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What raising a child with reactive attachment disorder has taught me about parenting

Posted April 6

There is no instructional manual for parenting. My experience may be similar to many other parents' experiences, but it's also much different. What worked for me may not work for you, and what works for you may not work for me.

As I jumped into this new thing called fatherhood after adopting our first son when he was 6 years old, I felt as though I was failing in some way. I love my child dearly and hugged him multiple times a day, but the love just wasn’t reciprocated. He wasn't a "daddy's boy" or a "mama's boy" — he wasn’t showing attachment to anyone.

I brought it up to his pediatrician who assured me it wasn't anything to worry about. I held on to that until I started to notice other children and how they interacted with each other. My child just didn’t seem to care about things the way the other kids did.

It wasn’t until my wife and I decided to try a new pediatrician that we received the diagnosis that our then-8-year-old son, Bracken, had reactive attachment disorder. It’s a rare condition, and it can be quite serious. The condition prevents him from forming attachments with others because his emotions are wired a bit differently.

Children with RAD do not learn the same way as other children do. Their brain is wired to seek safety and security first, and not love.

According to the Sundance Canyon Academy, RAD may develop when a child's basic needs aren't met and healthy, stable attachments are not made with others. RAD can happen when a baby or child goes from one caregiver to another. It's not clear why some babies and children develop RAD and others don't. Most often, RAD has been found in children who have been severely neglected, however RAD occurs in less than 10 percent of neglected children.

While my parenting situation with a child that has a complex psychiatric disorder may be different than others, there are some lessons I've learned from raising my son, who is now 17, that I believe can benefit any parent-child relationship:

• Solve problems logically. Every parent has problems to solve, and the ability to solve them is what makes parenting a success. But remember, problem-solving isn't always the parents' job. Turning to the child to help identify the issues at hand and come up with solutions can be quite empowering to the child and parent.

Many times, my son would fail his tests in school. Though he knew the test was coming up, he would not study. When I asked him if he studied, he would just say no and walk away unconcerned. As frustrating as this could be, I knew his condition was playing a role in his lax behavior.

Instead of attacking him with questions of why he didn’t study, my wife and I approached the situation logically. We encouraged him to consider what would happen if he did study. He knew that if he were to study, he'd do well on the test. If he did well on the test, he'd get better grades in school. If he got better grades in school, he’d receive more privileges at home.

• Demonstrate flexibility. Your child is his own individual, and accepting that and working with him will make you and him most happy.​ Many parents will state what they believe is right and force their child to conform "or else."

Instead, understanding why the child is behaving the way he is can bring about solutions that the child will be much more willing to follow through on to change his thinking and behavior.

With the situation of our son studying for tests, we had to approach it differently than we might have with another child. Children with RAD want to feel in control. That’s what gives them a sense of security and safety. Being able to turn the table and give him control over his grades seemed to be exactly what was needed.

• Communicate consequences, but show love. Understanding and experiencing consequences are extremely important for children with RAD, and for all children. If the consequence is tied to something important to the child, it will make a larger impact on them. But parents have to be sure to review the consequence before the behavior takes place.

So, if there is a test coming up soon, it's important that I remind my son that if he doesn’t study and fails the test, he will not be able to do the extra activities we'd planned for the upcoming weekend. When this type of scenario happens — he fails a test for lack of preparation — he will undoubtedly be frustrated by the consequences. But it's important that as soon as we take a privilege away, we show him that we still love him.

• Emphasize self-improvement. We are teaching our child to identify issues within himself and then identify ways to work with them. With time, our son will understand how to connect with others. Self-awareness and taking actions to change thinking and behaviors is a skill he can use forever.

As a parent, I believe I am teaching him that we don't have to just accept who we are, but we can make changes within ourselves to improve our lives.

Tyler Jacobson is a husband, father, freelance writer contact him at tylerpjacobson@gmail.com. Read more effective methods to work with troublesome teenagers - http://helpyourteennow.com/

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