Hope for Parents Struggling with Children Who Have Attachment Disorders

Our first adopted kid was a handful!  He had night terrors, banged his head, smeared feces, was defiant, had a speech delay, and had major meltdowns daily.  One day when my mom was visiting–in his excitement–he spat in my mother’s face!  My mom!  In the face!  That was a very shocking event, but we never gave up hope.  I am glad to say he turned into a very nice gentleman who is currently working in the behavioral health field.

When we first started out on our journey 25 years ago, we had very little help.  No one’s fault, just very little opportunity.  As time went on, support has increased significantly for foster/adopt parents struggling with kids with attachment disorders.  Here are a few helpful hints you should do when you’re at your wit’s end.

1)    Get Support!

“Well now, that’s a weird smell,” I thought.  It wasn’t body odor, it wasn’t feces, but there was definitely a strong smell coming from my 3-year-old son’s bedroom!  After a little detective work, my wife discovered a mouldering snack of peanut butter and crackers under his bed.  Whew, at least it wasn’t a dead animal!  We were officially baptized into the wonderful world of “hoarding behaviors!”

Not only was being a newly adoptive parent isolating, but it was also very exhausting, especially when caring for kids with attachment issues.  People tended to be judgmental, as if it was our fault or as if the behaviors were the result of the kiddo’s adoption.  Once we became a part of a support group, we were with other people of a like mind.  Other adoptive parents understood the “honeymoon” period; or “fake charm” or “major meltdowns.”  They spoke the same language as us and shared the same experiences.  They listened without passing judgment.  A support group is not merely a place for giving and receiving advice, but it is a place for community.  Find a support group in your area.

2)    Get Respite!

Years ago, we asked a number friends of ours to provide respite for a challenging teen with reactive attachment disorder.  We didn’t get any takers.  A few months later, we disrupted the placement because we were ill-equipped to handle such behaviors.  The unspoken attitude we felt was, “Fostering is your gift; you figure it out.”  Another time, when expressing our frustration, we experienced a not-so-unspoken attitude and were told, “Well you wanted to adopt.”  That’s not the sort of support we were looking for.  We just needed respite and didn’t get it.

Respite is a brief time away from the foster or adopted child, either in the foster/adoptive parent home or in the respite provider’s home.  There may be many reasons for respite such as a parent’s illness or hospitalization, a funeral, or an out-of-state trip that was planned before the child was placed.  Or the parents may simply need a break.  Children who lack attachment demand so much time and attention, and that time away from him or her to refocus and regroup is essential.

Foster parents should be provided respite hours to pay the respite provider.  In some states, if your child is enrolled at the local behavioral health clinic, that clinic may be able to provide additional hours of paid respite.  If you’re out of respite hours, you may be able to seek other parents with R.A.D. children and pay privately or “swap” kids, when it’s convenient.  It is important to use the same respite provider and to have regularly scheduled respite times.  Consistency will significantly reduce the amount of negative behaviors during respite.

3)    Get Educated!

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a professional therapist on call whenever you needed him or her?  Twenty to thirty years ago, there was not much literature out there on attachment disorders.  But now there is a proliferation of information on attachment whether that is from books, websites, magazines, podcasts, radio programs, or webinars.  The following are four experts on attachment who are at the top of their field:

Dr. Bruce Perry

Dr. Perry is the Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy and is a nationally known psychotherapist who approaches attachment disorders from the perspective of childhood trauma on the brain. 

Nancy Thomas

Nancy Thomas is a Therapeutic Parenting Specialist whose books like, When Love is Not Enough and 99 Ways to Drive Your Child Sane are essentials in any adoptive parent’s home.

Dr. Kevin Campbell

Dr. Campbell is an internationally known youth permanency expert, founder of the Center for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness, and developer of the Family Finding model.

Karyn Purvis

Dr. Purvis was the Rees-Jones director and cofounder of the Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and is the creator of Trust-Based Relational Intervention.

Don’t be a lone ranger!  Asking for support is not a show of weakness!  Don’t lose hope.  There is help out there if you know where to look.