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Overview of Reactive Attachment Disorder for Teachers

If a parent has given you this to read, you are teaching a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder. The family of this child has decided to share this information with you. This sharing is a big step for the family, and one I hope that you will treat gently and with the respect it deserves. This family has been through traumas you cannot even imagine. I will describe a few of them here below so that you get the ‘flavor’ and perhaps even begin to understand why this child’s parents sometimes seem so harsh or harried or even depressed.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is most common in foster and adopted children, but can be found in many other so-called ‘normal’ families, as well, due to divorce, illness, or separations. RAD happens when a child is not properly nurtured in the first few months and years of life. The child is left to cry–in hunger, pain, need for changing, or cuddling–and learns that adults will not help him or her. Children whose birth parents are more involved in getting their next drug fix, than they are in nurturing the developing child, learn that their needs are not primary to adults. Children born of drug or alcohol-addicted parents learn, even in the womb, that things do not feel good and are not safe for them. In severe cases, where the child was an abuse, neglect, or violence victim, the child learns that adults are hurtful and cannot be trusted. The child with RAD, therefore, develops habits of dealing with the world in a way he or she believes will provide safety. He manipulates in order to control a world he literally thinks will kill him if he does not control it. Without therapy, kids with RAD never develop the attachments to another human being which teaches them to trust, accept correction, develop cause-and-effect thinking, self-control, and responsibility for their own actions.

Children with RAD are often involved in the Juvenile Justice System as they get older. Left untreated, such children can maim, kill, and torture–without conscience or feeling. They can start fires, kill pets and terrorize their families. It has been said that untreated children with RAD grew up to be such people, as, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and the teenagers who shot up Columbine High. They can feel no remorse, have no conscience, and see no relation between their actions and what happens as a result. Because, they never connected with, or relied upon another human being, in trust, throughout their entire lives–they attempt to become their own parent.

In most cases, what you will see as a teacher, is a child, who is, initially, surprisingly charming to you–even seeking to hold your hand, climbing into your lap, smiling a lot. You may feel delighted that you are getting on so well with him/her. At the onset of your contact with the child who has been reported from prior grades as ‘impossible’, you will wonder what those previous teachers did to provoke the behaviors you have not seen but which are reflected in the prior grade reports. A few months into what you thought was a working relationship, the child is suddenly openly defiant, moody, angry and difficult to handle. There is no way to predict what will happen from day to the next. The child often eats as if he hasn’t been properly fed and is suspected of stealing other children’s snacks or lunch items. The child does not seem to make or keep friends. The child seems able to play one-on-one for short periods, but cannot really function well in groups. The child is often a bully on the playground. Although children with RAD typically have above average intelligence, they often do not perform well in school due to lack of problem-solving and analytical-thinking skills. They often test poorly – often deliberately.

Children who suffer from RAD might climb into your lap and pretend to be affection ‘starved’. They often talk out-loud in class rooms, do not contribute fairly to group work, or conversely argue to dominate and control the group. Organizational abilities are usually limited, and monitoring is resented. There may be a sense of hypervigilance about them that you initially perceive as no sense of personal space and general ‘nosiness’. They seem to want to know everyone else’s business but don't tell you anything about their own. There is little to no sense of conscience for their actions, even if someone else is hurt. They may express an offhand or even seemingly sincere “sorry”, but will likely do the same thing again and again. These children are motivated to push leaders to be angry. They are not motivated by self or parental pride. Normal reward and punishment systems simply do not work– kindness, sympathy or concern only exacerbate their poor behaviors – they see adults as simply a ‘sucker’ to be exploited.

They will deliberately omit parts of assignments–even when writing their names–just so that they are in control of the assignment, not you. When assigned a seat they will often choose an indirect, self- selected path to reach the seat. When given a certain number of things to repeat or do, they often do more than, or less than directed. They often destroy toys, clothing, bedding, pillows, and family memorabilia, then feign complete innocence even when the shredded materials are lying at their feet. They usually blame parents, siblings, or others, for missing and incomplete homework, missing items of clothing, lost lunch bags, etc. Children suffering from RAD sometimes feign fear of parents when in a public place simply for the reactions it elicits from other adults. Children with RAD are masters at triangulating parents and teachers with any number of half or completely false stories. They destroy school bags, lose supplies, steal food, sneak sweets, break zippers on coats, tear clothing, and eat so as to disgust those around them (open mouth chewing, food smeared over face).

They often inflict self injuries, pick at scabs until they bleed, and seek attention for non-existent/miniscule injuries. But, they will seek to avoid adults when they have real injuries or genuine pain. Children with RAD sometimes have multiple falls and accidents and frequently complain about what other children have done to them, i.e. “He started it!”, “Suzi kicked me first”. They can walk around in significant physical pain from real injuries and will minimize the injury until it is detected–at which point they may be able to exploit the delay occasioned by their own failure to complain appropriately. They often will not wipe a running nose or cover a mouth to sneeze, or conversely will overreact or exaggerate a cough or mild illness. They accept no responsibility for their actions and do not have any sense of why everyone can get so aggravated with them. They often have scrapes, bumps, bruises and will claim abuse by an adult, including you, in order to obtain attention and seem to be “accident prone”.

They are in a constant battle for control of their environment and seek that control however they can, even in totally meaningless situations. If they are in control, they have a pseudo sense of safety. If they are loved and protected by an adult, they are often overwhelmed with fear, because they never learned to trust adults, adult judgment, or to develop any of what we know as normal feelings of acceptance, safety and warmth.

These children often slur words just to make you ask them to repeat themselves or speak more clearly. Their speech patterns are often unusual, and may involve talking out of turn, talking constantly, talking nonsense, humming, singsong, asking unanswerable or obvious questions, i.e. “Do I get a drink any time today?”. They have one pace – theirs! No amount of “Hurry up, everyone is waiting on you!” will work. They want to be in control, and you have just told them that they are! If you need the child to finish lunch so everyone can go to the playground, he might eat five times slower than usual. If you need the child to dress and line up, he might scatter papers, drop clothing, fail to locate gloves, wander around the room – anything to slow the process and control it further. Five minutes later he may be kissing your hand or stroking your cheek with absolutely no sense of having caused the mayhem that ensues from his actions.

You can begin to understand what this child’s parents face on a daily basis. The parents are often tense. They are involved in ‘control battles’ for their parental role nearly every minute they are with the child. The parents adopted the child thinking love would cure anything that had happened before the adoption. They have only recently learned that ‘normal’ parenting will not work with this child–that much of what they have tried to do for years simply fed into the child’s dysfunction. They are frightened, sad, stressed and lonely. Many feel unmerited guilt for their perceived ‘failure’ with this child. The mothers often bear the brunt of the child’s actions and the child is often clever enough to make certain none of it occurs in front of the father. Hence, they even triangulate the parents – because it puts them in control of the situation, which adds to their pathology.

It takes a tremendous amount of work and therapy to turn these children around so that they can experience real feelings and learn to trust. Parents who have embarked on this healing journey for their child need support and consistency from other adults who interact with the child. This diagnosis is a relatively new one in the some mental health communities, despite widespread acceptance for years in many states.

What can you do as a teacher? CALL THE PARENTS. They will likely not be real warm about this child at this point, and can be perceived as too harsh until you get to know them better. Have them in to talk with you about this issue. They are often hostile to outside commentary because others, without RAD information, don’t really know what these folks are living with every day. Call them and talk about what you see in the classroom and ask if they have any other strategies for managing things. Parents who are in counseling and therapy with their child will eventually open up to you and you’ll all be able to help the child get healthy or at least not contribute to his dysfunction. Remember the child’s primary objective is to triangulate you from the parents so that he controls the relationships on his terms, not yours. He may also seek to triangulate you from other supervisory or authority figures at the school.

If parents let you know that time is precious on a particular occasion due to ongoing therapy (or whatever) don’t feel put-off or shut-out. They will talk to you when they have time, and time is one of the things RAD parents often run out, of as they work desperately to save their child’s future. The therapy and home-parenting techniques are exhausting, and time-consuming. Try to respect that, if it seems they are not focusing on your goal of home or class-work. Do not trust schoolbag communication or expect things sent in a “communication envelope” to be as complete as when they left the school with the child. Many parents develop alternative communication methods once they realize why they feel so ‘out of it’ where the school is concerned. They are ‘out of it’, because that is how the child wants it. And, the child will hide or destroy notes, and information sheets. Or, partially reduce the contents of communication envelopes so that it looks like you simply have an unresponsive parent on your hands. Use the phone and regular mail – it works.

Don’t feel you need to apologize if you have believed this child and blamed the parents. If they have given you this information, they already trust you, and do not blame you for not having the information you needed – likely they only just recently got it themselves. Make it perfectly clear in your interactions with the child that YOU ARE THE LEADER of the classroom or activity. Remind the child, unemotionally, but firmly, that –you make the rules. You can even smile when you say it if you can ‘get’ the smile ‘all the way up to the eyes’. Just remember to get the child to verbally acknowledge your position i.e. “Yes, ma’am, you are the leader”. Do it every day for a while, then use periodic reminders. Insist upon use of titles or prefixes: “Miss” Jane, “Teacher” Sarah, “Mr” Philips–they establish position and rank. Structure choices so that you remain in that leadership role: “Do you want to wear your coat, or carry it to the playground?”, “You may complete that paper sitting or standing”, “You may complete that assignment during this period, or during recess”. Remember to keep the anger and frustration that the child is seeking out of your voice. Try to ‘smile all the way to your eyes’, if you can, otherwise, simply stay as neutral as you can. Structure and control without threat.

YOU ARE NOT THE PRIMARY CAREGIVER for this child. You cannot parent this child. You are his teacher–not his therapist–not his parents. Remind the child that her parents are where she can get hugs, cuddles, food and treats. You will only have responsibility for this child for one school year – understand that, unless you maintain your role as teacher, this child will consider the move into the next grade as having you ‘abandon’ or 'reject' him. The only way to avoid that is to remain in your teacher role and support the process of helping this child learn to be a whole human being as best you can in the time you have. Teachers are left-behind each year, it is normal. These children need to learn that lesson.

Establish EYE CONTACT with the child, insist upon it as often as the opportunity presents itself. Do not be deceived by the child’s focusing on your forehead or chin. Children with RAD do not like eye contact and will do just about anything to avoid it unless they are lying or trying to manipulate you–at which point you will be hard-put to avoid a ‘staring’ contest. Be firm, be consistent, be specific.

Try to remember to ACKNOWLEDGE GOOD DECISIONS AND GOOD BEHAVIOR, i.e., “I see you made a good choice and finished your homework last night.” “I see you decided to sit out the game rather than get into a fight with Sally, that’s a good choice.”

CONSEQUENCE POOR DECISIONS AND BAD BEHAVIOR. Poor decisions and choices, like: incomplete homework, wrong weight jacket for the weather, also need to be acknowledged. “I see you chose to have incomplete work from this activity period. You may finish it at recess while the other children who chose to finish their work go outside and play. Better luck next time.” Nothing mean, or angry, or spiteful – it’s just the facts. Remember that they have difficulty with cause-and-effect thinking and have to be taught consequences. Normal reward systems like treats and stickers simply do not work with these children. You will continue to see ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ from day-to-day with absolutely no correlation to standard reward systems. Standard behavior modification techniques do not work with this child – she doesn’t think the way nurtured children think. Her entire being is centered on being in control so she can be ‘safe’. If anyone else is in control she is anxious and certain she is going to die – no kidding, it is that serious.

Consequencing is a good teaching technique for adults involved with RAD kids – there is a consequence associated with each good behavior, each poor behavior – teach them what those consequences are – they will not think of, or recognize them without your direction.

BE CONSISTENT, BE SPECIFIC. The child with RAD will be “good” for you one or two days–or even weeks–just to watch your incredulity at his or her misbehavior the next time. General compliments like “You’re a good boy!” or “You know better”, are not helpful. Be specific and consistent – confront each misbehavior and support each good behavior with direct language. “You scribbled on the desk – you clean it up” “You hit Timmy, you sit here next to me until I decide you may play again without hitting.” “You did well on the playground today, good for you!” “You chose to complete that assignment, that’s a good choice!” Be positive when you can.

DO NOT ACCEPT POOR MANNERS OR INCOHERENT SPEECH. The child must say “May I please be excused to use the restroom?” Not, “I gotta pee”. And, yes, they will often wet themselves rather than ask appropriately–to be in control. Say, “I see that you wet yourself. That must not feel very good.” Then, go back to whatever you were doing. He might feel embarrassment, or even just the discomfort that is a NATURAL CONSEQUENCE of his choice to wet himself, rather than ask to use the restroom. Feel free to not respond to slurred or incoherent speech. The child will learn she cannot manipulate you into asking for a repetition or clarification. If you feel you must, tell the child that you will not be able to hear him until he makes the choice to speak clearly and then turn your attention elsewhere. The child should say, “Yes, Miss Janice.” “No, Mr. Sayers.” “Yeah,” and “Nope,” and “I don’t know,” are no longer part of the child in therapy’s vocabulary – do not tolerate them in your classroom, they are disrespectful.

This NATURAL CONSEQUENCES thing is important. Do not permit this child to control your behavior by threatening to throw a tantrum–instead, let him, out in the hallway or in another room. Say, “You can have your tantrum here if you choose to.” If he is puttering around doing his own thing when it delays the class’ departure for a planned activity, say, “I see you’ve chosen to mess around rather than get ready to go, you can wait here in the supervisor’s office until we get back”.

Time-outs do not work for these children – they want to isolate themselves from others. Bring the child near the activity he has had to be removed from and have them stand with you, or sit in a chair along side you. It’s called a “TIME-IN”. No raised voices, no anger. Don’t lose your temper if you can avoid it, remember he is manipulating you to do just that. If you are going to ‘lose it’, seek assistance from another adult until you are back in control.

DO NOT SYMPATHIZE with this child over their made up suffering. joining in the facade will only give the child power over you, usurp your role as teacher, and prevent you from being effective in your role. Remain consistent in your expectations, do not lower them for this child. The child with RAD has even more to learn than ‘normal’ kids.

SUPPORT THE PARENTS. The child who is fighting for control at home and in the classroom and has kind caring leaders to follow will act out more before he gets better. Listen appropriately. Always redirect this child to her parents for choices, hugs, decision-making and sharing of information that you believe is either not true or is designed to shock or manipulate you. Follow up with the parents.

REMAIN CALM AND IN CONTROL OF YOURSELF. No matter what she does today. If she manages to upset you, she is in control, not you. Remove yourself or the child from the situation until you are able to cope.

AVOID BEING ALONE WITH THIS CHILD. They learn, shockingly early in life for some of them, that such situations can be manipulated into abuse claims for which there is no “witness”.

If your classroom is out-of-control because of this child, get help. Although many schools and school districts already use our parenting materials and resources, many school counselors, and administrators have not yet had exposure to the RAD diagnosis or how to handle it in schools. There are many resources available. Don’t give up! These children are inventive, manipulative, and very much in need of everything you can offer to help them get healthy. Remind the child that you will be speaking with her parents on a regular basis. Report to the child’s home as often as you can without feeling burdened by the effort. Expect notes to be destroyed. Use the phone. If you do not get a response to written communication and the parents seem to be out of touch with general information, do not blame them. Chances are they never got the message, never saw the right number of papers and have no clue what is going on because that is just how the child likes it. It takes control from the parent. Give it back by communicating directly whenever possible.

This child can, and will be helped to get healthy. And, you can be a part of that process with the right tools. Keep in touch with the family. Remember that what you see in school is only the tip of the iceberg – family life is terribly threatening to these children and what the parents have to deal with every day is nearly unimaginable to other uninformed adults. Blaming the family or failing to communicate with them adds to the dysfunction and puts the child at greater risk of never getting healthy. This child is learning in therapy to be respectful, responsible and fun to be around. It will take time, it will be an effort, if in the end it is successful, it will be because the adults in her life were consistent and the child decided to work in therapy.

Your contribution as his teacher cannot be underestimated or undervalued! His parents will be grateful for the support, and the therapist will have fewer inconsistent venues to sort out while helping the child to heal.

Used with permission from the author.