I was pulling weeds in my back yard one pleasant summer day when I heard a child screaming from the other side of the house. I dropped my tools and ran around the front side, following the screams towards the pig pen. One of the children was in the pen, trapped inside, with all three young pigs snorting and grunting up against the child’s legs. The child in the pen was frantic, terrified. The pigs weren’t hurting the child, but the fear the child felt was real. I could see it in the look in the eyes, flowing with tears. “Get me outta here,” the child was screaming, as shaking fingers fumbled with the gate chain.
As I jogged up to the pen I noticed another child standing just outside the gate, arms crossed, one foot tapping the ground impatiently.
“Not until you ask me nicely!”
If you’ve ever parented a Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) child this scenario likely sounds familiar….maybe not with pigs involved, but some similar situation has likely occurred in your house. Probably more than once.
Most people have never even heard of RAD. But foster or adoptive parents…we know the symptoms…and we pray we never see them in our kids.
The first three years of a child’s life are the most pivotal in their development. Think of the difference between an infant and a toddler. The growth that occurs is phenomenal.
When a baby cries, a caregiver generally picks it up. Maybe not right away, but eventually, their cries are answered. When they are hungry, we feed them. Wet, we change their diaper. When they are uncomfortable we comfort them. We rock, we swing, we cuddle, we coo. We make eye contact and touch their soft skin and press them against our chest lovingly. Well…most of us do.
Children with RAD missed that…or at least a stage of that…part in their early years of life. They may have been hungry often. They may have cried many, many times to no avail. Perhaps they lived with many different caregivers so they never developed an attachment to any of them. After all, why love something when it is going to go away? A child with RAD didn’t love, didn’t attach, didn’t learn to trust the world, or anyone in it, to care for them. They never felt the unconditional love of a parent…or if they did, it was not for very long or perhaps came too late. A RAD child was likely separated from their birth parent, or had a parent that was inexperienced, un-nurturing, or not physically attentive. A child who does not receive proper nurturing and care for a portion of time during those important first 36 months of life develops inconsistently and may simply not develop the ability to trust, to attach, to even love you back.
One of the biggest things I’ve noticed in a RAD child is the lack of ability to feel empathy. As in the case of the pig pen…that child who was trapped with the pigs was being traumatized…was terrified. But the child standing outside was unable to put themselves in the position of another. That child simply didn’t care what happened in the pigpen. As long as it was someone else, who cares?
The RAD child is very self-centered. After all, in those early years of life, who else was going to care about that child if not the child him/herself? They learn to fend for themselves, to rely on only their own consistency, as nothing else in their world is reliable. They can’t trust others…as has been proven to them time and time again, when they needed something and it was not offered…so why bother expecting the world to be a positive place? Experience has shown them they are on their own.
A RAD child is often extremely controlling. Their early years were out of their control. They were too young to do anything about meeting their own needs. They learned very early on that if they wanted something done, they would have to do it themselves. They learned that the reality of their situation was every man for himself.
When we, as a society, allow children to miss those early years of proper development either by shuffling them through numerous foster placements, never allowing them to settle into an attached relationship…or worse, by leaving them in a home where they suffer neglect, abuse or both, we create adults who through no fault of their own lack the ability to have compassion, empathy or to even truly love another.
We…as parents, caretakers, caseworkers and human beings…all must help to create a system that allows children stability in those formative early years if we ever hope to have an adult population that functions in an attached, loving way. If we fail that mission, the repercussions on our children…and the people they affect…are our own undoing.