When Reactive Attachment Disorder Comes Home.

Photo by Julia M Cameron

When I first heard about reactive attachment disorder it was in a paragraph sandwiched between food hoarding and developmental delays due to malnutrition. Training required for International adoption included a basic understanding of these unique conditions. This was a landscape of extremes that seemed as appropriate as the 15 hour flight I was facing to get my adopted son from India. These were big, out of the ordinary things for a Midwest born, middle-class woman like me.  Food hoarding was addressed by allowing your child access to food 24/7. Developmental delays meant you needed patience, extra therapies and educational support. Reactive Attachment Disorder meant an uphill battle with vague outcomes and possible dangerous conditions for other family members and the child suffering from it. When I first learned of these conditions some of them were accompanied by possible solutions and a measure of hope. Reactive Attachment disorder was connected with none of those. 

What Is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)?

That was my simplistic perspective ages ago. Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is caricatured as a sentence of domestic hell. The reality comes closer to daily striving for glimpses of a nuanced and elusive possibility of healing. It is true that the population of children who suffer from RAD typically faced an uphill battle from birth. The known cause of this condition is a lack of attachment with early caregivers. (1) Children who don’t have their needs met as babies or toddlers may be at risk for this. Before young mothers start agonizing that they were napping and didn’t hear the first whispers of their baby’s cry this afternoon, you can stop. The kind of neglect these children experience is not typical for the parent who agonizes over minute mistakes. This neglect or abuse is more typical of the parent who is agonizing over survival, or their next hit, or trying to keep away from an abusive family member. (2) These children have experienced trauma many people wouldn’t understand even before they have fully formulated language. Absence of comfort and maybe terror can be baked into these children’s consciousness before some of them can count to ten or understand the concept of “STOP”. 

How do Children with RAD Act?

It is no wonder, then, that once this child grows older and hopefully finds themselves in a situation where they have people around them that offer them care and comfort, they don’t act in a way you would expect.  Children might push others away, and act like they don’t care about caregivers. Experts at RAD Advocates tell the uncomfortable truth about children with this condition.

“Children with reactive attachment disorder generally do not accept guidance easily and do not care about pleasing their caregivers.” (6)

A scraped knee won’t be an opportunity for the parent to swoop in and help. The child might stiffen up at the approach. (3) Children with reactive attachment might seem manipulative, or seem to lack a conscience. They may attack or prickle at the presence of family and put forth the wings of an angel at school or church. (4) Being there for this child isn’t enough. Adopted and foster children who struggle with their homework normally begin to learn a family can be trusted if they ask for math help determining the value of “x” and the family they are with invests a sincere half hour drowning in YouTube videos hosted by math gurus. Going through trials by equations together builds connectedness. That won’t be enough for the child with RAD. (5)

Parenting a Child with RAD

Parenting a child with RAD means you’ve already been there with band aids and math expertise. You have tried to hug your cactus and listen to their pain. You have begged God for the answer and any other Deity who seemed to have a glimpse into this mystery in front of you. Counselors and therapies might have helped, but if you have made progress you didn’t do it on your own. (7) You called in a team of experts. Maybe you started with attachment therapy and dabbled in art and play therapies. (8) Then came other ideas from other specialists. RAD means pulling in all the resources mental health has to offer. 

In Some Rare Cases Children with RAD can Find Healing in a New Home

Then, sometimes all of this isn’t enough. Sometimes the family does everything and reaches the end of their rope. There are a couple of agencies in the country who can join these families and ethically help them transition their child to a home that can better meet their needs. Meeting those needs might mean a family with a different structure is called upon. A child may be placed in a home with fewer children, or a home where the parents don’t resemble the race or culture of their birth family if that is triggering for them. (9)

JeNea Goodrich, who heads up the KidTeen Second Chance adoption program with Wasatch International adoption, says that she has seen children move from homes where they are not attached to the parents who adopted them, into homes where they are thriving. She encourages us to be a support to the families going through this tough transition if we can. 

“I think if we’re just open to being a listening ear: to listen to their side of the story. I think if people knew what these families went through and were a safe space for them to be able to talk I don’t think there would be judgment the way that there is.” 

Families Dealing with Conditions Like RAD Need Our Support.

Most of us will never know what it is like to have an otherwise high achieving child come home and be angry and aggressive to us no matter what we do. (10) When the therapists have weighed in, and the treatments have run their course to no avail some families face an impossible choice. If they have the best intentions for their child and they are putting their all into finding the best way to help their child heal and grow, then maybe the rest of the world should save their opinions for people they know better. 

Reactive attachment is an extreme condition that may require extreme treatments those of us outside the disorder can’t hope to understand. Maybe we don’t need to understand. Maybe we can stand back and allow the families on the front lines of this type of trauma do what they must to seek the best outcome for the children suffering with RAD. 


  1. “Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).” Cleveland Clinic, 22 Feb. 2022, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17904-reactive-attachment-disorder.
  2. Morin, Amy. “What Is an Attachment Disorder?” Very Well Mind, 14 Nov. 2022, http://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-an-attachment-disorder-4580038.
  3. Del Duca, Maria. “Kid Confidential: What Reactive Attachment Disorder Looks Like.” Asha Wire, 11 July 2013, leader.pubs.asha.org/do/10.1044/kid-confidential-what-reactive-attachment-disorder-looks-like/full/.
  4. Kostelyk, Sharla. “What I Wish You Knew About Parenting a Child With RAD.” The Chaos and the Clutter, 2017, http://www.thechaosandtheclutter.com/archives/wish-knew-parenting-child-rad .
  5. “RAD: BEHAVIOR AND CONSEQUENCES.” Every Star Is Different, http://www.everystarisdifferent.com/2015/06/rad-behavior-and-consequences.html .
  6. Myers, Micaela. “How Lying and Stealing from a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder is Different from Another Kid.” RAD advocates, 23 June 2022, http://www.radadvocates.org/post/how-lying-and-stealing-from-a-child-with-reactive-attachment-disorder-is-different-from-other-kids.
  7. Williams, Keri. “Why Adoption Stories Aren’t Fairytales.” Raising Devon, 28 Mar. 2019, raisingdevon.com/2019/03/28/why-adoption-stories-arent-fairy-tales/ .
  8. Kostelyk, Sharla. “What is the Treatment for RAD?” The Chaos and the Clutter, http://www.thechaosandtheclutter.com/archives/what-is-the-treatment-for-rad.
  9. Spiering, Charlyn. “When Adopted Children Need a Second Chance.” Adoption Uncovered, 18 Jan. 2023, adoptionuncovered.com/2023/01/18/when-adopted-children-need-a-second-chance/.
  10. “Guide to Understanding RAD as a Parent.” Discovery Mood, discoverymood.com/blog/guide-understanding-rad-parent/.

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