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  • Gina Heumann

5 Ways To Shift Your Mindset About a RAD Kid

My son’s childhood was difficult, to say the least. Most parents teach their children right from wrong with timeouts, sticker charts, or other popular disciplinary tactics. Those are great for neurotypical kids, but when you have a child who suffered trauma, all “regular parenting” is completely ineffective. So I spent a lot of time beating myself up for letting my child manipulate me to get what he wants. He would fly into a full-blown rage anytime I said “no” – kicking and screaming, destroying property, trying to hurt me. And I constantly felt like a failure as a mother.

When he was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, I dove into researching this little-known and terrifying mental illness; and discovered that he wasn’t doing these things on purpose. This change in mindset made a world of difference for me; and allowed me to give myself a little grace on my now unorthodox parenting style. Let’s take a look at how a RAD kid’s growing mind works:

  • RAD kids live in their limbic brains. When kids suffer abuse and neglect at an early age, the amygdala takes over. This is considered the “reptilian brain” and is the thing that signals danger. So if a bear is chasing you, it’s the amygdala that tells you to run. The response of this system is increased amounts of cortisol and the urge to either “fight, flee, or freeze”. Behaviors associated with “fight, flight, or freeze” include kicking, screaming, spitting, pushing, throwing things, destroying property, fidgeting, running away; or even daydreaming, whining, or completely shutting down.

  • Being in survival mode shuts down the cortical brain. When kids are constantly living in “fight, flight, or freeze”, the rest of the brain doesn’t develop properly. Brains develop in order with the primitive brain coming first – that’s the part that tells you to breathe, eat, and go to the bathroom. The limbic brain comes next to warn of danger and help with survival. And the cortical brain comes last… this is the part that helps us with logic and reasoning. When a child is living in survival mode on a regular basis, their ability to access higher-level thinking is stunted. So trying to reason with a RAD kid who is flipping out is never going to work.

Before I knew this information, I would say “no” and dig in my heels, preparing for a long fight, convinced I would teach him a lesson. And when I say long, his meltdowns often lasted between 2 and 4 hours. That’s pretty extreme compared to a neurotypical kid. And when you’re out in public, it’s also embarrassing. For me, knowing the reasons behind what he was doing helped me shift my mindset. And that made a huge difference in my ability to handle myself in these situations in order to better help him. Let’s look at some of the reasons for these RAD traits and how they affect regular parenting:

  1. Food Insecurity My son would come into the kitchen when I was cooking dinner and tell he me he was starving, and yet when I told him that we’d be ready to eat in 5 minutes, that wasn’t soon enough. Instead, he would flip out for an hour, screaming and crying. I never understood the reasons for this. But as a baby, he was neglected by his foster mom. He probably cried for hours when he was hungry, eventually entering that “fight or flight” instinct. Now, subconsciously, he goes there at the slightest hunger pang. It’s the reason he hid food under the bed or in his closet. His brain was wired to think that he might actually starve to death, and he was now preparing for the day when I might forget to feed him. Still to this day (and we are now what I would consider RAD survivors), the first question he asks me every single day is “what are we having for dinner?” I have to constantly remind myself that this is a survival technique.

  2. Fear of Being Alone While timeouts are effective for regular kids, a kid with RAD who has suffered neglect has a completely different reaction. Sitting in a corner alone can bring up deep-seeded memories of neglect and lead to intense anger. Instead of learning a lesson about whatever they did wrong, they are stewing in emotions that can cause them to lash out. So after a timeout, my kid would get worse. This also explains why these kids are sometimes superficially charming to adult strangers. They are lining up their next caregiver for when you ultimately disappoint them, because deep down that is what they truly think will happen.

  3. Need for Control I discovered that RAD kids have an innate need for control, so when my son wanted to only wear sweatpants every single day, I had to decide if it was really a fight worth having. Giving him control over some things is an important part of his survival. This also explains why RAD kids seemingly pit one caregiver against another in order to get the answer they want. They’re not purposely trying to manipulate, they are seeking a feeling of control. They truly only trust themselves, and teaching them to trust others can be an insanely long process.

  4. Defiance With a neurotypical child, you can tell them to go clean their room and threaten a consequence if they don’t, and it usually works. With a RAD kid, you’re just setting yourself up for failure. My kid would actually say to me, “just go ahead and take away my video games”, instead of trying to clean his room. I was baffled by the thought that he’d rather suffer consequences than try to accomplish what I thought was a simple task. But I later discovered that his chaotic and underdeveloped brain actually didn’t have the skills needed to do this. Instead, I learned that sometimes we had to teach him, possibly by doing the task together.

  5. Mistrust of Authority When a child suffers abuse or neglect by the very people who are supposed to love them the most, they become extremely mistrustful of adults. So when one of these kids is removed from their situation and placed into a loving home, we parents think we can just love them more and that will fix it. But in actuality, these kids are trying to protect themselves by pushing caregivers away. They subconsciously think their caregivers will let them down again and they can only trust themselves. That’s why they react, rather than comply.

Understanding the reasons behind these behaviors was super important for me. I discovered I needed to adopt a therapeutic parenting style that is completely different than what other parents do for their kids. And I learned to stop blaming him for his behavior. Behavior is communication, and what I didn’t see was that my RAD kid was communicating his deep-seeded fears and emotions in the only way he knew how.

There is hope. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability for the brain to adapt and rewire itself. The brain is an amazing organ, and the earlier we can intervene and help reprogram these kids, the better our chances for success. Reframe your thinking, and you can start to help understand and heal a RAD kid.

Read our story in the memoir, Love Never Quits, available on Amazon via this link: Love Never Quits: Surviving & Thriving After Infertility, Adoption, and Reactive Attachment Disorder

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