Naturally, people learn about parenting from their own parents. And this is certainly true for me. Both my mom and dad had strengths and goodness that I learned from them that helped shape me into who I am today. But that is far from the end of the story. I also learned something else from my mom, in particular, that I had not even realized until years after I became a parent myself. It gradually dawned on me that my mom was dealing with untreated childhood Reactive Attachment Disorder. And what being my mom’s child gave me was an intuitive way of dealing with a person with RAD that preserves as much of my own dignity and sanity as possible, while simultaneously maintaining a caring relationship.
My mom suffered horribly as a child. She was a sickly kid, so she required extra medical care that ate up precious resources for her large and quite impoverished family. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that her father targeted her for vicious verbal assaults that resulted in her being forced out at fourteen and moving from house to house, mostly with her sisters and their boyfriends and husbands. Throughout her early childhood, food was scarce and poverty cloying. Her father was a mostly absent alcoholic who only came home it seemed only to assault his wife in front of the children and verbally abuse almost everyone. My grandmother gave birth to 12 children who survived infancy and did her best to manage it all, but had no time or capacity to give the kids the intimate love and resources that they needed. In addition, countless unsavory men were in and out of the house and left untold assaults in their wake. Needless to say, my mom was dealing with some trauma from all this. She was a remarkably strong woman who was able to rise above so much of what she experienced and she did her best to provide my sister and I with a life that had virtually no resemblance to what she had grown up with. And yet, it is nearly impossible to go through that kind of abuse and chaos unscathed. She had challenges that lingered with her until the end, and are in fact what finally ended her life.
Growing up I did not understand the ways in which her early experiences shaped her. I idolized her and did not even really see or process how deep her dysfunctional coping mechanisms were. I do not say this to be unkind, because I still do admire how she was able to rise above such horrific conditions. But after I adopted my kids from foster care, I began to recognize similarities with things my mom did and what I was experiencing from my children. It still took me years to really put my finger on it, even though it was right before me my entire life. We don’t refer to adults as having RAD, of course, we call it a “personality disorder”, but it is essentially the same thing and for simplicity I will call it RAD in this posting.
I adopted a sibling group of 3 highly traumatized kids over a decade ago, the older two had a RAD diagnosis. Unlike growing up with my mom where her behavior was normal to me, suddenly being thrust into the role of a stay-home mom of exceedingly emotionally disturbed kids was overwhelming, with their difficult behaviors immediately obvious and in need of my attention. Figuring out how to navigate their challenges took everything I had. But over time, some of the tricks and techniques I had subconsciously learned as a daughter helped me survive being a mom.
My mom passed away several months ago and I am still dealing with the emotional fallout from that and trying to write the story of her in my mind. The last year with her was very difficult as her failing health brought out even more of her emotional challenges and fully exposed her RAD symptoms. I became a caregiver to her and experienced so much of the utter madness that is involved with caring for anyone with RAD. An interesting dynamic was emerging whereby I was then cycling back and using skills I had honed with my kids to help manage her – many of those skills that I had developed growing up. I will admit that this coming together of insight was enlightening and helpful, but also distressing. It dawned on me that my entire life has been spent dealing with the very taxing illness that is RAD and I felt some fairly serious grief for myself. But lingering in grief is not my style and writing this is part of a journey to move on and heal. Sharing what insights I have been able to glean is an opportunity to make something good and useful from what can at times feel utterly horrible and useless. My main takeaways are about love, lying, setting boundaries and enduring emotional manipulation.
One significant lesson that I got from my mom is how to understand both their capacity for love and their ability to grasp larger ethical concepts.* Their love likely feels exceedingly different from what someone with a connected, neurotypical brain would generally feel. Nevertheless, I believe that it still exists and that a common misperception of persons with RAD is to take their often wildly uncaring behavior as a sign that their hearts are stone cold. I have felt from my mom and my kids with RAD that they are not completely detached from others and that deep down, they do have feelings of connectedness. Attachment is a spectrum and even those who have fairly significant RAD, like my oldest son, can at times express love and concern that it is very real. Like the time he insisted on buying me a beautiful carved owl statute that I was admiring at a roadside stand and would never had bought myself. He looked me in the eyes, which he rarely does and said, “Mom, you deserve it.” The owl sits in my garden as a constant reminder, even through very hard times, that he does feel something. My mom
demonstrated her love in numerous ways, like cleaning and organizing my room for me while I was away at camp. People with attachment disorders often have so many layers of anxiety, depression, narcissism, fear and whatever else that overlays their hearts that it can often seem like it does not exist at all. Further, their abusive or uncaring behavior toward us can also make it seem like they cannot possibly care about us. I have had to really step back from so much of this behavior and look at the things that do demonstrate caring. My mom never loved me like most moms do. My older kids will never be bonded to me the way a typical kid is to their parents. But this does not mean that there is nothing, because shallow love and no love are not the same thing (even though it can at times feel that way sometimes). For me, framing their love as at least somewhat present makes emotional intimacy from my to them more possible. To a large extent, the cruel barbs of my kids can bounce off, because I know it is an irrational show to convince themselves that the anger they feel toward me is justified and not a true indication of their feelings.
Even though ethics can often seem excruciatingly far away to someone with RAD, I have seen that a deeper concern for humanity and the world in general can co-exist in their minds. My mother was very compassionate toward so many and my kids speak out and care about issues of concern to the world. It can certainly be difficult for them to tie their behavior to their greater sense of morality, unfortunately. However, I have used the appeal to a greater good with my kids since they were little, and though I never achieved as much as I would have liked, I do feel that it helped turn them them from a very dark trajectory to one with much more light. It can at least build the concept of right and wrong that the kids can shoot toward throughout their lives and sometimes help moderate behavior.
In addition to framing emotion, a skill that I learned from dealing with my mom was how to handle lying in a way that preserves my self-respect and minimizes conflict. Being lied to feels awful, of course, but accepting a lie without comment feels even worse. Yet with people with RAD, calling them out on their lie will likely never result in the truth being told and will just create a fight. Those who have grown to depend on lying as a survival skill are unlikely to be able to give this up without substantial emotional and cognitive work on their part. I admit that I feel relatively hopeless that anyone can make much of a difference to stop someone else from lying, particularly with older kids or those who are on the severe end of the RAD spectrum.** As with nearly everything that someone with RAD does, depersonalizing it is helpful. Lying is so reflexive for them that the untruths pop up with no forethought. And more shockingly, the lies often then seem to become truth to the person with RAD. Fighting with someone about things they somehow believe or refuse to admit gets no one anywhere. But we still have to deal with the dishonesty, because we are human and we will inevitably feel anger and sadness at times.
One of the best strategies I learned was not to engage in any back and forth argument over whether or not something is true, but to make a flat and unemotional statement about it. Some examples are, “We both know that’s not true.” Or, “That is a lie, so let’s just deal with the truth.” Another, even less confrontational statement I use is “Ok, well, I’m not sure it happened that way.” and then steer the conversation in a better direction. This technique allows the person being lied to to register reality and preserve their sanity, steer the conversation back toward authenticity and not be torn down in a tit-for-tat. Arguing about truth is almost never winnable, because it requires the person lying to accept that what they said was a lie, which is typically just too threatening to the person with RAD.
I also learned from my mom about the limits of our abilities to help anyone. I’ve had to let go of the thought that I can be the one to hold the reins in anyone else’s life, even my kids. That reality seems fairly understandable in dealing with our parents, but with kids it is much, much harder. We want so much for them to be happy, healthy and safe, and of course we bear the moral and legal responsibility for them as their parents. But if they fight us tooth and nail our capacity is truly limited. Someone who is determined to either do something or not do something really is the one in control. No one can truly make anyone do anything. The best we can do is to try to guide them and step in as best we can when things are out-of-control. My daughter ran away constantly last year and was making incredibly scary choices. We did everything we could do to keep her home, but nothing worked and she was unwilling to work with either us or a therapist to figure out what was driving her. We had to accept the reality that we had done everything we could do and we could not stop her. It was so painful and alarming, but to preserve our sanity we had to come to terms with our inability to do much of anything about it. And with my mom, horrifically, her life ended ultimately from starvation. No matter how much my sister and I, the nurses or anyone else talked to her about her need to eat more, she refused. She would even pour out her nutrition drink and lie to me about it. The doctors deemed her of sound mind. What could I do, fight with her or try to force her? I knew, because I knew her, that it had to be her choice no matter how hard it was for me.
This advice does not mean that we should never do anything to help a person with RAD. Because at times our aid and advice is taken and makes a huge difference. But when it is rejected, we need to let go of the guilt that comes from not being able to make the change we wish to make. What we can do is to assure them how much we care and to be there for them as much as possible.
In addition to the profound decisions about caring for someone with RAD, there are many daily decisions to be made about doing things for them. Frequent check-ins with how you feel about giving them something or doing something for them will help. If something is not essential for health and well-being, we have flexibility with whether or not we do it. I learned that I needed to be careful not go above and beyond to the point where I was feeling anger, resentment and taken-advantage. This is important because doing too much might so damage the relationship that it becomes difficult to be there for them when they truly need you. For example, my son refused to tell me when he had run out of water in the small guesthouse on our property where he was staying, which did not have running water. As frustrating as this was, I would bring him that heavy 5 gallon water jug because he could not live without water and I did not trust that he would ask before he made himself sick. But when he wanted to do soccer, he was the one who needed to make the arrangements. Playing soccer is not a matter of life or death.
A few months ago this practice of setting boundaries became extremely helpful with my mom. I spent countless hours before she died trying to set her up with a recliner as she had asked me to. But before I embarked on this mission, I did my gut check, took care of myself while doing it and did not let her perceived emergency become my emergency. When the sweet lady at the store told me, “I’m sure this will make your mom so happy!” I smiled and agreed, knowing that it probably would not. My mom sat in the recliner only once and refused to try it again, but that was ok with me because I went into the project with my eyes wide open and centered within myself. We will never actually be able to give enough to make them happy, so keeping our sanity has to be front and center. No matter how much you pour into meeting their needs, it will never, ever be enough. So I realized I needed to stop trying to make them happy. Their contentment is not your responsibility, it is theirs. Let you own moral compass be your guide.
Emotional manipulation is almost standard practice in any relationship with someone with RAD. The person with RAD will likely lie about you and put you down to others, and when there are disagreements they will either tune you out or blame you. Thus, there is no point in trying most of the time. When I did my best to help my mom move and she had done nothing to prepare and inevitably things went awry, a discussion of this situation would have gone nowhere. Even though I did everything I could, she took no responsibility and complained about me to whoever would listen. I looked inside and found that I had done my best and that was good enough for me. When my son claimed that he needed to commit violence because we were the ones preventing him from moving forward with his life, I knew that to be wildly untrue and did not let his blame or my own tendency toward guilt consume me.
We cannot let the person with RAD manipulate us, guilt us, emotionally abuse us and destroy us because that does no one any good, including the person with RAD. Taking care of ourselves is not an act of selfishness, as the person with RAD may accuse you of. We cannot control what they say about us. We cannot control how they blame us for everything, but what we can control is whether or not we let it get to us. It is relatively easy for a person with RAD to guilt us, because like all people we do make mistakes. And people with a developed conscience will mull over what they did wrong and often blame themselves. Self-reflection is important, but so too is honesty that evaluates everyone’s role in something gone wrong. Sometimes you will play a part, but consider your circumstances and cut yourself some slack. So much of being in relationship with someone with RAD is learning how to protect your own heart from the onslaught.
It is possible to have a relationship with most persons who struggle with RAD. But keeping your sanity in the midst of that relationship needs to be a number one priority or else there is no hope to salvage the goodness that can be there. If you are parenting someone with RAD you already know how hard it is. In a normal relationship, anyone who lied about us, lied to us, blamed us for any and all problems, hurt us, manipulated us and stole from us would not be anyone we wanted to spend time with. When these persons are our family it is not that easy. I’ve often said that parenting kids with RAD requires us to be super-human, to not feel the normal feelings anyone would have over being treated terribly. I think having been raised by someone who I loved very much, but who exhibited these dynamics, allowed a window into understanding and depersonalizing. I hope my perspective from my mom and my kids might help with a few strategies for balancing it all out for you in your own families.
* There are some kids who have such severe RAD that they truly do not feel much, if any, love. This article is not intended to dismiss those of you who are dealing with that situation, to disbelieve your gut feeling about your children or to inadvertently shame you.
** For younger kids, or kids with less significant AD, working on honesty is still a reasonable goal. This recommendation only applies to kids who have not been able to learn from consequences related to lying.