Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis isn’t like Down syndrome or Muscular Dystrophy in that the condition (as others that are mental rather than physical) is far more obscure. You can’t just stick a needle in a person’s arm and glance at their blood for a yes or no answer. Actually, we’re relying on a person’s opinion, based on observation, for the Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. We’re still learning and there is significant debate on what, RAD involves and what it doesn’t.
That means when parents first receive a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis, they are immediately overwhelmed. That’s a tough place to start from because “overwhelming” is a good word to describe the overall experience of parenting a child with a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis.
When you see a child drowning, you jump in to help. The child, in a state of panic, fights everything you do that keeps her from climbing on your head to get as far from the suffocating water as she can. Those initial moments are overwhelming, but it gets better. Little by little, the child can be calmed. They might always have a fear of water, but with enough work and patience; as trust begins to develop, they can move beyond utter hysteria. Maybe they can progress to the point of being an Olympic swimmer. More likely, with enough patience and help, they’ll learn to take control of their fear sufficiently to deal with being in water. With a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis, that is a good comparison for how your child will feel about close relationships.
You are different than any other parent who has a child with a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis. Your child is different than any other child who has a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis.
Studying what has worked for others will help you to have a starting point, but all-inclusive systems or therapies that worked for others may or may not work for you and your child. Don’t get too caught up in that; at least not at first. Focus on common denominators.
The conditions that incubate a developing case of Attachment Disorder involve inconsistency. In fact, this “consistent inconsistency” creates a fascinating and extremely stimulating (though psychologically unhealthy) world for a child. The very first step in helping a child along the journey of Attachment Disorder is establishing consistency. Your child has come from a very different world than what you and I consider reality. Still, their experience is every bit as real as ours.
You will never convince a child who spent their first five years on the moon, that gravity is always as restrictive as it is on earth. Our job is to teach them how to deal with the forces of gravity as we experience them on Earth. We need to acknowledge that we understand things are different on the moon, but on Earth, this is the way gravity always is.
In our child’s new world, good behavior results in good reactions. Bad behavior… well, it brings back bad; every time. We need to be perfectly consistent in making sure that bad behavior is met with a negative consequence; every time. Letting a child with RAD off is not teaching them tolerance and mercy. It is reinforcing their belief that there is no consistency to the reactions caused by their actions.
That begs the question of whether it is even possible to raise a child with a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis, without being a monster.
After innumerable mistakes and unlimited frustration, we’ve found what works in our family. We have three children with Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis and non-brutal discipline is delivered with brutal consistency. Exercises like pushups and sit-ups work for us. The kids are not beaten down with them, but physically strengthened. The consequence is not pleasant for the child, but it is over quickly. There’s no stewing and continued escalations over two weeks of “grounding,” where the child might be grounded a hundred more times before reaching the end of the initial consequence. Perpetual punishment does not help the child, but causes them to understand it as abuse (I’d be hard-pressed to argue against that interpretation). Ten sit-ups can be followed by ten sit-ups five minutes later, when another infraction occurs. Later, we can still go out for ice cream while trying to increase our trust relationship.
Difficulty in trusting is another consistent denominator. People with a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis have significant trouble in trusting others. That’s a subject for another day, but it is a tightrope walk to build trust while always delivering negative consequences to a misbehaving child who will break rules simply to prove that exceptions are an unequivocal reality.
Occasionally, on days when your child needs a little mercy, that’s important, too. After breaking a rule, tell her to get ready to do her pushups. Once in position, tell her to do one. She’ll probably laugh, like my daughter did, do the one push-up, and give you a hug. Mercy and justice can coexist. I think I heard that somewhere else…
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