Editor’s note: This is based on the author’s personal life experience of having a child with RAD. This does not represent the experience of every RAD child or every family with a RAD child.
Reactive attachment disorder is often found in children who have been abused or neglected before the age of 5. It is often seen in children who are in foster care and are part of foster adoption. It can be found in biological kids who have experienced trauma in their early developmental years as well. Sometimes they refer to this type of disorder as developmental trauma disorder instead of reactive attachment disorder.
When a child has RAD or DTD, their behaviors can affect the rest of the family. I would like to focus on how children with RAD can impact the lives of their siblings.
I am the parent of a child diagnosed with RAD. I can tell you from my experience it is extremely difficult. And I see many negative effects in my other children from having a child with RAD in the family. It is a challenge to try to parent all of my kids when they are so different. I never know if I am doing more harm than good when it comes to keeping this family together. I like to believe that we are doing the right things, but it is hard to know for sure.
So, how exactly has RAD impacted the lives of my other children?
Anxiety. Anxiety with a capital “A.” Living with a child who has RAD is very unpredictable. Some days are fine, while others are filled with screaming, yelling, and violent outbursts. Each day, we never know what we are going to get. And so, we have all developed anxiety.
We have a household of five, with three kids. In the years since we have adopted our middle child who has RAD, we have all begun taking some medications for anxiety. This includes the youngest in the family, who is also exhibiting some serious anxiety symptoms and has begun taking medication to help.
Our children struggle with their RAD sibling. As I said, he is the middle child. Our oldest feels like he takes up most of our time with his attention-seeking behaviors and that he causes constant disruption. She isn’t wrong. There have been times when we cancel plans because our middle son is acting out of control, and we don’t feel like we can manage the plans we made.
Sometimes, one of us, as parents, missed one of our daughter’s events due to staying home with our RAD child. His behavior can sometimes feel so overwhelming that we can’t leave the house with him. This can feel unfair to us all, as we end up missing things we had planned. Whether it be a school function for our older child, a movie we had planned to see, or going to the park to play, we often change our plans to avoid a scene with our RAD child. It feels very unfair to our other kids and it is. It is something that can be very hard to figure out…how to not allow the RAD child to control the household. Control is what they are seeking. Sometimes, their wild behavior can get them exactly what they want. Siblings suffer because of this. It is not okay that we miss out on plans or activities due to the behavior of one child.
The household often feels as though it is walking on eggshells around the RAD child. Anything can set off a tantrum. His reactions can be over the top and sometimes destructive or violent.
We have found that our RAD child often bullies and manipulates our younger son. He will use manipulation to get away with taking his toys, destroying his things, or just to get his own way in general. He uses this bullying behavior so often with his younger brother that it almost seems normal. In our home, we have had to put cameras in all common spaces to be able to check in on the kids at any moment when we are not in the same room as they are. Having our home monitored by cameras definitely does not feel normal. It is also hard to explain to others who don’t deal with RAD behavior. Many people think we exaggerate or are a bit crazy since one part of this complex disorder is that a RAD child rarely behaves inappropriately around others.
Our youngest son feels very responsible for his brother. When his brother gets punished, he will often feel guilty or blame himself. This is part of the manipulation that our RAD son has used on his little brother. He will guilt the younger boy about how he is only in trouble because of him…if he hadn’t told, if he hadn’t cried, if he hadn’t….you get the point. No responsibility falls on him, ever. He will always try to convince our younger son that things are always his fault. So when our RAD son is faced with a consequence, our younger son feels incredible guilt, as if he caused the problem. This is a huge contributing factor in our younger son’s anxiety disorder and self-esteem. He tries desperately to please his older brother, as most younger siblings do. He doesn’t understand why his brother is oftentimes mean to him or purposefully breaks his toys to upset him. He cannot understand why his brother threatens him and is angry with him when he is caught misbehaving. He is sad when his brother isn’t allowed to participate in something fun like going to see a movie as a consequence for inappropriate behavior. My younger son just wants his brother to like him and to be like regular siblings. The truth is we all want that.
As a parent, watching the dynamics of my boys and their relationship is hard. I worry often that keeping our family together, trying to show our RAD son unconditional love, is setting a poor example for our other children. If my daughter dated a boy who treated her the way her brother does, I would call the relationship abusive. In fact, this sibling relationship is abusive. And finding help with therapists and specialists in this field is particularly challenging.
Other than anxiety and depression, family members of those with RAD may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This is so heartbreaking to families who are trying their best but are all suffering stress and trauma from living with a RAD child.
Children with RAD siblings often feel very overlooked. They feel their happiness is secondary to that of their demanding, temperamental sibling. Sometimes, they may even try to mimic some of the RAD child’s behavior to get attention. However, they don’t have the same motivation behind these behaviors, so the behavior can be corrected with normal parenting techniques.
The age gap between siblings can play an important role in how each child is affected by a RAD sibling. In our home, while both of my other children are negatively impacted by their RAD sibling, I fear most for my younger child. My younger child is subject to more manipulation and abuse than his older sister is. I don’t fear that my daughter will be physically injured or hurt by her brother. True, he may hit her, or throw something at her, but the age difference between them is great enough that I feel she could handle it. She has decided that she doesn’t think she will have any children. She has seen so much in our years of fostering and in dealing with her brother’s behavior that she isn’t sure she would ever want kids. She is young, and she has time to really decide, but it hurts me to think that these things may have had such an impact on her.
Reading what I just wrote is hard. I am justifying the abuse of my older daughter because she is older. There should be no reasoning, no justifying, no excuses. None of my children should live in fear. This includes my RAD son…who lives in a constant state of fear, unable to trust anyone around him due to his traumatic early childhood. He was a victim. He has learned to victimize others as a result of his trauma.
I worry most that my RAD child will physically injure his younger brother. When I see them climb into the tree house together, the hair on the back of my neck stands up, as I picture the younger boy being pushed out by his brother. Thankfully, this has not actually happened. But it is a huge fear. I must supervise constantly for fear of injury.
We have had some close calls. RAD has swung a bat near his brother’s head, stating he wanted to see how close he could get. He has tried to push his brother into the road when cars are coming. He has thrown toys at him and tried to make him fall down the stairs. And yet, our youngest son looks up to his brother most of the time. He just wants his brother to love him, and he tries his best to protect his older brother from being in trouble. Sometimes, he has hard days, when the bullying behavior really hurts him, and he will cry at night, wondering why his brother is always angry with him. Or wondering why his brother often breaks his things on purpose. These nights are incredibly difficult for me as a mom.
Our youngest son has also developed some separation anxiety. He becomes extra nervous or frightened if he cannot see me. I believe this is because of the behaviors of his RAD brother, and his need to feel like he is safe.
Ask for Help
If you are dealing with a RAD child and seeing effects of their disorder taking a toll on your other children, ask for help. Find a therapist for your children. If needed, the kids may take medication to manage their anxiety. It is important to remember that mental health is just as important as physical health. It is not healthy to live in a home that feels full of chaos and is unpredictable. Parents cannot be blamed for the atmosphere the RAD child creates, but we must do our best to keep things as calm as possible and as safe as possible. When that seems impossible, if you can, take a break. There is no shame in admitting you and your other children may need some time away from your RAD child. If possible, seek out some respite care if it is offered. It may feel counterproductive when trying to form meaningful bonds with your RAD child to take breaks. However, it can be necessary and even healthy to do so.
Find someone you can trust who understands what your family is going through. Find someone who can care for your RAD child without sabotaging any progress you may have made in the bonding process. A caretaker who will not be swayed by your RAD child’s manipulation, yet can interact in a positive way with them. A person who can affirm your role as the RAD child’s parents and family, while taking care of your child appropriately.
Finding a person who can meet these needs can be incredibly challenging. It is not uncommon for children with RAD to spend time in residential treatment facilities. These facilities can work on their traumatic past while providing therapy for the family, and a bit of a break for everyone involved. If you are really struggling at home, finding a good therapist, and maybe a good treatment center, if needed, can feel life-saving.
Loving and parenting a child with RAD is an incredible challenge. Being the sibling of a child with RAD also has challenges.
I like to think that his siblings will grow to be more empathetic to those around them. I like to think that they will become more resilient to life’s chaos, and be able to adapt well in circumstances that are unpredictable. I could be wrong.
I do think that my other children have been challenged to learn to cope in chaos. I see my younger son put himself on a time out when his emotions are becoming overwhelming. He doesn’t have tantrums, or he doesn’t have many outbursts. If he is feeling overwhelmed, he knows he needs alone time to regain his calm. This may be one positive that has come from dealing with his RAD brother. I also think my youngest is one of the most forgiving kids I have ever met. If you hurt him in any way, he is very quick to forgive—truly forgive—without holding a grudge. This makes me so proud of him, and we often say the world would be better if more people (including myself) could be as forgiving as he is.
My daughter takes what she has dealt with and uses it in her chosen field creatively. She has a wonderful ability to tap into emotions and use them when performing. She has also used music as therapy for herself, and because of this she has learned to play several instruments and is truly talented.
I also believe my kids have learned to embrace all people and to be less judgmental. Because of the trauma suffered by our RAD son, he has some deep issues and hard behaviors. However, at a glance, he looks like any other child, you cannot tell that he has been traumatized. My kids are great at reaching out to the kids who seem lonely or shy. They are great friends to others and tend to have good judgment on how to handle situations responsibly. I am able to worry less about them, simply because they tend to make good choices.
We also see improvements happen with our RAD child. Things aren’t all bad all the time. He excels in school. He is great at making people laugh and loves to be the center of attention. He is learning to find outlets for his anger and healthier ways of expressing himself. His tantrums are becoming less frequent. Progress can be hard to identify when you are in this day to day. But if you can take a step back, and look at the bigger picture, you can see progress has been made.
You Are NOT Alone
I think I try to find the silver lining to avoid acknowledging my guilty feelings of subjecting our family to the chaos and abuse that is RAD. I don’t think I am alone in this. Sadly, I know other RAD families struggle with those guilty feelings. While I wouldn’t wish the struggle on anyone, it is somehow comforting to know we aren’t alone. There are others who understand. There are others who feel that fear of failure, that guilt of wondering if what they are doing is right, and that overwhelming desire to just have a family that is happy, healthy, and well.
If you are struggling with a child with reactive attachment disorder (or developmental trauma disorder) you are NOT alone. There are online support groups for families. There are specialists that handle attachment disorder. It is healthy to seek out help when you need it. It is important to learn coping skills and behavioral management for you and for the family. Including your RAD child, who needs to learn specialized skills to cope with their trauma.