I am tired of reading about the lack of conscience, social interest, or engagement that children with reactive attachment disorder supposedly have. Let’s be clear… Reactive attachment disorder and antisocial personality disorder are two completely different diagnoses. Reactive attachment disorder and conduct disorder are two completely different diagnoses.
My child has reactive attachment disorder. My child is not a sociopath. My child is not a threat to society. My child longs for connection, for friendship, for family — but he has walls. He has walls that any one of us would have, were we to have lived his life. They are adaptive behaviors. He does not know how to make sense of what “mom” and “dad” mean, or how they are different from strangers. He does not know how to feel anything but terror from my touch, from the rustle of his hair, from the intimacy of laughing and playing together. These things are unfamiliar and frightening. They mean death, impending death and doom — and, no, I am not exaggerating.
Think of a time a boyfriend or girlfriend treated you poorly… What were you like in your next relationship? How did you respond to their overtures? With fear? Rage? Imagine this — a baby, small and hungry, crying. And no one comes. Again and again, no one comes. Imagine this — a child, seeking a smile, a hug, a laugh, and receiving violence — if anything at all. Imagine the ache in your tummy and heart that repeated exposure to such things would bring. Imagine your own child, alone, with no one there, for hours and hours. Imagine growing up this way. How can you trust your mom or dad to tell you what is safe? How can you look to them for comfort? How can you believe them when they encourage you to try something new? How can you trust your peers or the fun times that you have with them? How can you believe anything good remains, that anything good is deserved?
It’s important to place ourselves in his shoes. We can never know what it’s like, but we must imagine it. We need to see that these reactions are normal. They are not sociopathy, psychopathy, or proof that our child will never know love or morality. They are simply proof that our child has been hurt, badly. They need us to believe in them. They need us to believe that they are more than these behaviors, more than the sum of their past. This is why ASPD and conduct disorder are generally not recommended to be diagnosed until the teen years or later. Brains are moldable. Brains can change.
I see my child’s brain changing every day, as he learns that the world can be safe. I see him learning to seek out affection. I see him learning to look to us — is this safe? Will I be okay? And before anyone says that maybe my child doesn’t have RAD (because, Lord knows, there are enough people self-diagnosing and psychiatrists who throw the label off like it’s nothing) — this is a kid with some of the most severe lack of attachment that our trauma therapist has ever seen. And yet, this is a kid that is healing, much like many other kids that our trauma therapist has supported. This is a child who is healing because we believe that he can. I don’t know if he’ll ever be neurotypical. Mental illness, attachment, trauma, those things have lingering effects. But I believe he will be able to be happy. I know he will believe that he is loved. I see him beginning to return that love. That matters way more than normal.