Reactive Attachment Disorder Symptoms
Have you ever wondered why some children are eager to play with you while others are not?
You open your arms to them and they gladly walk into your arms yet others would not?
Of course, you may argue, they will come to you if you’re the parent. Otherwise they won’t.
That’s right. But not always.
Some children don’t want any contact with strangers. But others actually prefer strangers to their parents. Have you come across such cases?
If you have, then we will explain the reason. If you haven’t, read on and see how that could happen.
What is Reactive Attachment Disorder?
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is a rare condition which is only found in young children.
This condition is responsible for cases where a child hasn’t built a healthy attachment with his parents. In the cases where there are no parents, then no attachment is built with the caregiver.
This is how you end up with a situation like the one mentioned above.
In the course of growing, every child requires love from those caring for him. This is understood by the baby or child in different ways.
It could be a diaper change, crying for attention, desire to play etc. Whenever there is a positive response from the parent or caregiver, the child grows to become a well-developed child. This is especially so in regard to mental and emotional health.
When these acts of love are not experienced by the child, the opposite happens. And that is where RAD becomes a condition the child has to deal with later on in life.
If your child doesn’t have sufficient attachment to you, you’ll have challenges parenting him.
Among all the other attachment disorders, RAD is the most serious.
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF RAD?
As a condition affecting young children, RAD is primarily caused by insufficient love during parenting. Although the condition is itself rare, the lifestyles of many parents can make that change.
As a parent, it’s your duty to ensure you participate in the upbringing of your child. As much as life can be very busy, if your child doesn’t experience love in his early stages of growth, he may never even seek it from you.
This can result in many parenting challenges later on. For example, you may not be able to discipline the child. He may prefer listening to other people instead of you. That makes him vulnerable to abuses and exploitation.
Below are four common causes of RAD.
1. When the child’s needs are not met.
Just like adults, children have needs. And in order to develop a healthy attachment with them, you need to meet their needs.
This will bring about a loving and trusting relationship between you and the child.
However, unlike many adults, children may not clearly communicate their needs. This is especially so when they are very young. Their primary mode of communication is crying and laughing or smiling.
A baby will cry when wet. He will cry when hungry or thirsty. He will cry when it’s too hot or cold. He will cry just about anytime he needs anything.
As the parent or caregiver, it’s your responsibility to understand the message and act accordingly.
You know how that goes: you check whether he’s wet, if you fed him six hours ago, you do it again etc.
If you respond to the child quickly and take care of their need, they understand that to mean that you love them. You care for them and will do what needs to be done so as to make them comfortable.
The next time they communicate their needs and you act similarly, then trust is built. They know you’ll always be there for them. They therefore get an attachment to you that helps both you and them in many ways.
For instance, a healthy attachment will help you discipline the child. It will be easier for such a child to follow instructions and accept correction from you.
A child with RAD will make disciplining him difficult. As you’ll see when we discuss symptoms of RAD, raising a child with this condition can be a big challenge.
The condition is however reversible.
2. When only physical needs are met.
As you might know, needs are not just physical. Another type of need that is very important is the emotional need.
Emotional needs are usually at the root of emotional problems. And in many cases, these are the issues behind mental conditions.
It’s very possible to meet a child’s physical need without meeting his emotional need.
Take the example of a child crying because he’s wet. The physical need is to change his diaper. And what is the emotional need?
The emotional need is to express love to him while changing his diaper.
If you change a child’s diaper without looking at him or even smiling back, he understands that to mean that you don’t really care.
He will stop crying and start smiling. Maybe even laughing. But if your face is as hard as flint and you’re not even looking at him, he’ll get the message.
If you don’t smile back and gently talk or sing to them, they pick it up. The same things happens next time he’s wet and the message gets embedded in his mind.
This can also happen with feeding, walking with them or when doing any other activity.
3. When the child gets very little love and attention.
RAD can also come about when the child grows up in an environment which quite by default, provides little love and attention.
Such environments can vary. It can be a family where little love is shown. It can be a family where there is abuse. It can be a family where there is favoritism and one child gets little care.
A similar thing can happen in institutions like a children’s home. In a children’s home, it’s not easy giving full attention to every child. This is especially the case in institutions where the staff are few.
If a child will grow up getting little love, then he ends up deciding that the world is not a safe and loving place.
Note that a child is usually helpless and they seek other people’s help so as to learn and develop.
In the section of symptoms, you’ll see how children with RAD seek to provide themselves with love and protection.
4. Frequent change of caregivers.
Every child can readily embrace the love he’s being given. However, it can be challenging for him if there are different people being involved in the care.
One of the reasons children often bond with their mothers more than fathers is because they spend more time with them. Throughout breastfeeding, diaper changing, feeding, bathing etc, the child interacts with the mother more.
In this process, he gets to recognize the mom as a trustworthy person. Gradually, the child can welcome other faces including the father and siblings.
Learning to embrace other people happens with ease when the child realizes that the mother is comfortable with the other people. So he also gets comfortable with them. In this, he is actually learning to trust.
What happens when there is no-one to learn from?
If the child moves from one caregiver to another too frequently, he gets confused as to whom he can trust. This is regardless of whether all the caregivers are warm and loving.
He starts bonding with one then suddenly sees another. Probably the upbringing environment also changes in the process. Continually seeing and being handled by different caregivers affects the bonding.
SYMPTOMS OF RAD
As with any other condition, Reactive Attachment Disorder has some symptoms which can help you recognize it.
If you recognize these symptoms early, then you can have a head start treating it. Otherwise, the road ahead will be more challenging.
If as a parent you have noticed your child show some or all of these symptoms, then seek help as soon as possible. Showing just one symptom should not cause you any alarm.
But if more than three are present and they’re consistent, then you should be concerned.
There are mental health experts who can help you understand the situation better and walk with you through your parenting journey.
We have also included some tips you could implement at home to manage the situation.
Let’s first go through the symptoms.
Your Child Doesn’t Smile
When a child smiles at you, he’s showing his joy in being with you. It’s a clear message that he’s comfortable being around you and actually loves you. This is why it’s important to smile back at him.
Your child should be eager to have fun with you, enjoy spending time with you and even just looking at you.
As he is looking and smiling at you, he’s learning to recognize and appreciate you. He is providing you with an opportunity to bond.
When the child isn’t smiling and it’s not because of some form of discipline, then something is wrong. Check whether you have denied him love previously and start working on it fast.
He Doesn’t Reach Out to be Picked Up
This is especially for infants. Normally, when you reach out to pick a child, his arms go up instinctively as he looks forward to be picked up by you.
He can either reach out to you first or just respond to your actions in such a way.
This openness shows how free and trusting the child is towards you. Since trust is a key need for a child, failing to get it shows in his action.
He will hold back or even openly refuse to be picked up by you. Although that may not completely stop you from picking him up, he may start crying.
This is evidence that he doesn’t trust you to care for him.
He Doesn’t Follow You With His Eyes
The same way adults, especially in relationships, miss one another and follow up as soon as possible, it also happens with children. And just as is the case with adults, it depends on the love shared between the parties.
If a child loves and enjoys being with you, he will not want you to go away form him. You put him down on the bed and he starts crying. Or, you put him down and he’s quiet, but only as long as he sees you around.
Of course, as a parent, you might wish that at times, this doesn’t happen so as to enable you do something else.
But be encouraged. It’s a sign of good relations and a strong bond of love between you and your child.
If your child doesn’t mind you putting him down and staying away for long, your antennas should go up.
If he doesn’t miss you or prefer being close to you, there might be a problem.
Doesn’t Respond to Efforts to Calm or Comfort Them
A crying baby can be a real challenge, especially if you’ve just fed him well and he isn’t wet. It can get frustrating when you pick them up to soothe them to sleep but it doesn’t work.
This can be very stressing to you.
But before getting all worked up and highly stressed, consider the possibility that it could be pointing to RAD.
If it is, then you’re fortunate that you recognized it early. You’ll get started with treatment early and save lots of energy later.
He Doesn’t Play Interactive Games with You
Every baby, as part of his development, will want to play games. First, it will be with the person closest to him before being able to go out and play with others.
One common game babies love playing with their parents or primary caregivers is peekaboo.
In this game, you hide your face with your hands then reveal it again. The baby will express his joy in seeing your face again and will look forward to more such moments. He can even copy your actions so the play becomes more interactive.
Is your baby doing this?
If he isn’t, then you should know that something isn’t right.
If he shows other symptoms in this list, then consider getting an official diagnosis from a mental health expert specializing in children.
He Avoids Physical Affection
As mentioned in the section about RAD causes, physical needs of the child must be met. At the same time, physical affection must be shown.
Showing physical affection happens through hugging, patting, cuddling and other forms. Normally, a child will accept and even enjoy these. In the event that he doesn’t, take it as a possible sign of RAD.
When a child rejects your efforts to show him physical affection, he is communicating that he doesn’t trust you enough. He doesn’t believe he can get love from you.
This will most likely be caused by him not getting love from you or from his former caregiver in his earlier days. So, when you try giving it now, he finds it weird and confusing.
He will avoid it even if it’s being given at a time of distress.
Handles their Emotions by Themselves
In those moments of distress, instead of looking up to you, he will look within himself for comfort.
He will opt to stay alone and maybe play with some toys. He might even just lie in bed thinking to himself as he tries to understand the situation and get a solution.
As a child, he doesn’t have enough knowledge or experience to handle emotional burdens. Yet, since he’s convinced that he cannot turn to anyone, he prefers dealing with emotional issues privately.
He Shows No Guilt or Remorse
Normally-developed children will express guilt or remorse when they know they’ve done something wrong. Sometimes, they may not know it but the look on your face will make them know they’ve made a mistake.
Different children may respond differently though some responses are quite common.
They may stop what they were doing and come towards you. They may try to correct the mistake and even seek your help. They may even start explaining to you what happened in an effort to avoid punishment.
But not so for a child with RAD.
Children with RAD appear to have under-developed consciences. They can do something wrong but show no remorse for it. This is probably as a result of them having rejected discipline since they didn’t approve of the person disciplining them.
Disciplining a child who doesn’t feel loved by you can be problematic.
Instead of the child embracing your efforts, he will see them as severe punishment since they are not done in love – according to them.
Shows Misplaced Affection
It’s expected that a child will be attached to his parents first then others later. This is largely true and children often don’t easily embrace strangers.
When it comes to a child with RAD, things can be the exact opposite.
The child already has little or no attachment to his parent. But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need someone to show him love. Since he does, you can find him showing his affection to total strangers yet denying his parent the same.
This is a desperate act to receive love and care—the very thing all humans desire.
But seeking love from strangers makes the child vulnerable though he may not know it.
He has Anger Issues
A child not loved is a child ready to submit to no-one.
Anger will be expressed through disobedience and argumentative behavior.
Taking instructions from you will be difficult and he’ll rebel openly as he grows older.
This comes from the fact that the child didn’t received love and care as needed and expected.
CAN REACTIVE ATTACHMENT DISORDER BE TREATED?
RAD is very treatable and the relationship between a parent and her child can be improved.
Treatment usually focuses on the parent or caregiver since they are in a better position to understand the situation.
Challenges however abound because the parent most likely has a job to focus on or other children to also care for. As such, focusing on one child who needs more attention than others and is disobedient at the same time, can be stressful.
Here are some parenting tips you can use to manage the situation and have some peace during this journey.
There is No Quick Fix
Reactive Attachment Disorder is not a condition you can fix in one sitting with your child. This is a mental condition which needs patience.
Understand that the reason your child is in that position in the first place is because he doesn’t feel loved. Exercising patience is one way of showing love.
It’s necessary that you understand that the treatment of RAD will take some time. It’s difficult to estimate the time it can take since every situation is different.
It all depends on the degree to which the child is affected and the commitment you have towards the treatment’s process.
Exercises and More Sleep will Help
Children with RAD are often distressed. They feel lonely although they may not readily seek company. And with stress being a contributing factor in mental conditions, it’s best to look for solutions to that.
Set a schedule for him at home and let him have enough sleep. Here is a recommendation from experts on how much sleep babies and children typically need.
You can also try engaging him in physical exercises. You can buy him a ball or running shoes or even a bicycle. Ask him whether he would like to learn how to swim.
Allowing him to exercise will reduce his stress levels and enough sleep will also greatly benefit him.
Your child is convinced that you don’t love him. Obviously, to convince him otherwise means loving him.
The challenge however comes in trying to show someone love at a time when he has emotionally separated himself from you. This is why you need to be prepared for a long journey.
If you are the only person the child has been raised by, then you probably know the history of the child. You know how he ended up where he is, especially having read the causes discussed at the beginning of this article.
In that case, you can show love in ways which specifically target the emotional wounds the child has.
For instance, maybe the child wasn’t getting fed while hungry. Food would be made available several hours afterwards. In such a case, you can work on training him that food is always available at certain times. You can also stock up your supplies and tell him that he’s free to eat any time.
Together with these actions, also incorporate appropriate appreciation in your language.
Tell him that you appreciate the work he did in school. If he did well on his chores at home, appreciate him. At first, he may seem confused by your words but just say them.
Do not start by telling him you love him. That may make no sense at all to him. Start small with something he can see the sense in. Something like appreciating the work done.
Work on Being Predictable
One of the reasons a child finds it difficult to trust you is because you send mixed signals. This can also happen when you show love in inconsistent ways.
Today you treat the child well then tomorrow you shout at him. Children with RAD respond to treatment better if they know when to expect what.
If you make dinner, try making it at a specific time. If you have other responsibilities, try managing your time well so you can get back home on time.
This will also help create time for your child.
Train Him to Express Himself
It’s very important that a child with RAD learns to express himself. He needs to know how to express his needs and emotions.
While training him to do this, remember that you should be patient with him.
At first, the child may even reject your efforts. Try not to give up. He’s just finding it hard to receive love from you since he didn’t get it when he needed it.
But since you know that your efforts will do him good and want to be able to connect with him better, just keep going. Encourage yourself and help him out.
Ask him how the day was at school. What games he played and which ones he enjoyed most. Try to get him talking but don’t rush him. If he answers using one-word responses like “good” or “okay,” that’s fine.
If you notice that he hasn’t talked for some time, tell him that you’re there to listen to him if he would like to talk about anything.
You can also use play therapy to help him loosen up. In play therapy, he learns how to express his emotions and develop capacity to relate with others. Here is some information about play therapy.
Reactive Attachment Disorder is rare but the lack in work-life balance can make this become more common. If you have little time for your child, try and make more time.
You can even negotiate work-from-home solutions with your boss.
All in all, ensure you provide love to your child, especially when he’s young. The bonding which will result will be great for you as the parent.
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