{Honestly} guest post: Reactive attachment disorder

Today’s {Honestly} guest post delves into a topic that’s not easy to talk about: reactive attachment disorder. Many people want to ignore it, thinking it will never happen to their family, or this is The Thing that scares them away from adoption. They fear the “damaged kid” who can’t get better.
Kara Higgins believes fiercely that the “can’t get better” part just isn’t true. Her mama heart has enlarged to encompass the needs of her son, and I believe her when she says she will fight to make Etienne hers, completely, no matter what it takes. She inspires me to see my son in a new light and to have compassion on other adoptive parents’ struggles.
I highly recommend that you follow her blog for more of the day-to-day realities of living with RAD. It’s been eye-opening for me to see their struggle (she’s so honest about it)and marvel at what God is doing in this boy’s life — and in his family’s. I’m sure that if she could, Kara would take away her son’s issues. She probably never dreamed this was how her adoption story would play out. But she’s committed to a happy ending, no matter how long it takes, and she’s quick to give credit to the God who equips her for it.

This blog post is for newbies, for readers unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty details of our experience with RAD. So here goes in a nutshell.

RAD is reactive attachment disorder. Defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness.” In other words, a kid can be really messed up socially if he is never held, touched, loved and bonded with someone in his first years of life. My boy missed out on being rocked to sleep, he learned he should do anything necessary to get attention (whether good or bad) from any adult, and this is what it comes down to. E wants his mom to love him, but he doesn’t yet believe it’s unconditional and forever. So I’m still proving it to him.

Ryan and I began our adoption journey requesting 2 kids, unrelated or related, under the age of 3. Somewhere after the referral, we heard rumors that the nuns at the orphanage did “whatever it took to get the kids with the most potential” (I know, the truth is ugly) into a forever family. That’s cool, we get our “sort of,” 18 month old Ezekiel, and our “3-ish” Etienne. The first 9 months home were all about adjusting to the details of doubling our kid load; switching from man-to-man parenting to the zone defense. We were battling the physical stuff, like giardia, ringworm and hoarding. We didn’t have the eyes to yet notice that Etienne climbed, hugged, kissed and smothered every adult he came in contact with.

Then the honeymoon phase ended for real. Etienne’s indifference for his parents escalated and his lying, insomnia and incontinence began. I would try to hold or snuggle him and he would tighten up his muscles and lean away from me. He had always been amazing at taking apart toys, stuffed animals and plumbing and that skill just multiplied. We had read up and thought we had prepared for post adoption issues, but I soon realized we had no idea.

I talked with some experts and that only angered me. The director of a pediatric mental health office, who is a therapist and adoptive mom, told me, “You just need to accept that your child will always be disconnected at some level with you. He is the product of an institution.” Well for lack of better words, that just pissed me off and put the fight in me. Clearly this “expert” had no idea that God literally moved lives and crossed oceans when the world said it was impossible for Etienne to become mine. Her words were like a kick in the rear for me because I realized that I wanted Etienne to be mine. I never wanted to define him as my adopted child. I just wanted him to be my child. I came to the end of me, realizing that this was clearly a God thing. The world says RAD will always define my boy’s heart and life in our crazyville. God is so much bigger than that.

Probably what makes RAD the most infuriating is that the rest of the world doesn’t see it. People love Etienne because he is friendly, charming and generally well behaved in front of the rest of the world. That makes me feel like a liar. I am paranoid that my coworkers, friends and extended family think I exaggerate his actions behind closed doors.

The thing about God, though, is that it’s all giving Him the glory. I in NO WAY take credit for the compassion Etienne’s siblings have when he destroys their Christmas presents. It is not me that knows how to respond in an “attached parent” sort of way. Is is that God has given me eyes to see this boy in a new light. He lost 135 friends the day he gained a family. We took away his freedom to run around and scream at the top of his lungs whenever he felt like it. To him, being adopted wasn’t what he thought he wanted or needed.

I hold onto his redemption story, that someday God is going to take these years of struggle and turn it into something so much more perfect than I can even imagine. And that is why I prefer to accept that while Etienne has issues, I KNOW that only God will define my son.

The Higgins Family


For more information on reactive attachment disorder, click on these resources: MayoClinic.com or RadKid.org.

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5 comments on “{Honestly} guest post: Reactive attachment disorder

  1. Courtney says:

    as always, THANK YOU so much, kara!!!

    • Cindi says:

      Thank you, thank you for this. We adopted 3 children in July and all 3 are suffering from RAD. It’s always helpful to know they aren’t the only ones!


      • Melissa says:

        Oh, Cindi, I am praying for you. I don’t know that ours officially have RAD, but we adopted 2 from HOH 2 years ago, and we have some issues. I know who you since we saw your picture on your father in law’s book website while you were in process to adopt.

  2. Kara says:

    I am no expert. Most of the time, I wing it. I would encourage you the most to pray that you see your child with God’s eyes. This prayer has brought me more empathy, which, in turn, brings more patience. XXOOX

  3. Ginny Cleary says:

    Bravo! Great story. My daughter was blessed to be able to go through a treatment program in Montana and is doing pretty well.. but at such a high cost to our family. Honesty is the key – with your family members, and mostly – with yourself.