What is reactive attachment disorder, or RAD? In this first in a series exploring RAD you will learn what RAD is, the symptoms, and get a glimpse into the life of one who grew up with this horrible, yet treatable, disorder.
Dude, That’s Totally Rad!
For those of us old enough to remember the ancient eighties, the totally awesome adjective, “rad,” probably conjures up a few fond memories. “Rad” is, of course, short for “radical” and in the eighties, either the long or short form would do just fine.
Basically, it meant “awesome” with a bit of a twist – to have big hair and a stylish short skirt was awesome; to have big hair dyed in a bright, wild color and a short leather skirt with fishnet stockings was radical, or rad. The addition of a safety pin in the cheek would make it totally rad!
But in the eighties, virtually no one outside of medical circles had heard of the other rad. The one that wasn’t radical or rad by the slang standards of the day, totally awesome or even awesome in the slightest.
This other rad was – and is – the mysterious, ugly tormentor, the destroyer of so many lives, now known as Reactive Attachment Disorder. What is Reactive Attachment Disorder?
The word strikes fear into the hearts of many who know what it is, even those toughest and bravest of souls, the parents of the afflicted children. Maybe especially them. After all, they’re the weary warriors, daily battling the RAD demons that are tearing apart their families and threatening to swallow their children up in the process.
As for the children themselves, depending upon their individual level of RAD, they move through life like zombies. Oh, they may seem fine to those who don’t live with them. They may seem a bit shy, yet normal, or they may come across as extremely gregarious, anxious to please, and even happy.
You see, it’s on the inside where the zombies live.
How do I know this? I was a RAD kid.
What is RAD?
Reactive Attachment Disorder is the result of a baby not fully bonding with her birth mom, causing an inability to bond with a caregiver later, such as an adoptive parent or foster parent.
Notice I said, “not fully bonding,” because research has shown that the bonding process begins in pregnancy, perhaps as early as conception. Once the baby is born, for the first two months of life, she believes she and her mother are literally one.
We all know that babies cry in order to get their needs met. Baby is hungry, in pain, needs to be changed, cuddled, or whatever, and mom responds. Consistently, lovingly responding over and over for the first year of life teaches the baby that she is cared for and will be kept safe, leading to healthy bonding.
However, if this process is interrupted, the child begins to feel unsafe and fearful. We also know that if a baby’s needs are not met, she will die.
At a primal level, Baby also knows this, and when her needs are not consistently met, this causes the fight-or-flight stress hormones to flow for a long period of time, which in turn causes faulty wiring in her brain. Thus, she is unable to finish the bonding process with her birth mother, or form a new bond with an adoptive parent or other caregivers.
There are many ways besides adoption for RAD to rear its ugly head.
- If the child is moved from one foster home to another
- The child is hospitalized for an extended period
- The parent is hospitalized for an extended period
- The birth mother suffers from post-natal depression, substance abuse, or illness that causes her to be emotionally unavailable, and/or inconsistent with care
- Loss of the parent
- Neglect/Inconsistent caregiving (maybe baby’s needs will be met, maybe not)
This post is meant for information only, and not for self-diagnosis. If you believe any of the stories, symptoms, or other information in this series describes you or a loved one, please seek help from a professional provider who understands Reactive Attachment Disorder.
There are many symptoms of RAD and of course, different children will exhibit different sets of symptoms, depending on their individual personalities, severity, and type of abuse or neglect (in cases of abuse or neglect), and the severity of the disorder itself.
I want to throw in a caveat here as well: just because a child may suffer from this disorder does not necessarily mean he or she has sociopathic tendencies, such as cruelty to animals and/or people, threatening behavior, lack of a conscience, etc!
Yes, some do. But many, many children have nothing of the sort – instead they are unable to form anything beyond the shallowest of relationships because they feel frightened and threatened, like there is no place for them in the world, or like they don’t matter.
There is a spectrum with this disorder as there is with many others, and the symptoms a child presents with depends on where he or she is on that spectrum. That said, here is a list of some of the symptoms:
- Always hungry, even after a big meal
- Almost never hungry, eats very little, may be extremely picky
- Night terrors
- Inappropriate fight or flight response (such as acting like her life is threatened, or it’s the end of the world, over very small things)
- Violent rages
- Lying (often ridiculously – like, “I didn’t lose my new glasses! When I was waiting at the bus stop, a man on a horse rode up, and he had a sword! And he stole my glasses.”)
- Lack of eye contact (often except for when telling these whoppers)
- Won’t ask for help when they need it, often even if sick
- Not affectionate; dislikes physical touch
- Withdrawn, in his own little world – may take the term, “introvert” to an extreme
- May take “extrovert” to an extreme – overly friendly, charming, even funny…when guests are over, he excels at “working the room”
- Doesn’t seem to understand boundaries
- Defiant, argumentative, bullying, controlling – one or any combination of these
- Mood swings
- Extremely dependent
- Extremely independent
- Few or no friends; what friendships there are may be shallow and short
- Incessant chatter; may also constantly ask ridiculous questions
- Shows inappropriate feelings (may laugh at something sad, or when someone is hurt)
- Shows little or no feelings at all
- Constantly blames everything and everyone they can think of for their own mistakes
- Talks about doing violent things
- Harms animals and/or people
- Harms self
- Often sick
- Seems to have little or no conscience
- Seems almost immune to physical pain
- Preoccupied with fire
Of course, one could point to many things on this list and rightfully say, “But all kids do that!” or, “All kids lie from time to time! All kids go through picky phases, or can be sad and withdrawn now and then, talk too much, or ask silly questions.”
This is true, and catching our kids in a lie, or stealing a candy bar, or picking on another child, while exasperating (and often embarrassing), can provide good opportunities to teach right from wrong.
So long as the behavior doesn’t continue, it’s usually not a huge worry. But if any of these things on the list (which is not exhaustive by any means) become an ongoing pattern, then it is time for concern, and time to seek help. (Please note: This is not a recommendation for therapy, as I’ve had no experience with these folks. I included the link because this particular article contained helpful tips on what type of therapy and therapist a RAD child needs.)
It Happened to Me
I had quite a few of these symptoms, as did my older brother, who was also adopted. After I was born, I was placed in a foster home for three months. Many years ago, I was able to obtain non-identifying information about my adoption from the adoption agency.
It said that at four days old, I was placed in a foster home. Several days after being placed in my foster home, my foster mother called to report that I had thrush (the beginning of many, many illnesses to follow) and when the social worker brought medication for me, my foster mother described me as a “nervous baby, who jumped at the slightest noise” (anxiety; inappropriate fight or flight response).
This continued for two weeks, at which time I was seen by a pediatrician, who prescribed Phenobarbital for me. Are you kidding me? My mind screamed as I read that line. They drugged me! Who DOES that? The papers said this produced “some improvement” (I just bet it did); however, even drugged, I was described as “an alert baby who doesn’t seem to miss a thing” (hypervigilance).
A few weeks later, I had become a “contented baby” who was sleeping all night and napping during the day. Sleeping all night at less than two months old? How badly did they drug me?
At three months old, I was placed with my adoptive parents and older siblings; my eight-year-old sister and four-year-old brother, both adopted. Mom said I was not a “nervous baby” at all. That change makes me wonder just what went on in that foster home.
But then, I probably don’t want to know. I had what is known as the Inhibited type of RAD, while my brother was more of the Disinhibited type. Outgoing, intelligent, funny, and charming, he was an adorable little guy who could work a room and bamboozle the adults in it.
On the other hand, I was very quiet…and almost never smiled at my new mom or engaged much at all with her. She pretty much had to bribe me with books to get me to crawl up into her lap. I didn’t want to be cuddled and certainly didn’t want hugs or kisses.
Mom has often told me, “All day long, I’d try to love and cuddle you, but you didn’t want it. I’d try to get you to laugh or at least smile, but you’d just be as sober as a judge until your dad or brother walked in. Then you were all smiles and coos.”
Poor mom. This classic “blame Mom” behavior is typical of RAD children. Deep inside, there is inexpressible anger with the birth mom, even though Baby isn’t consciously aware of it. But birth mom isn’t there.
However, adoptive mom is there, and adoptive mom is trying to – well, be Mom. How dare she. Unconsciously, the baby or young child is taking that anger out on the poor adoptive mom. It’s a lose-lose situation for her.
Not only did I push Mom away and rarely smiled or laughed when I was with her, but to add insult to injury, I loved to be picked up and held, not only by Dad but by uncles and male friends of the family (but never strangers). Not hugged or cuddled, just held and carried around. For some reason, I felt safe with them.
I was extremely shy around strangers and sometimes even family friends and extended family, at least until we’d all had a chance to hang out for a while. Then I would thaw a bit, but never, ever enough to be considered a warm, loving child.
There was no way I could let down my guard that much. I remember feeling angry a lot of the time.
Thank God, I eventually began to heal, healing that has taken many years. But vestiges remain…although for the most part, I’m now a friendly “people person” and not shy in the least, I have my moments of regression. I treasure my alone time at home yet paradoxically, enjoy small and large gatherings, for the most part.
Yet there are still times when I feel alone and lonely in a crowd of friendly, familiar people…like I really don’t belong, and that I’m only trying to fool myself into thinking I do (even though I know better).
At these times, I don’t know what to say to them. So, I sit quietly in my own little world, making stilted conversation when I must (in fact, it happened recently). And as for affection, while I love hugs and will happily hug a complete stranger, I still don’t enjoy giving or receiving those little pecks on the cheek, unless it’s my husband, kids or grandkids.
I wouldn’t fare well in those cultures whose people greet each other by kissing both cheeks! But it’s okay, because days like the one I had recently are few and far between, and I refuse to let any tattered remains of RAD gain a foothold.
In future posts I’ll discuss more of my “radical” experience and the long path to healing; but more importantly, the burgeoning awareness of reactive attachment disorder and the new treatment options, as well as the help and support available for the parents.
There are still a few RAD deniers out there, but I pay them no mind. After all, I remember the days when many doctors were insisting PMS and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome were figments of overactive imaginations.
In the last several years there have been great strides in effective ways to help both RAD kids and their parents heal and live happy, productive lives, which is where our journey takes us next. Don’t miss it! And don’t forget to share, and maybe help someone else.