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Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder

Gina Heumann is the author of Love Never Quits – Surviving & Thriving After Infertility, Adoption, and Reactive Attachment Disorder.


People often ask me what it’s like to raise a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder, and the answer is never a simple one. It’s frightening. It’s irritating. It’s challenging. And, most of all, it’s lonely. I lost many friends, several jobs, and any shred of self-esteem I had left.

When we went to Guatemala to adopt our second child, we assumed the experience would be similar to adopting our first one. Landrey was easy from day one. He was laid-back, smiley, happy-go-lucky, and well-behaved. He slept a solid 12 hours at night, picked up baby sign language quickly, and used his manners as soon as he was able to communicate. My friends called him “The Stepford Child”. We assumed it was because of our stellar parenting. (Ha!)

We Didn’t Know the Signs

So when our new baby was fussy, didn’t sleep, didn’t make eye contact, dove across the table for food, and was constantly cranky, we knew this was going to be a different kind of ride. Maddox screamed the entire 5-hour flight home from Guatemala, making us the most popular people on the plane that day. And the first time he slept through the night, he was eleven. Not months. Years. Eleven years.

As he got older, what seemed like “terrible twos” stretched into “terrible threes” and then “f**king fours”… the horrific meltdowns and public tantrums were more intense than I’d ever seen in another kid. He’d burst into a blood-curdling scream in the middle of the grocery stores, leaving me feeling embarrassed and helpless, and often abandoning a cart I’d spent an hour filling. He’d throw things, trash his room, punch holes in the walls, and threaten to hurt or kill me. As the years passed, he got more and more difficult to control and I got more desperate. We had to lock up our knives and sharp objects. He eventually was kicked out of his middle school, sent to the Juvenile Assessment Center for assaulting a teacher, had to appear in court, serve a summer of community service, and was on probation for a year at the ripe old age of 12. We refer to that as “Rock Bottom”.


RAD Behavior Checklist

Here’s a list of behaviors that exemplify some of what RAD parents deal with on a daily basis:

  • Extreme anger, rages, violence
  • Food hoarding, abnormal eating patterns
  • Bedwetting, urinating or defecating all over the house
  • Inability to give or receive affection
  • Indiscriminate affection with strangers
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Severe anxiety
  • Learning lags, executive function disorders
  • Lying, stealing
  • Lack of cause & effect thinking
  • Preoccupation with fire, blood, and gore
  • Self-harm, such as picking or cutting
  • Lashing out at the main caregiver (primarily the mother)
  • Hurting people or animals
  • Hypersexualization, obsession with porn

We didn’t have all of these, but enough to make life a living hell most days.

We Tried, I Swear We Tried…

I can’t say we didn’t try. There were many types of therapy: individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, in-home therapy (which is really uncomfortable – a therapist hangs out at your house and attempts to be invisible while you go about your business and then butts in when they think it’s necessary. UGH.) There were alternative treatments: homeopathy, neurofeedback, nutritionists, and even the Brain Balance program. We took parenting classes. We read books. We researched.

It took us a decade to get to the right diagnosis. At 3-1/2 they told me it was clearly ADD and started him on medication. As it was not actually ADD, the medications made the mood disorder worse. At 8 they decided he was BiPolar. We also heard things like “Sensory Processing Disorder”, “Oppositional Defiance Disorder”, and “He thrives on negativity”… which I don’t believe is an actual diagnosis. It wasn’t until he was 10 when a therapist mentioned Reactive Attachment Disorder that we finally felt we were onto something.

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Overcoming RAD

Our happy ending began three years ago when an intern at the Juvenile Assessment Center gave me the name of a therapist who specialized in Reactive Attachment Disorder. We spent two weeks in an intensive family therapy program that was different than anything we had tried before. Although we didn’t see immediate results, this experience was the turning point for our family.

It was hard to believe that two weeks of therapy was going to make a difference, but the fact that it was four hours a day, five days a week, with all four of us and four therapists gave us the equivalent of 2-3 years worth of therapy. There was enough time to process things and implement new ideas, but not enough time to forget between appointments.

A Different Kind of Therapy

The first week of therapy was fairly traditional: Aaron and I spent time discussing our pasts to see what triggers we had that affected our parenting; the kids did word-associations, art therapy, and storytelling. Sometimes we were all together, sometimes we weren’t. But it wasn’t until the second week that the magic started to happen.

During that week, we spent time doing attachment therapy – holding Maddox like he was a baby while we discussed the neglect he received from his foster mom and letting him know it wasn’t his fault. He was not neglected because he was a bad baby. He just had a caregiver who sucked at her job. Not your fault. Not your fault. Not your fault. RAD kids tend to think they deserved the treatment they received, despite the fact that they were too little to have done anything wrong.

Both of my kids also did “Teddy Bear Therapy”, which consisted of choosing a bear from a wall of stuffed animals that would represent them as babies. With coaching, they told the bear about their birth mothers, foster care experiences, and their journey as part of our family. Some of these things were hard for a little bear to hear, so they had to offer hugs and reassurances that things would be okay. Essentially, they went back and gave themselves the love they lacked in those early days.

A Therapeutic School Environment

In addition, getting kicked out of middle school turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we were able to find a therapeutic school environment that offered more one-on-one attention, expeditionary learning which included lots of time outside in nature, meditation, yoga, regular meetings with a social worker, and even a therapy dog that would visit a few times a week. I’m convinced that the triad of parents, therapists, and teachers all working together was key to our success.


Happier Times and Peace At Last

It’s been over two years since we last saw a violent incident and Maddox is thriving now. He’s in a regular high school, his grades are improving, he’s making friends, and he’s actively participating in several types of bands. (Music has also been therapeutic for him!) I’m so proud of his progress and I’m thrilled to say we have a success story.

I wouldn’t wish RAD on my worst enemy, and I know from participating in RAD support groups that we are one of the rare lucky families. Many kids never recover from this terrible disorder and are unable to live in a regular family, banished to residential treatment centers for the rest of their lives, and often turning to a life of crime.

I am proud that we continued to fight to find the right answer for our kid and our family. Perseverance was the key. And Love Never Quits.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Gina Heumann

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