For over three years I refused to believe it could be true. For over three years, I shunned labels, generalizations or anything else that would somehow point to a perceived defect in my child; a perceived defect in me.
She was so young when she came home. She is safe now. We have a happy home. I am a good mom! She should be healed by now.
These are just some of thoughts, internal arguments and external conversations that I would have. There was simply no way I was going to let anyone label my child. “Labels were dirty,” I thought. Labels were a sign of weakness. Labels give other people the authorization to put my child into a category, a box. Labels would somehow signify incompetence or inadequacy. “Plus,” I reasoned, “we have spent more time in a safe and secure environment than in an unsafe one. It’s simple math. We are on the positive end now. So, all is well.”
Or, so I thought…
At first, I could write-off the behavior and quirks by assuring myself that she was a strong-willed little girl. Plus, she was the youngest of five and had three older brothers. “This is good,” I thought. “No one will ever take advantage of her.” Some even jokingly assured me she would one day be a CEO, because there was no way she was ever going to take orders from anyone.
It is often difficult to distinguish between a child’s unique personality, an adoption-related issue, or something that is situationally based or environmentally triggered.
At first, I could write off the behavior as a time of adjustment and healing. I could write off what seemed to be an extended tantrum as normal childhood behavior. She needed time to bond, to grow in love and trust and to feel out her new environment. And while all of these things were certainly true, there was another whisper that existed beneath the surface. A whisper that haunted me, appeared in dreams, and reminded me that her past comes with a high price to pay. This voice told me to dig deeper, to trust my instincts and to research. Above all, it reminded me that I am going to have to learn to love like I’ve never loved before.
For three years, I witnessed our daughter’s behavior vacillate between acceptable and completely unacceptable; between normal childlike antics and abnormal sneaking, lying, and destructiveness. Developmentally, she appeared to be on or above target. Physically, she was healthy. Yet, there was a deep anger beneath the surface and it would show itself from time to time. But, she was still pretty tiny and I could just pick her up and carry her to a timeout if needed. I could remove her from the room when she refused to remove herself. “What is going to happen when you can’t carry her,” the whisper would demand.
All the while, her uniqueness was eating away at my patience and perseverance. I loved her dearly and committed (and recommit daily) to never giving up on her, but much of the time, she was simply hard to like. (If you find that statement off-putting, I apologize, but it is the truth.) This unique situation was making me second guess everything I knew about parenting. It was taking something I love, i.e. spending time with my children, and turning that precious time into a daily stress-filled routine. The same scenarios were not playing out with my children who were adopted at older ages. “Aren’t older children the ones who are supposed to come with all the baggage,” I thought? Yet, that wasn’t what I was observing.
So, for over three years I ignored, danced around, fought and argued away any possibility that there might actually be a real diagnosis for what we experiencing. Labels are the enemy, after all, and all of my training, reading and research always spoke about the most severe kind of attachment disorder, called Reactive Attachment Disorder, or RAD for short. RAD children fall into one of two general categories. Inhibited, which means a child completely withdraws or shuts down or disinhibited, where the child is not selective about whom he is show will go to. These children will often show inappropriate behavior or affection with complete strangers. Our child did not fit either of these categories, so once again, I reasoned, all was well.
But all wasn’t well and the stress from her rages, refusal to comply, disobedience and lack of remorse was wearing me down. It was wearing my husband down. It was causing marital stress and it was causing stress amongst her siblings.
One day this past Fall, when the stress must have been more than I could physically and emotionally handle, I cracked. For about two weeks, I felt emotionally and physically paralyzed. This was not how things were supposed to be. I wanted more peace for my family and I was not willing to live this way one day longer.
As I began to research, I found this following checklist. As I read down the list, tears began to flow. While my daughter thankfully does not exhibit the most severe symptoms, many of the items on this list are daily realities in our home. I was no longer alone. If a mental health professional compiled this list, there were certainly other children like our daughter.
1. Superficially engaging and charming 2. Lack of eye contact on parents’ terms 3. Indiscriminately affectionate with strangers 4. Not affectionate on parents’ terms (not cuddly) 5. Destructive to self, others, and material things (includes being accident prone) 6. Cruelty to animals 7. Lying about obvious things 8. Stealing 9. No impulse controls (frequently acts hyperactive) 10. Learning lags 11. Lack of cause and effect thinking 12. Lack of conscience 13. Abnormal eating patterns 14. Poor peer relationships 15. Preoccupation with fire 16. Preoccupation with blood and gore 17. Persistent nonsense questions and chatter 18. Inappropriately demanding and clingy 19. Abnormal speech patterns 20. Triangulation of adults 21. False allegations of abuse 22. Presumptive entitlement issues 23. Parents appear hostile and angry
My child exhibited too many of these common childhood symptoms. While we do not believe she is RAD, praise God, she is definitely on the spectrum. I could not deny this any longer. Furthermore, my research was helping me not only to be ok with this “label” but to reassure myself (I needed this reassuring!) that I was not the cause of her disorder.
Contained in the same article as the list noted above, was this description:
“According to the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children (ATTACh), attachment is defined as a reciprocal process by which an emotional connection develops between a baby and the primary caretaker. This connection influences the child’s physical, neurological, cognitive, and psychological development. It becomes the foundation for the development of basic trust or mistrust, and shapes how the child will relate to the world, learn and form relationships throughout life (ATTACh, 2004). This affectionate tie begins prenatally and continues primarily during the first 36-months of life. As we know, infants are helpless and defenseless and rely entirely upon the willingness and/or ability of their caretakers to meet their basic needs. The language of babies is their behavior. Their cries signal the caretaker that a need must be met. When caretakers meet their needs time and time again, a bond is established between the infant and the caretaker and the basis of trust has been established. In addition, this cycle promotes the development of cause and effect thinking which is the basis of all problem solving.”
Children with broken attachments cycles have experienced early childhood trauma, to include neglect, abuse or anything that would have comprised an unsafe or insecure environment. This could be intentional or unintentional due to extreme poverty.
Visually, a broken attachment cycle looks like this:
Our daughter came home around two years of age. We know virtually nothing about her first two years of life except that she was malnourished, that she was “found abandoned” and that she spent time in three different orphanages before coming home. I imagine her attachment cycle was disrupted from in utero, simply due to the inability to find and sustain proper nutrition. Her attachment cycle could not properly develop during her time in an orphanage setting. She was moved around her country three different times. Knowing all of this makes me makes me incredibly sad, but also provides a springboard from which to start developing new strategies; to continue along this long road toward healing.
My child has attachment disorder. Maybe yours does too? It is no longer a dirty word in our home, but rather a starting point toward sustained healing. Now that I am able to say that without shame or without feeling like a failure for not being able to completely “cure” her over the course of the last few years, our family has something to work with.
For children with attachment disorder, so much of their daily life revolves around control. They are obsessed with control. Because at one point in their lives, everything was out of control, because at one point in their lives they experienced tremendous loss, they now seek to manipulate and order everything and everyone they possibly can, to gain some semblance of control; to avoid another loss.
For parents, this can not only be problematic, but disasterous. It can be a living nightmare. The object of control can be anything from a pencil, to a toy, to a particular seat at the table, but the real issue lies in the brain, the heart, and holistic make-up of the child. Our daughter has lost her marbles over something as seemingly simple as putting a cardboard box in the recycling bin. Refusing to lose control, to lose her box, she erupted into a rage, clawing her way through anyone in her path, and digging through the recycle bin until her box was retrieved, safe and sound, and in her care.
I am learning to handle these delicate situations more carefully. To see the box not as a piece of trash that needs to be recycled, but as a symbol of so much loss and trauma. By looking at things this way, I can help her let go of the box in ways that honor her loss, but also teach her to trust me and to know that I will never leaver her.
One of the most common things I hear from well-meaning folks is that our daughter looks so happy. She is so cute! She has such beautiful eyes. She is so smart or funny or whatever. Again, YES! She is all of those things. But just because she is smiling, that does not mean she hasn’t suffered severe trauma. In the past, when I heard those remarks, they gave me one more reason to write off something that shouldn’t have been written off. They helped me to justify my unwillingness to admit that there was a problem.
If you have ever seen her, she is absolutely stunning. Big beautiful eyes and a huge smile. She looks so happy. The majority of time, she truly is that happy. She is on her way. She can light up a room. BUT, she can also destroy a room. A smile can hide so much. Underneath that beautiful grin is a hurting-healing heart.
If you are parenting a child who has suffered early childhood trauma, in-utero trauma or any other disruptive situation that would have moved the child from home to home, such as foster care, please do not wait to seek community and get professional help. Your child may very well be on the attachment specturm. It is not your fault, it is not your fault, it is NOT your fault. Yet, you are definitely part of the solution. It is estimated that over 80% of children in foster care have attachment related conditions. A high percentage of adopted children also exhibit attachment related symptoms. We are in good company!
Because our daughter wasn’t on the extreme end of the spectrum, I never even acknowledged that there was a spectrum and therefore didn’t take action right away. I thought time alone would heal her. I thought she would grow out of it. I was afraid of the label, the stigma and how people, especially teachers and other caregivers would judge or treat my child. At that time, I would rather not know, then know and be judged, ridiculed or shamed.
Yet, it wasn’t until acknowledging that there was a very real problem, that we began to take very real steps, to create very real healing.
None of us–not me, not you, not anyone–can go back an undo the past. We can’t take away, mask over, or silence very real trauma that has shaped our children. At the same time–we can, we should, we are called– to take very real steps to help our children grow into their fullest potential. As I said in my last post, even knowing everything that we know now, we would do it all again. The love that we have for our daughter is greater than any reality that we must deal with. Plus, there is simply too much brokenness in the world to turn our backs on the world’s hurts; hurting children; hurting people. We all circle the same sun.
While there will be many days you will want to go running in the opposite direction, it is those exact days that will present you with the best opportunities for growth and healing. We may never get it exactly right, but we can get up each day, breathe in some grace, find some time every day for ourselves (and not feel guilty), and give it the best we’ve got.
Prayers and solidarity, friends, as we journey this long road toward redemption together!