Control and Limit-Setting for RAD Children & Teens

Parenting a youngster with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is extremely challenging, intense and exhausting, but the rewards are equal to the difficulty of the task. Not all attachment therapists agree on the details of how to parent RAD kids, but most experts agree that “control and limit-setting” should be a primary focus.

One thing that many RAD kids have in common is their extreme need to be in control of their environment and of the people in it, especially their moms and dads. When they were young kids in the orphanage or foster care, they didn't have an opportunity to complete the bonding cycle, which is where trust develops. Perhaps the move to their new adoptive home interrupted that cycle, and therefore they don't trust grown-ups to take care of them. In addition, when the grown-ups were in charge, the youngster was abandoned, neglected or possibly hurt. So these very smart kids have figured out that to feel safe, they need to be in control. But this, unfortunately, is a no-win situation. Why?

The youngster wants to be in control to feel safe. But a youngster who is in control is, by definition, not safe, because he doesn't have the cognitive capabilities or the experience to be the care-taker. This need to control can manifest in defiant behavior (e.g., not obeying requests, talking back, arguing, constantly interrupting, demanding attention, etc.). Even refusal to eat or toilet train can be efforts at maintaining control at all costs.

RAD children need to learn that to follow a parent's direction is safe. They need to know ¬ that to yield, to cooperate, to surrender, and to follow does not signify weakness. It is only then that they will be able to learn about:

• being contained
• being directed constructively
• being nurtured
• being safe
• being valued
• cause-and-effect thinking
• reciprocity

Some moms and dads start out by setting firm limits, but the defiance of their RAD youngster may lead them to back-off so that every interaction with their youngster is not a fight (sometimes this becomes necessary just to get out of the house and get to work). Some moms and dads believe it is so important to encourage the youngster's independence that they should be very careful about forcing their will on him or her. Other parents are afraid that their RAD child will throw a temper tantrum in public and cause them embarrassment.

Unfortunately, those care-takers who have extremely kind and gentle temperaments have the most difficulty being firm “limit-setters” because they hate to see their adopted youngster unhappy – and setting a limit for a youngster is going to make that youngster unhappy, at least temporarily. Thus, moms and dads should be mindful of their temperament, and when in doubt, they can safely assume they are inclined to be overindulgent, and should therefore try to draw the line a bit more firmly.

Parents should also take into account the child’s point of view about limit setting. Moms and dads have no problem setting limits when danger is involved (e.g., a youngster running into the street). A very young child doesn't know the difference between running into the street and running into the living room. All he experiences is a mother or father preventing him from doing something he wants to do. When a youngster insists on doing anything at all - in spite of the parent’s serious opposition - the parent’s response should be consistent, regardless of the reasons, whether we're talking about eating cookies on the coach or playing with a razor blade.

Also, the adopted RAD youngster has experienced what attachment therapists refer to as the "eternal no." Birthmother said "no" by giving the youngster up for adoption. It's permanent and it's the ultimate "no." So when mom or dad sets a limit and says "no," the adopted youngster often equates that with "You don't love me" and responds with defiance. The adoptive moms and dads get the anger that rightfully belongs to the birthmother. It is therefore important for parents to lovingly enforce limits. This may require simple holding and comforting and/or consequences when the youngster acts-out.

Parenting Defiant RAD Teens


  1. It was so nice to read this! My adopted daughter went into state custody after I found out she was trying to find somebody online to murder me. I got her when she was eight years old and was pretty strict with her, trying to teach her that I was the mother and she was not. I had taken her to several therapists over the years only to find out that she was lying to them. She set my house on fire and I took her to a juvenile holding facility for the night so I wouldn't hurt her because I was so angry. The therapist at the facility actually told her that being manipulative was a good thing..... I honestly think that therapists should take more training on this disorder, maybe I would have been able to get her the help that she needed. It was especially heartbreaking to find a book, "How to Survive Toxic Parents" in her possession.... proof of one of her therapists believing her lies.

    Once again, thanks for writing this. It helped me a great deal!

  2. So nice to read this! My adopted daughter has been especially defiant lately and this affirms much of what my husband and I have been doing. It is hard to be so firm as a parent when all your friends and family think you are being mean and way too strict.

  3. Thie is my 16 year old daughter. We have had her in and out of counseling since she was 9 years old. Her behaviors have only gotten worse to the point of placement in a psychiatric unit due to cutting and threats of suicide. She has not learned anything from her hospitlization. She continues to attempt manipulating others, often through exagerating depression and suicidal thoughts. Although she is clearly depressed, it is as if it is self imposed to get more attention. We have her in a counselor who now mentioned RAD. She
    was adopted at birth and we are a very loing, stable and involved parents. I have been a stay at home mom since her birth. Now that the counselor has brought up RAD, she has also stated that it is most likely too late and,that this should have been addressed before puberty. If only we had a more capable counselor back then. So, are we supposed to just give up? She refuses to talk to us unless she wants something. Her friends are even fed up with her, many with much bigger problems than her. She is taking medication (Geodon), but that only seems to help with the outbursts, but not the depression and continued self absorbed manipulation and suicidal comments. Trust me, we have been there for her beyond what any normal parents would do. We are exhausted and becoming depressed ourselves that we can't help her.

  4. Lexie, I literally feel your pain. I am a stepmother of a daughter that we obtained custody of when she was 3 months shy of 5 years old. I gave birth to a son two weeks after receiving custody of my stepdaughter and then I gave birth to a daughter. I have feared for all of our lives while raising this child. I love her like i love my own children, only we were all imploding with her manipulation and triangulation. I wish I knew then what i know now about BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) and RAD!! We finally sent her to a boarding school (she was telling her teachers that my husband and I were abusive) and now we are not talking to her because of the disrespect, the lies she has spread to family members and how it will all affect the younger two children. So so difficult!!! My prayers go out to you and your family!!!!

  5. Cece thank you for your support. Now doctors have said it is more of a mood disorder. Whatever you want to call it, it has the same effects on the family. We have been actually thinking of bording school also. We looked into therapeutic boarding schools, but many look scetchy and are states away. Also, our daughter is a B student, regents diploma bound, not into drugs nor alcohol. Many of the schools are geared to those with even more severe issues that may only give our daughter more ideas. Now we arenlooking at some private all girls schools. I fear she won't take advantage of the opportunity that a great school one would offer. One in particular offers great academics but also a great art and horseback riding program. She wants to go since I believe she just wants to get out of the house and her school where she has created a negative reputation for herself. I want her to take advantage of an opportunity to mature, develop good relationships, find out who she really is without all the negative inluences (boys, clicks etc). However, we fear she will sabotage the chance and waste a crap load of college money. If she quits, she would also lose time at her public school since it is a regents schedule, unlike private schools. However, we have run out of options. Counseling galore, on tegratol right now, family exhausted. If we don't send her, will she just stagnate or worse, regress more? I fear she will end up as an adult with constant relationship problems. What has been your experience with the boarding school so far? I appreciate your thoughts! It's nice to know we are not alone!

  6. These all sound identical to our situation and 16-year-old daughter, adopted at birth. It's nice to know all the things were are seeing are actually connected and under one heading. Our problem is NO RESOURCES. No counselors trained specifically in this. Her current therapist says she needs more control....has her manipulated too. Our therapist says she needs residential treatment, but all are out-of-state. Suggestions? We're in New England


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