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
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.
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