My adopted son and I are standing in the kitchen. I’m holding a math test in my hand. Along with a barrage of red ink on the page is a large F in the upper right corner. I’m feeling frustration and disappointment, but keeping my face clean of expression. I would prefer for my wife to be there so we could cross-talk, but she is working late, and this needs to be addressed now.

Parenting a RAD Child

We adopted our son when he was six, knowing full well that he was affected by RAD, or Reactive Attachment Disorder. This is defined as a rare but serious condition marked by an inability to form attachments with others. A child with RAD is also disconnected from his or her own emotions.

Much of parenting a RAD child can seem counterintuitive, which is difficult for many parents. I know it was for us. Most parenting is ruled by love first, and reasonable teaching second. For a RAD child, safety, choice, and consequences must come first. To a child whose brain is wired primarily to survival, love is seen as a luxury they can ill afford. Safety and security must come first before establishing a loving bond.

Clear, Concise Conversation

He’s standing, his hands on the counter, examining his fingernails.

“Did you study?” I ask him, knowing the answer. We knew in advance this test was coming.

He looks up at me and makes eye contact. A few years ago, he would’ve dropped the paper and simply walked away, unconcerned. Now, he’s facing consequences and meeting my eyes—this is a great improvement.

“No.”

Honesty. Another big step. This goes a long way in helping me control my response. When interacting with my son, I have to be careful in how I respond. By controlling their parents’ emotions, kids with RAD gain a sense of control, which enhances their own sense of security. This means good or bad emotions, regardless of consequences. Those connections between action and consequence just aren’t made for him, and we’ve spent the last four years working to establish those connections along with his sense of safety.

Consequences Are Key

“Remember when we talked about this test?” I ask, wanting to reinforce the connection between his choices and the consequences we established a week ago.

“Yes. If I didn’t study, I would fail. If I fail, I can’t go to the water park this weekend.”

It’s near the end of the school year, but the heat hit early. It was an outing I promised hoping to encourage his choice in doing the work he needed to ace the test. He’s a smart kid and entirely capable of doing it, but for whatever reason he decided to let this test go.

Repeating our conversations was a practice we put into place a year in when we realized the complete lack of relation in his mind between choices and outcomes. Now it takes no prompting. Before, he would become upset and frustrated by consequences, no matter how clear we had made them in advance.

Now, he’s calmly talking, making eye contact between examining his nails. I can tell he’s upset, but there’s no longer that confusion that was so familiar to see years ago.

“You’ve failed your test. This means we’re not going to the water park this weekend.” When it comes to discipline, I have to keep my emotion out of it. I’m unhappy he failed his test, and upset myself that we’re not going (truth be told, I was looking forward to it), but by giving him the experience along with the knowledge, it helps solidify the new information.

Establish Emotional Connections

He’s upset. Just like any ten-year-old boy, he wants to go have fun. The tears are welling and his lip quivers. Now it’s time to acknowledge his feelings and hardship.

“What are you feeling?” These exercises help him establish connections with his own emotions, and helps him recognize it in others.

“I’m sad. Angry.” I can tell by the way he’s looking at me the anger isn’t directed at me. He’s realizing that he brought this on himself. A major step forward.

“I know you wanted to go this weekend,” I tell him. “I did, too. I know your anger will make you want to act out this weekend. It will be hard, but your mother and I expect you to behave even though you may not want to.”

He nods, but doesn’t say anything for a moment. Then, “Hug?”

I put down the test and embrace him. Touch is an incredibly delicate thing for a RAD child, and this request is huge.

The bond my wife and I have built with him over the years is one of patience, work, and occasionally some professional help when our attempts to build meaningful connections were ineffective. It’s been trying like no other experience, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What are some of your experiences that you’ve had parenting a RAD child?