Attachment disorder. Few will diagnose this and with good reason. It is a diagnosis with long-lasting consequences and implications. Still, if we were honest with each other most children who have grown up in the foster care system have some degree of attachment disorder. And should, after all this is the bodies way of protecting itself against repeated injury. However, what serves to protect in one environment (abusive home) will hinder under different circumstances (loving, stable home). Therefore, as parents we must be proactive in assisting children in the process of “retraining” their brains and developing more environmentally appropriate ways of relating with others. It’s equally important that we understand some of the more common symptoms of attachment disorder, not to label our children, but instead to better understand and interpret their actions.
For years, I have watched in dismay as my children bonded easily to everyone they came in contact with…everyone but me. It was natural to blame myself and determine that I wasn’t loving enough, wasn’t fun enough, wasn’t available enough. Teenagers will very quickly give evidence to any of these conclusions if given opportunity. And perhaps there was some truth to my conclusions. Regardless, at best, my conclusions and self-inflicted guilt were incomplete. I spent many years hurt and frustrated because of my own rationalizations of their behavior. It wasn’t until I really began to study attachment disorders that I saw the root of many of our difficulties. This gave me peace and the clarity of a sound mind unimpeded by guilt and unhindered by emotional sensitivities. The following is a list of common behaviors exhibited by children who fit diagnoses of severe attachment disorder including but not limited to RAD or Reactive Attachment Disorder of Infancy or Early Childhood RAD. This list is by no means meant to provide you with resources to diagnose attachment disorder in your children or imply that the presence of these symptoms indicates the presence of a disorder. It is simply to give a window of insight into a dark world your child may be experiencing.
Intense lying, often about obvious things
Poor response to discipline
Discomfort with making eye contact, except when lying
Physical contact, too much or too little
Lack of mutual enjoyment
Body function impairments, including eating, sleeping, urinating, defecating
Discomfort with increased attachment
Superficial charm, indiscriminate friendliness
Poor communication skills
Difficulty with cause and effect
Lack of empathy
Tendency to see things in extreme
Habitual disassociation or hyper-vigilance
Desire to tease, hurt other children
Propensity to act innocent, despite being caught transgressing
Dangerous behavior without awareness of risk
Deliberate intent to break or ruin others’ things
Lack of apparent guilt or remorse
Cruelty to animals
Sneaking, hiding, and hoarding food
Seeming inability to learn from experiences
False reports of abuse
Absence of painful feeling when hurt, refusal to let anyone help
Demanding attitude instead of asking
Bossiness with adults and peers alike
Tendency to be accident-prone
Manipulation of others by acting cute and charming
Inappropriate friendliness with strangers
Preoccupation with fires
Preference for violent cartoons, television, movies
Upon reading this list, I instantly felt relief. I publish this not so that we might all self-diagnose our children, which could be potentially dangerous and detrimental to the child and parent alike, but instead, that we might come the reasonable conclusion that most children in care or who have spent time in care, will struggle to some degree with attachment disorder. As noted in Wounded Children Healing Homes, from which this list was extracted, “There is a growing concern among clinicians, theorists, and researchers that the current RAD definition in the DSM-IV_TR is too narrow. O’Conner and Zeanah (2003) have suggested the concept of an attachment spectrum. An attachment spectrum includes RAD at the severe end but also contains a range of other attachment-related impairments along a continuum of severity and type.” In other words, it is not a leap to acknowledge that some of the behaviors foster/adoptive parents face can easily be linked to attachment disorder/trauma. This is important to note because it removes the emotional veil that so often blinds us from underlying problems, and confines us to treating mere symptoms instead of the deep and foundational issue.
So what is the solution? What use is all of this knowledge without some sort of “game plan?” Wounded Children Healing Homes goes on to suggest, “In many ways, parenting a child with attachment trauma is similar to parenting a non-traumatized child but in a more concentrated form. The key appears to be a willingness to spend lots of time with the child, interacting, playing, and guiding. The more the time spent with the child, the more opportunities there are to reorganize and reactivate the child’s brain.”
So there you have it, “more concentrated” parenting. Like orange juice without the added water. I can handle that. It also brings me comfort when I recall the comments made by people (people who have not raised kids from the foster care system) how much “attention” my children require. It also brings into perspective many other behaviors I have never understood such as the intense competition I notice among my kids for my attention, their tendency to talk without ceasing and interrupt one another when together while remaining quiet if they are the only child present, and perpetually broken household appliances and furnishings.
While this may not be an instant or an easy solution, I know it takes well-spent time and intentional strategies for healing to occur. I pray for peace. Peace that God will allow me to truly understand that He is bigger than my failures and shortcomings as a parent. Peace that regardless of the outcome, I started down this road so that I might tangibly love God and love others every moment of every day. Peace that would be enough.