What is Reactive Attachment Disorder?
Reactive attachment disorder is a rare, albeit, severe mental illness. The condition occurs when an infant or young child fails to establish a healthy attachment with their caregivers. While there are many trains of thought as to how a child develops RAD, the consensus of child psychiatric experts is that the illness probably develops if the child’s basic nurturing needs are not met, including comfort, affection, and basic nurturing.
There's little research on signs and symptoms of reactive attachment disorder beyond early childhood, and it remains uncertain whether it occurs in children older than 5 years.
A child who has RAD has difficulty building loving, caring, and stable attachments with others (including their own peers). This dysfunction and lack of trust can also make it difficult for children and teens in the schoolroom.
It’s important to remember that children with Reactive Attachment Disorder are those who have been wounded or mistreated during their most vulnerable stages of life.
Children with RAD have a neurological issue called the Dysfunctional Attachment Cycle, which basically means their brain has subconsciously instructed them from an early age (as a defensive, fight-or-flight type of response) that they can only trust themselves to survive.
This compassionate neural pathway also means that the smallest trigger or environmental stressor can ignite their fight or flight responses to act as a matter of survival. Meanwhile, the behavioral response to others unknowing of a child with RAD’s history will view their fight or flight response to trivial matters as extreme and unsettling.
A child with RAD, whose anxiety-riddled mind and lacking trust of others - is prone to engage in maladaptive, problematic behaviors for either gaining attention or as a way to maintain control in their (in their mind) otherwise uncontrollable surroundings.
What’s more, children with RAD often lack empathy or even seemingly what others refer to as a conscious. With their aforementioned attitudes, lack of trust, and disconcerting lack of empathy, it should be no surprise that children with RAD can make it significantly difficult for teachers and their classmates at school.
The following is a basic set of guidelines for teachers (and caregivers) to follow when teaching (or parenting) a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Teaching or Parenting a Child With RAD
Whether you are an educator or a parent of a child with reactive attachment disorder, it’s important to maintain control of your emotions -- remember, a child with RAD is mistrusting and by nature will actively seek out behaviors and activities that are designed to test the patience and boundaries of their caregivers and other adults of their authority. The second thing to remember is to maintain a safe and rewarding learning environment. One that provides a consistent structure and fair treatment. Only by doing so will a child with RAD feel secure enough to build a sense of trust and any semblance of a relationship with you or their surrounding peers.
Six RAD-Specific Strategies for A Stable Home or Classroom Management
1. Provide a stable and consistent routine that the child can rely on being predictable
As is the case for all children: building a stable and predictable routine provides a child with security and comfort. This is especially the case for children with RAD. It proves that over time, they can expect things to be the same every day, a routine that allows them to trust in their environment and those who imposed the structure of said environment as well.
2. Establish Visible Limits and Behavioral Expectations
Whether it is in the home or classroom, setting and defining appropriate behavior and what is expected from them concerning behavior is important for a child with RAD. However, while it is important for all children to follow your explicitly defined behavioral instructions, it will take extra patience and, therefore, attention, when it involves children with Reactive Attachment Disorder. In other words, prepare yourself to have to re-explain and even repost your set of posted rules (as children with RAD tend to destroy or discard said lists when they see them).
3. ALWAYS Reward Good Behaviors
A major part of a child with RAD successfully learning and abiding by the rules involves positive reinforcing a system of rewarding good behaviors. A child with RAD typically is not governed by natural empathy or conscious-led thoughts that discourage negative behaviors. Therefore, for them to engage in socially appropriate behaviors, they first need to learn what behaviors are worth behaving in - so to speak.
For example, start small by saying things like, “I like how you safely put your toys away without throwing them or harming others. Here’s a treat for good behavior. Awesome job!”
4. If You Give Consequences, Be Consistent and Follow Through EVERY Time
It is often difficult for a parent, caregiver, or teacher to follow through with a consequence given to a child with RAD. However, it is nonetheless critical that they do.
When disciplining a child without RAD, a caregiver or teacher may find that they can get through to said child by raising their voice or using logical reasoning to explain the child’s misbehavior. Such is not the case when disciplining a child with reactive attachment disorder. This is because children with RAD lack impulse control and empathy that guide children's behavior without RAD.
Child experts state that a child with RAD requires what is commonly referred to as “tough love.” Due to their general lack of conscience, they need help understanding what and why what they did was wrong and why it won’t help them achieve what they set out to accomplish or gain.
That being said, it’s important to set consequences that not only fit the indiscretion in terms of fairness but ones that you can actually follow through with.
5. Pick Your Battles & and Provide The Child With Options
This piece of advice on the list is actually a two-in-one. First, pick your battles wisely. Children with RAD are generally going to display problematic behaviors more so than other children. Thus, it’s important to focus on addressing severe issues, such as behaviors that involve harming and injuring others. Second, once the behavior is addressed, it’s important to provide a consequence and further explain why their behavior led to them being punished. It’s important to understand that any boundary you set or consequence you provide them with will be met with hostility and push back repeatedly. It’s easy to become frustrated but abstain from acting on it. Progress may be slow at first, but if you remain steadfast, it will occur, albeit in slow increments.
The second part of this involves providing the child with choices. For example, if you are a teacher in the classroom and you are attempting to get a child with RAD to do their schoolwork and know it will be a struggle, try saying something like this:
“We’re about to begin our personal reading time. Would you like to read at your desk, or would you like to pick out a spot on the floor?”
Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder feel as though they always need to be in control at all times. By providing them with choices like the one above, you control without discluding or excusing them from essential activities.
6. Enlist Help
For a child diagnosed with RAD, the home or classroom is just another environment for them to gain attention from adults and places that they can assert their control over. Unfortunately, this means that they require adult supervision at all times. Constantly having to supervise and take control of the situation can be a tough task at times, so a caregiver or teacher needs to enlist help. For a parent, this might mean hiring a nanny, asking a friend, your partner, or your spouse to help provide the child with one-on-one attention until they make progress in learning how to self-monitor their behavior.
For a teacher, asking the school for help in providing you with a support person whose focus is solely to provide supervision and guidance to the child during the school day.
And of course, for parents who are at a loss as to how they can help mitigate their child’s maladaptive behaviors, seeking out the services of a mental health expert specializing in Reactive Attachment Disorder can be invaluable. In fact, it is highly recommended for any parent to utilize the services of an expert if they are able. This will help their child learn how to behave appropriately, but it will also help them address and overcome the underlying issues, pain, and trauma that cause said behavioral problems.