R.A.D. is the anagram used to refer to Reactive Attachment Disorder, which is a trauma-induced behavioral disorder that inhibits a child’s ability to form healthy attachments to their caregivers.
Kids who have this disorder have usually experienced significant trauma within the first few months/years of their lives, and, as a result, the area of their brain that forms proper emotional attachments doesn’t develop correctly. This leaves them unable to view caregivers as providers of emotional comfort, instead viewing them as practical providers of daily needs.
It’s not that they don’t want to attach to their parents. It’s that they don’t have the piece of their mental puzzle that would allow it. It was disabled at an early age.
Because of the trauma they’ve been through, kids with RAD also struggle to control their emotions, sustain healthy friendships, and make safe choices. Many of them have other, overlapping disorders, as well, such as ADHD, ODD, BPD, or Schizophrenia.
A significant number of children who have RAD have been removed from their biological parents due to severe abuse or neglect. They often end up in foster care or adopted, which means their inability to bond with caregivers fall on the adults who’ve chosen to take care of them. Even when a child is taken into foster care at birth, they can still have Reactive Attachment Disorder due to stress in the womb.
(That’s right – the brain begins to develop emotions and attachment before a child is even born!)
It’s important to note that, the majority of the time, R.A.D. kids have the most difficult time connecting to the mother figure in their life. Fathers also experience backlash from their child’s attachment disorder, but it’s statistically signficantly worse for mothers.
Oftentimes, kids with RAD never bond to their adoptive mothers at all, and end up funneling the majority of their anger toward their mothers. They won’t let their mothers “mother” them, so to speak, because it might result in emotional connection. To kids with RAD, emotional connection is either painful, unfamiliar, or confusing.
These are the kids who will refuse to accept hugs or physical affection from their mother, but immediately run to everyone else for snuggles.
They’re the kids who will scream at their mother for three hours about eating a vegetable at dinner, but then eat everything on their plate when with another adult.
They’re the ones who’ll say they hate their mother, destroy everything that belongs to their mother, make harmful threats against on their mother’s life… and then act like perfect angels at sleepovers.
They’re the ones who’ll steal from their own homes, but then convince their teachers at school they don’t have enough food, clothes, money, love, etc.
I could go on forever, but the point is that they refuse to let their mothers show them love. Emotionally, they can’t handle receiving that from the maternal figure in their life. However, when others offer it–people who aren’t their maternal figure–they accept it willingly. They even chase it. They crave it.
That’s part of the attachment disorder, guys.
When you pick that kid up and snuggle them for hours on end, you’re stealing the opportunity for them to bond with their mom. If the kid always has someone else to meet those needs for them, they’ll never go to their mom for it. And that’s part of their therapy plan!
When you tell a RAD mom how “perfect” her child was while he/she was with you, you’re not telling her anything she doesn’t know, and you’re implying that you’ve done something better than what she usually does.
When you work with a student at school who has RAD and you provide them with special treatment because you believe they’re being neglected at home, you’re exacerbating the problem. When you don’t trust the adults/therapists in their life to tell you the truth, you’re allowing them to triangulate you and their parents, which gives them the opportunity to manipulate people from all angles. That’s not helpful to them, no matter how much you want to feel like a rescuer.
Please, please, please be careful if you have the opportunity to live life alongside a family who deals with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Every time you give in to the temptation of “rescuing” that child by giving them something they should be receiving from their mother, you’re setting them back further in their recovery.
If you’re not sure what to do, talk to the parents directly. Ask them what they need from you, find out how you can be supportive of their therapy plan, and ask them what your interactions with their child should look like. Trust me. Ask as many questions as you want, even if they feel offensive. I can promise you there’s nothing you could ask them that hasn’t already been asked of them by a judgmental stranger.
Stop judging them, and get involved with their recovery process.