I was a troubled kid. I had too little supervision and enough early emotional distress that I made a lot of bad choices for a lot of years. And I can hardly believe that I’m sharing this on a blog, but I started drinking and smoking cigarettes and weed by 9 years old. When I look at my kids at that age I can hardly imagine them having anything like the life I lived. At 9 my kids have still been babies. They get to be kids. I grew up too fast, too hard, too young. But my parents weren’t all bad. Compared to many of my friends I had a stable roof over my head, generally enough food, consistent electricity, clean clothes and summer camp. To the outside world we were a stable, middle-class family. But their mantra was “as long as I don’t have to deal with you, I don’t really care what you do.” When drug dealers moved in next door and I started spending a lot of time over there, no one made any effort to intervene. Over the years, I began drinking way too much and was arrested 3 times for underage drinking. When my father lost his job when I was 14 that mirage of stability started eroding. He was hurting and his capacity to keep stable was eroding too. Things became very tense and difficult at home.
My life was rough enough that I can relate to others who’ve been through difficult times, especially during childhood. I can understand a little of what my kids experienced and how challenging their lives were. But, I had gotten enough care, enough love, and enough guidance that I somehow did not lose myself. While my friends were growing increasingly out-of-control through our teen years there was some core within me that did not want to go off the deep end.
At 15, I met a boy, more of a man, who changed the direction of my life. He was 19 and living on his own. He was far from perfect, as he struggled with undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. But he loved me and took care of me when I moved in with him a few months later. It provided me with the stability that I needed to get a foothold in life. I got on the honor roll, quit partying, became an adult and finished high school.
Though my relationship with him did not last, I was on the right path. I went on to earn a B.S. and M.S. I traveled, I got married and adopted children from foster care. I was drawn to adoption because of my life. I wanted to provide kids with what I hadn’t had – structure, supervision, love, guidance and all the extras that a good family gives their children. I knew that the kids would have pain, but I believed that with time and love I could help them overcome what they’d been through.
If you’ve read anything else I’ve written on this blog you will know that two of my kids struggled so much that I could not make it right no matter how hard I tried. I had not heard of Reactive Attachment Disorder when I made up my mind as a teenager that some day I would be an adoptive parent. I understood pain, but I did not understand RAD.
One thing that I’ve experienced over the years is that other people who have had difficult childhoods, or were struggling teenagers, think that they truly understand my kids. Trust me, they don’t. They interpret the kids’ behavior through the lens of their own experience and attribute it to being a teenager or saying “all kids do that”. Though I had my trying times and was not an easy kid or teenager to parent, I am not attachment disordered and I do not relate to the world in a way that someone with RAD would. RAD is a severe disorder that is very real and has intense consequences. These children are not just acting out, they are profoundly disturbed, often have limited cause and effect thinking, conscience development and capacity for authentic relationships. People who have themselves experienced behavior problems often have a difficult time separating out what emotional challenges they felt, no matter how serious, with the neurological changes that have taken place in the brains of someone with RAD. These are fundamentally different things.
Persons with RAD often can heal over time, but the amount of work that they have to do is so much greater than those who do not have RAD. They cannot help that their brains developed in a way that makes all these things so much harder. They deserve our love, advocacy and compassion. But parenting them is not an easy task, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Please quit telling the parents of kids with RAD that “all kids do that.”, or “I used to do that when I was young.” I know that I the things that helped me get back on track have not and do not work for my kids. Because of what they went through their journey to growth and healing will look much different than those who do not have RAD. It is unfair to them to imagine that they have the same bootstraps that you have. We have to be real about what they are dealing with in order to help them achieve what they are capable of. Dismissing how much they struggle is doing them a disservice because we cannot help them when we are in denial based on our own life experience.