loving way, the baby learns that adults cannot be trusted to care for him. He learns that he can only rely on himself, and if his needs are never or rarely met, he stops crying altogether. If his needs are met only sporadically, he learns that adults will sometimes meet his needs, but are not reliable, and he may cry more and more in an attempt to have his needs met. Without the mother-baby bond, he is confused about emotions, never properly learning how to identify them or express them. His conscience, learned through watching his mother, is not formed. He does not learn how to form healthy relationships with other people. In fact, relationships in which he is not in control scare him to death.
In the mind of a child with RAD, loving, depending on, and submitting to an authority figure, such as an adoptive parent, is absolutely terrifying. They will fight it with their lives unless they are taught to trust in a safe and loving environment.
I was interested to discover a few things about RAD in my research, one being that the brainwaves of people with RAD actually look very different from those of normal brains. The connections that were supposed to be formed in infancy simply were not formed, or they are miswired. So in actuality, Attachment Disorders are physical handicaps. The good news is that because of the miracle of creation, the brain can be somewhat rewired. New connections can be made, and will need to be made if healing is to be achieved. And the younger the age of the child, the more hope there is for healing.
I also discovered that not all Attachment Disorders are found in adopted or neglected kids, as is usually the case. Sometimes, it is caused by a sudden separation of mother and baby, whether permanent, as in death, or temporary, as in vacation or illness. Sometimes postpartum depression causes an emotional separation between mother and child. Too much time away, such as daycare, or frequent changes in daycare, can lead to the same instability for a baby or toddler. A lot depends on the psyche or personality of the child; some children are far more susceptible to developing attachment problems than others. As a precaution, and based on lots of reading and experience, I recommend a mother never leaving a child under three years old for more than twenty-four hours, and staying home as much as possible with babies and toddlers. Adopted children especially need their adoptive mom with them continuously in order to establish the bond that will either make or break the rest of their lives. Staying home with Mom, avoiding daycare altogether, gives young children the best chance to succeed, but if it's not possible, it's best to find a single bonding-focused daycare provider that is committed to staying with your child for his entire first three years.
What are symptoms of an Attachment Disorder?
Attachment Disorder Symptoms (taken from Nancy Thomas, Attachment.org)
(I have highlighted the symptoms we've encountered in our home, and added comments in purple)
• Superficially engaging & charming - Miss M, who acts like an angel outside the home, manipulates with sweetness; Mr. J has at times even pulled the wool over our eyes to get what he wants
• Lack of eye contact on parents terms - our kids have perfect eye contact when they're lying or disrespectful, none if we're being affectionate or serious
• Indiscriminately affectionate with strangers - It's easier (feels safer to her) for Miss M to get the affection she needs from "non-threatening" (as in superficial, non-permanent) relationships, although we have made significant progress here since we began homeschooling
• Not affectionate on Parents’ terms (not cuddly) - Miss M especially gives "stiff as a board" hugs, although, again, we've made huge strides here
• Destructive to self, others and material things (accident prone) - somewhat
• Cruelty to animals
• Lying about the obvious (crazy lying) - Mr.J especially, and he will stick to his story no matter how obviously ridiculous it may be...he would fight to the death
• Stealing - due to lack of impulse control and conscience, "I want it, I take it" attitude, we don't have a huge problem with this, although a few years ago, Miss M was stealing things from predominantly me
• No impulse controls (frequently acts hyperactive) - especially at bedtime and when they've been overstimulated or given too much free reign, they do not regulate (calm themselves down) well
• Learning Lags - lack of common sense and unable to apply concepts, Miss M has difficulty understanding humor
• Lack of cause and effect thinking - the reason normal consequences don't usually work
• Lack of conscience - we've seen the biggest improvement here! Still a long ways to go...
• Abnormal eating patterns - Mr. J will eat himself sick if allowed
• Poor peer relationships - Mr. J, because he's a ticking time bomb, and other kids like to set him off for "fun"
• Preoccupation with fire
• Preoccupation with blood gore
• Persistent nonsense questions & chatter - as if uncomfortable, tries to dominate conversation
• Inappropriately demanding & clingy - Mr J and Miss M have had to be taught to "go play", they would rather observe everything we do, Mr. J in particular is an attention and sympathy seeker
• Abnormal speech patterns - Miss M can't decipher phonetics, word endings, says many things incorrectly
• Triangulation of adults - Lisa's definition: trying to pit adults against each other, i.e. Mom vs. Dad, parent vs. teacher, both kids use this as an attempt to control authority figures, i.e "My Mom won't let me..." or "You have to do this because my teacher said...."
• False allegations of abuse
• Presumptive entitlement issues - "I should have this because I want it" or "I shouldn't have to if I don't want to", they truly believe that their opinion or desire is always right
• Parents appear hostile and angry - only when trying to parent without Jesus, we're pretty calm when we remember to let Him parent for us!
I'm not an expert. Or maybe, in a way, I am. I'm a mom. A "Trauma Mama", as a friend recently called me. Forced to live with the trauma inflicted on my children by other people, now out of their lives.
This is a rough road, the one we're on. My husband and I have made many glaring mistakes, sometimes causing more harm when the intent was to do good. We've parented in anger. We've held onto pain and rejection and sometimes allowed it to poison us. We've felt entirely alone. We've been misunderstood and judged poorly by people who know nothing about us and even by people we love. We've been given vast quantities of parenting advice by well-meaning people that have no idea what Reactive Attachment Disorder even is. But, by the grace of God and the power of His Holy Spirit, we continue to persevere.
And little by little, month by month, year by year, we're seeing God do great things in the lives of our damaged children and in our relationships with them. Mr. J has suffered a tremendous setback at the onset of puberty, but we are hopeful he will recover. Miss M is becoming a whole new person; I see it in her eyes, her actions, her smile, and in my own heart. Painful inch by painful inch, we are moving forward. We are healing.