Happy holidays or raving RAD Days? Reactive Attachment Disorder and holidays often don’t play well together. Here’s what to do when your RAD kid sabotages and ruins the holidays.
It’s Always Something
Seems like it never fails. You’ve worked hard to establish a routine and a schedule for your family that works. You’ve even figured out everyone’s dietary needs – foods that are not only healthy to the body, but also which foods help promote good emotional health — and which ones trigger allergies, aggression, crankiness, and even meltdowns — and you avoid those like the plague.
You may have even received counseling, parental training, and help and support from other parents like you and you’ve learned so much. All in all, life is chugging along reasonably well. Nowhere near perfect of course, but as well as can be expected, all things considered. You’re beginning to think that maybe – just maybe – this could actually work.
Then the holidays arrive. And all hell breaks loose.
Your RAD kid, always an extreme challenge before, is now suddenly chaos personified. All those disturbing behaviors that vex you to the point of ripping out your hair as steam shoots from your ears – behaviors that were finally beginning to improve — return with a vengeance, having now doubled or even tripled in intensity.
Heck, your kid may even throw a few new shenanigans into the mix for good measure.
Why, oh WHY! you moan to yourself (and probably your spouse). It almost seems as if they were purposely trying to sabotage the holidays and make everyone miserable. And if your RAD child has been with you for over a couple of years, you wonder why this happens every year without fail.
And what you can do about it.
Give Me the “Why”
Some parents believe that the “why” doesn’t matter, so long as they have the tools to handle the “what”. And that’s fine for them, but I disagree because for me, handling someone with a major problem becomes so much easier when I understand why they do the things they do. And I think it may help the kids with RAD to a certain extent, to know that their parents understand them…at least somewhat. As a former RAD kid, I know it would have helped me as well as my bewildered parents.
There are many reasons a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder will create chaos during the “happy” holidays, making them very unhappy indeed.
- Lack of routine/disrupted schedule. No matter how well you had that routine and schedule nailed down, come holiday time, much of that goes straight out the window.
- Same goes with diet. Virtually no one feeds their kids perfectly for all 365 days of the year. It may be an unintentional slip-up, or you may just want to let your kids have a special treat now and then during this time of year. Nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s not overdone.
- Hypervigilance shifts into overdrive. RAD kids tend to be hypervigilant even in the “normal” times. Now add the excitement and anxiety that always seems to accompany holidays and you’ll think you’re in the wrong season. With all the meltdowns and fireworks going off all over the place, it must be July fourth!
- Need for control. Due to a past (sometimes a horrific past) that they had absolutely no control over, RAD kids have a need to control things in order to feel safe. A lack of routine, plus the excitement and anxiety can create the perfect storm that they feel they must get control of. So, they do it however they can.
- Sensory overload/overstimulation. Well, it’s the holidays. Need I say more?
- Poor self-image. This can affect even the uninhibited RAD child. They just hide it well.
- Old memories and flashbacks triggered. Deep down, these kids are already grieving, but these things can intensify it.
- A feeling they don’t belong. This was my constant, abusive companion well into adulthood. On rare occasion, it still tries to rear its ugly head (but then I stomp it to bits). At any rate, family traditions that kids with RAD were not always part of can intensify this feeling. When the Christmas stockings with everyone’s names, special ornaments and holiday decorations are pulled out, to be oohed and aahed over and the other kids wax nostalgic and begin to reminisce, the RAD kids will feel like they’re not really part of the family. Especially if it’s their first holiday with you.
Paradoxically, the times I used to feel like this was anytime lots of relatives would visit – and I wasn’t the only adopted child in the family, either! Nor was I ever treated any differently than anyone else. I’d be having loads of fun, playing with cousins and enjoying the company of my aunts and uncles (I dearly loved my family and felt blessed to have them, but thanks to RAD I’d have never admitted it), when suddenly the horrible feeling that I didn’t belong would come over me. I’d slink off to another room and sit by myself in misery.
- High expectations. Let’s face it, every year we tell ourselves that this year, we’re keeping it simple. This year, we’re going to chill. This year, we’re not going to overdo it. This year, we’ll…and then it happens. Our simple, nearly stress-free plans are run over and flattened by the Polar Express. Not helpful even in the best of conditions, it’s a true deal-breaker with RAD kids.
- Too. Many. Presents. But – you want your kids to feel special. How much they’re wanted and loved. Grandma and Grandpa want the same thing. So does Aunt Belle, Uncle Louie, cousin Ellie, your neighbors, coworkers, friends…you get the picture. But first off, remember – stuff doesn’t equal love! Besides this, many RAD kids already come preloaded with a sense of entitlement, and piles of presents will only make it worse. Even for those who don’t have a sense of entitlement, getting so much stuff can still be overwhelming (see “Sensory overload/overstimulation” above). And the type of presents they get matters a great deal. We’ll take a look at that in the next section.
What to Do
- It’s pretty much impossible to perfectly stick to business as usual during the holiday season. But try to do so as much as you can (including limiting the foods that contribute to anarchy), even if it means turning down a few invitations and saying no to some suggested activities. Especially say no to those that seem to bring the RAD monster back out of the closet, scarier than ever.
- Speaking of invitations and activities — for those you do decide to participate in, keep your kids in the loop and not in the dark. Explain to them ahead of time where you’ll be going, and even why if need be. Tell them what you’ll be doing, and for how long. For kids who have a tendency toward high anxiety and/or meltdowns, you could even figure out together a prearranged signal they could give you if they’re nearing the end of their rope.
- Lower your expectations. This would seem to be a no-brainer, but it’s so easy to get all too caught up in that perfect, make-believe Hallmark world. Leave the Hallmark dimension and return to your own, difficult as it may be. Keep your feet on the ground and your pragmatic hat on.
- Discuss the upcoming holidays ahead of time, especially for RAD kids who are new additions to the family. Talk about your family’s traditions and their former family’s traditions if they’re willing. Discuss which traditions are hard for them and ways to make them easier – even if that means forgoing some of your family’s traditions for a few years. And if your child has been with you awhile and last year’s holidays were awful (and maybe the year before that, and the year before that), brainstorm together ways to make them better this year. This is also a good time to discuss how we can’t always get everything we want.
- Insist not only on fewer gifts, but make sure the ones they do get are things they need (like clothes, etc.) and things that promote family unity – like cards or board games. You could even create a “gift certificate” for a trip or activity they’ve been wanting to do, one that could involve the family. Even though the family goes, you can still make it that child’s special trip by letting him or her make some of the decisions, like where you will eat lunch (within reason of course. A bakery or candy store probably isn’t a great idea.). You could even note on the gift certificate that the child gets to choose an activity or trip; for example: Choose either a) snowboarding; b) the zoo; or c) the aquarium. Avoid gifts that encourage them to withdraw, like smartphones, headphones (unless they’re noise-canceling, for kids with auditory sensory issues), video games, and the like.
- Be willing to go along with as many small, easy requests as you can. Kids hear no a lot, and a kid from an abusive or otherwise difficult background has heard it far more. Take some time out to bake those cookies with them, play that game, read that story, or drive around looking at Christmas lights.
A Future and a Hope
“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for well-being, and not for calamity, in order to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
RAD kids don’t join your family with an evil plan to make your life a living hell. They’re broken, and their brains have literally been rewired from their original design into jumbled circuitry. But the good news is, brains can be rewired!
It takes an army of very special parent-warriors to raise children with RAD and other disorders. Although you may call it “thrill-seeking” or “crazy!”
Looking back, I’m amazed my parents survived because almost no one at that time had even heard of RAD, much less learned ways to deal with and eventually overcome it. But by the grace of God, survive they did, and eventually the RAD monster was yanked from the closet and cast down to the deepest pit where it belonged.
If they could survive RAD, you can survive it, and even thrive. If I could eventually overcome RAD without therapy or parents who knew how to parent a RAD kid, your kids can, too – and so much faster. You have the knowledge and the tools, and hopefully a support network (if not, a quick search will turn up many options).
May your holidays this year be calmer, happier, and altogether blessed!