Raising Emily was so much different. The whole game changed. Even though one of our other children had RAD, until Emily came home, we never understood that with Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work.
Parenting was much simpler with my first three sons. They knew they were loved from the beginning. They never questioned if they would be fed, clothed or comforted. They never wondered if home or family might fail. They knew that their needs would be met. Discipline worked because we had built a foundation of consistency. The next step was easy. (You know what I did because you probably did it too.)
If behavior couldn’t be controlled with ten minutes in time out, fifteen was my next “go to” number. Sometimes we had our children do physical exercises as punishments. If ten was “worth it” maybe twenty wouldn’t be. Fifty pushups or sit ups was usually beyond the budget that my sons wanted to expend to maintain bad behavior. Those days were so simple. Because of consistency, and my habit of increasing punishments until they conformed to rules, my sons believed, without me ever saying it, that punishments could (and would be) increased until it simply wasn’t worth it. Once they understood that, a cursory punishment was usually sufficient to catch their attention and set off the alarms in their minds, alerting them that the next punishment wouldn’t be worth it. Those were the good ol’ days.
Unreasonable punishments only made matters worse. With Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work.
Naturally, as we adopted older children, I went to what had historically worked in our home. At first, when it didn’t work, I just believed that the escalations in punishment weren’t enough. No problem! There was more where that came from! Okay, you’re not surprised, but I was. Unreasonable punishments only made matters worse. With Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work.
I didn’t fully understand until a situation occurred with my oldest adopted daughter, who was sixteen at the time. She was physically battering a younger sibling and absolutely would not stop. There was no choice but to physically restrain her to stop the abuse. She screamed maniacally while writhing on the floor while I lay behind her, holding her arms that were wrapped around the front of her at her sides. This was not a punishment. It was never intended to be. As she screamed out that she would get away, get a knife and kill everyone in the family, I knew that I couldn’t let her go until she got control of herself. Eventually, Emily wrestled out of the hold and I was forced to find another position to restrain her. This time I could see her face and her expression spoke volumes.
IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!!! Wow. Now I understood why with Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work. Though I couldn’t let Emily go, my attitude changed from a forty-plus guy who outweighed her by more than fifty percent, showing a violent and angry girl that she had no power. I transformed into the father I should have been throughout the entire episode. I spoke to her calmly while still restraining her. I told her I loved her. I told her that I loved all of my family and that I wouldn’t allow anyone to abuse them. I told her I wouldn’t allow anyone to abuse her. Up until my attitude changed, my daughter had interpreted what I was doing as abuse. As I continued to talk to her calmly, while expressing my love, eventually that changed. About the fourth time I told her that I wouldn’t let anyone abuse her, she began to cry like a child. Within moments she was reduced to whimpering. I released her and sat up on the floor, continuing to talk to her calmly. When it was finally over, she hugged me and thanked me. For the first time I understood that because of the extreme trauma she had experienced that brought on Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work. But they didn’t need to. There was a better way for a person with her condition.
That wasn’t the last outburst with Emily. It wasn’t the last time I lost control of my temper. I am convinced that you can’t drag someone out of the mud without getting dirty. But on that day, I finally got it. My daughter, from the time she was a baby until she was removed from her home and placed in an orphanage during her eighth year, had almost died on numerous occasions. She had been pushed to the brink of death by everything from hunger, to torture and beatings. Whenever someone did something that caused her mental, emotional or physical pain, she viewed it as so much more abuse. In younger years my daughter had been pushed to the edge and still survived.
Unless I was willing to push her to the brink of death, and perhaps beyond, I couldn’t compete in her world. And that is why with Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work.
To her, winning against abusers had meant life or death. Where my punishments were understood as abuse, I couldn’t come close to winning. Unless I was willing to push her to the brink of death, and perhaps beyond, I couldn’t compete in her world. And that is why with Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work.
Punishments with that daughter were still delivered with consistency, but they changed. Taking away access to privileges and favorite items worked best. Physical exercises like pushups or sit-ups worked well for warning shots, fired across the bow, but only if they were insignificant and over with quickly. Time outs, with Emily never worked. Trying to keep her confined to one place always turned physical and that was a world in which I wasn’t able to compete. The stakes were simply too high for me.
Don’t let me make it sound easy. Don’t let me lead you to believe that following a simple formula will solve all of your problems in a family with a child who suffers from Reactive Attachment Disorder. I was a failure at being able to keep Emily and the rest of our family safe in our home. Eventually, Emily was institutionalized. But there, she received the professional help that she needed while Amy and I were able to focus on being Mom and Dad. While progress continues with that daughter, it is a “three steps forward – two steps back” journey. Emily is twenty-three, now. She has been able to improve to the point where she lives in a group home and often visits with us as a valuable member of our family, in our home, just as others of my children who have matured and moved on. But much of that success never would have happened had I not learned that with Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work.
While I have many mistakes and failures to show for my time in parenting children who come from trauma, the one success I can lean on is that we never give up. We are always as involved with our children as we can be, while still keeping the family safe. Much of that is build around tailoring parenting tactics that work with individual children who are very different.
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