What’s it like to parent a child with Reactive-Attachment Disorder (RAD)?

Folks ask us if we feel our daughters have gotten over their (RAD) reactive-attachment disorder.  I want to say yes, but then, at this point in their lives, I can still see lingering damage at age 13 and 16.  Obviously the scars are still there. At least in Sheela, our 16 year old, we can see that getting over these obstacles in her life means a lot to her.  She is totally open to having us share with her where she needs to be careful socially.  Today she is extra careful not to lie, but I think in my heart, I probably wouldn’t trust her ability to overcome when push came to shove if she knew she was in trouble.

Recalling what our family has been through during those years after we brought the girls home from India, I am reminded of the phrase, foresight is better than hindsight.  As with a lot of families, ours was no exception, the whole issue of bonding had never occurred to us.  We just automatically assumed that the child we just spend thousands of hard-earned dollars to bring home to our loving arms would love us in return.  Then we were really naive thinking that bringing a second little one home couldn’t be harder than what we had just gone through. I guess we are just gluttons for punishment.  If only we had been better prepared emotionally.  I like to speculate that if I had understood what it would have taken to help Sheela and Lynny, I still would have welcomed them home, but with a different plan of action and not wearing my heart on my coat sleeve.

Bitterness is the enemy of relationships.  As a mother who eagerly wanted to share my home and  love, being rejected not just the first month, but the first 5 years, was almost more than I could bear.  What Sheela needed was unconditional love, just like Our Heavenly Father gives us.  Unlike the Lord’s love for us and how we treat Him sometimes, repeated rejection ate away at my tender feelings.  Anger and bitterness replaced that love-at-first sight.  How did we ever overcome?

In the story recommended above, The Winning of Little Lynny, we placed Lynny out of the home for 5 weeks after being with us for over 2 years with the intent to disrupt the adoption.   Just having her out of the home gave us a chance to breathe again, to get our nose off the grind stone and think about what God would have us do.  Together as husband and wife we resolved to be Sheela and Lynny’s loving CAREGIVERS.  In other words, the way we survived was to be obedient to what we knew God wanted us to do for the girls.  For awhile we put aside our desire for hugs and a normal parent/child relationship.  Instead, we resolved to teach them to think of others, to not laugh when someone was hurt, not to lie, not to monopolize others in conversation, to respect mom and dad and stop inappropriate destructive behavior.  Knowing that God has a plan for our children and that salvation for them is His will, we decided to implement Biblical child training and be very consistent.  Still their constant rejection of mommy was very difficult.

Enter Bushnell’s Baby-Boot Camp.  It is 7:00 in the morning.  Lynny is crying and angry because she thinks someone took her pair of pants.  They are found on the floor at the foot of her bed. With an attitude like this it takes her an hour to dress, due to cerebral palsy. This morning is no exception.  When she has a good attitude, she can get dressed in 10 minutes. Lynny is not present at the table for breakfast.  Just as breakfast is over, she comes scooting into the dining room, pouting, with both legs in one pant leg.  Mom sends her back to the bathroom, and takes them off of her and instructs her to try again.  She curls in a non-communicative ball and stares at the wall in the bathroom until mommy leaves the room.

At lunch time, Lynny won’t eat her food without gagging.  She is once again mad, yet satisfied, realizing that everyone is disgusted at her antics.  Pouting, she refuses to participate in the family meal and fun.  After lunch Lynny spends time on the toilet before nap time.  She is totally smelly. At 5 years old, she is in the habit of letting tiny bits of poop out all day, as the urge comes.  Getting into the bath tub is another scene as she hates to take cold baths, but that is the treatment for letting poop out all day and pasting it on the wall, her self and toys.  Later, with a scrub brush and bucket of soapy water, she cleans the items she smeared with poop earlier while she thought no one was looking.

After nap comes music time.  Lynny enjoys listening to a certain tape.  The others would like a change after an hour of the same songs.  Lynny gets mad and pinches her brother.  Mom comes into the room to settle the dispute and smells poop again.  Off to the bathroom for another cold bath.

5:30  Dinner time brings a very hungry Lynny.  She eats very fast. She knows that ice cream is coming for desert.  No gagging, no complaining.  She starts pouting because she is not served ice cream first. We make sure she is last, due to demanding to be first.

Bed time is another scene. Physical affection is another favorite Bushnell Boot Camp torture for her.  She hates hugs and willingly goes to bed early to avoid them.  She hides under 5 blankets (she has taken some off her sister’s bed) and poops a little again…

Today, reading my journal as I write this, I can hardly believe that the little Lynny above is the same one that tonight comes to me and asks for a bedtime blessing and a hug.  But what is more amazing to me is what has transpired in my own heart.  As damaged as the girls were and as inadequate as I felt to help them, God has shown us the way to healing and a happy relationship.

If I had known that getting off the plane in Seattle, Washington, with my new daughter Sheela, age 21 months, would lead to 5 years of struggles, pain and rejection from her, I might have armed myself with more resolve.  At first I trusted my hope that within 6 months or so, she would stop behaving negatively.  Instead it only got worse. She tried to pit us as mom and dad against each other.  She loved and obeyed Daddy.  She hated mommy. Her primary care-giver was THE enemy.  She loved men in general and somehow, even at an early age, was able to wrap them around her finger emotionally.

Sometimes it was terribly comical. (Like taking 1 little bite out of every apple in the whole big box and throwing them all over the floor.)  After all, how much damage can a tiny-for-her-age, 5-year-old blind girl do?   But the steady diet of rejection had ripped a huge hole in my heart. As a godly mother, who strove to be a good example to my children in how to be obedient to authority, love my family and serve them with joy, all I could see was my increasing failure. I felt totally sabotaged.  What had begun as an act of love for Sheela, Lynny and God, had turned into a pile of “dirty rags”.  When we were at the worst point in our relationship, each morning I would groan with dread, as I got showered and dressed.  I had to be in the same room with her.  She worked hard to make me crumble…to prove that my love was not good enough for her.

One morning, after a round of morning sickness and tears, after prayer and talking with Tom (my husband), he gently told me that I did not need to love Sheela myself.  I needed to let Jesus love her through me.  I sat back on my pillow and mused for a moment.  Suddenly it was as if all the bitterness that had accumulated over the last few years drained out my big toe. I knew that Jesus loved her.  All I needed was to let the Lord love Sheela though me.  I could handle that.  In other words, I stopped taking her damaging behavior personal.  In fact, as the Lord’s care-giver of the girls, I felt totally released (and still do) to be the loving mother that I need to be for Christ’s sake.  Their rejection, misbehavior, and hateful ways were nothing but a result of what Satan had allowed to happen to them BEFORE they came into my home.  It was my God-given job to help them heal.  Letting the emotional sickness in their hearts affect me personally rendered me helpless to help them.  Just like a doctor that takes on the illness of his patient makes him useless as a physician to help his patient get well.

Each child affected by early emotional damage and bonding issues tries to disprove the love of his new family to avoid further hurt in his heart.  Letting another take authority in their lives is scary.  They cannot let go and let someone else be in charge of them for long. Self-preservation is a powerful emotion.  Once again trust is an issue.  I do not believe that there is a one-therapy-fits-all program to help children or adults with RAD heal. I think that whatever a family implements as treatment, be it trained counselors, reading therapy,”baby boot camp”… the most important aspect in healing is time, coupled with consistent love.  Once again I repeat… the only sure cure for RAD is consistent “tough” (This is a Christ-like love) and time.

Are all families suited to raise children with RAD?  Absolutely not.  Tough love is not for everyone.  Being tougher than a brick, mean as a she-bear with cubs, and harder than a steel ball to crack.  Are there any parents out there like this?  I know a lot of families that have become like this in order to survive.  Their relationship as husband, wife and child meant more than personal comfort.  These families are survivors.  Occasionally we have run into parents who adopt children with RAD just for the sheer enjoyment of the challenge.  Incredible as it sounds they are doing a great job and have several of them at one time in the home! What do they have that makes them able to parent children who are emotionally damaged?  Thick skin.  Not easily offended, not easily hurt, and with an understanding that damaged children are just that.  Damaged children.

Today I am very appreciative of her Sheela’s hard work in helping me around the house.  She loves to please her mommy and daddy.  She craves approval and love. This is totally normal for children who have come out of RAD and are trusting parental authority.  What a wonderful treasure Sheela has become.  Lynny has a ways to go, but her other handicaps make it more of a challenge.

I just want to encourage those who are hurting right now dealing with their  children who have RAD.  Rejection, anger, day-after-day of horrible misbehavior, the seeking to pit one parent against another and turning on the charm for strangers while hating us as parents are all awful to live with.  Please remember, bitterness is truly the enemy, not our children.  Making it through one day without a melt down emotionally is truly a triumph.  Lean on Jesus to make it through the incredible anger a child might display when asked to do a simple command or when killing the cat. That is the only way to survive.  Pray for your child while holding them tight in a blanket, sausage style, during their great emotional struggle, if that is the way God shows you is effective.

Make an extra effort to talk calmly and kindly with each other as husband and wife as a child seeks to destroy your marriage over a piece of candy they should or should not have right then.  If you cannot leave your child with a sitter to get some alone time with each other because of manipulation, lying, or misbehavior, set a time to have a quiet dinner at home.  Put the children in another room or in bed if they cannot behave.  It surely won’t hurt them to read a book (or scream alone) for an hour or two.  Above all, make it plain that you are going to have a good time in life, with or without them behaving.  God gave you each other to love and cherish.

Maid or mother?  Thankfully the Lord has given me the ability to feel like being both, even to my two girls, who at first did not want the mommy part.  When we give the Creator of our children the responsibility to fix their hearts, and trust He will show us how, we can be rest assured He will give us the ability and the strength to do His will. Looking at all the many tasks a mother needs to do in the care of her children, only God gives us the strength to keep on giving and giving with sometimes nothing in return from those we love.