There are many challenges and behaviors which are associated with Reactive Attachment Disorder such as: lack of affection, lack of conscience, disobedience, manipulation, temper tantrums, physical violence, destruction of property, argumentative, and so many more. Each child is unique in what his or her cycle may look like. Some children may have a slow simmer, holding their emotions at bay for a very long time, months even, and then have what may look like a cataclysmic emotional explosion at the slightest provocation. Other children, however, cycle much faster with several explosions in one day. In both cases, other family members are left emotional exhausted, anxious, and emotionally bruised, if not physically bruised depending on what emotional and physical behaviors are included in the RAD child’s cycle.


Many of these negative RAD behaviors can, and often do, combine together, repeating in an escalating cycle that culminates in a violent release of emotions. Once this release has been completed the cycle is ready to begin again. What creates negative cycles of behavior and how can we as parents and caregivers help our children to break out of them? 


We already know that our children have RAD because of early childhood trauma, which has affected them in a significant way. Behavior is a complicated matter, which is why there are so many books and professionals out there with advice. RAD is still an infant in terms of research, and we need more information to help us understand and treat the disorder. There is information on cycles of behavior and dysregulation, however. 


Self-Destructive Cycles as Survival Mechanisms


When someone who experienced trauma was put in a situation or several situations that were emotionally painful, they learned to turn off the pain. For a child with RAD this survival mechanism of turning off the pain is functional, in the sense of protecting themselves from the pain of emotion. The self-destructive cycle RAD children go through and the behaviors which are included in their cycle also perform an important function for the child: they are an attempt to control a world over which the child feels very little control. When you consider behaviors such as disobedience, disrespect, oppositional defiance, damage to property, hurtful comments and any other negative behavior, it is the child who is in control of his or her actions. And while it appears to be counter-intuitive to the parent, in the child’s mind, they are the ones who have control in that moment of their life. 


As the parent, we recognize that ultimately our child is out of control and hurting himself by behaving in negative ways. And indeed, instead of expressing their emotions in healthy ways, their emotional energy builds up and explodes in toxic rages or in an outburst that out of proportion with the situation. And a RAD child will rarely get back into self-regulated behavior until their cycle is complete. You can learn more about self-destruction and dysregulationhere.


Replace Negative Habits with Good Habits


It isn’t enough to say to your child, “Stop freaking out!” “Stop punching the walls.” “Stop, stop, stop.” The experts on breaking negative habits have told us time and time again that we have to replace negative habits with good ones. What this means is sitting down with your child during a calm time and asking them what they want their cycle to look like instead. In order to accomplish this your child will need to know what their triggers are and what their plan will be to cope with those triggers.


Sounds simple? Hardly. If you’ve been parenting a RAD child long enough, you know that breaking out of a negative cycle of behavior is no easy task. It might be simple to sit down with your child in a calm moment. And they might miraculously even stay calm and cooperative enough to come up with their triggers and coping skills quickly. But I’m not going to lie to you. Getting your child to switch over to a positive cycle of behavior isn’t easy or fast. It’s hard for anyone at the best of times to break a bad habit, and it’s even harder for a RAD child to let go of their cycle of negative behavior. This cycle is what kept them emotionally safe when they were experiencing trauma in the first place. It will take time and patience to replace it with a healthier cycle.


The Power of Example


We can also help by modeling an emotionally healthy cycle. I believe our own example of how we want them to talk and act is critical in helping them to know not only what’s expected, but how it can be done. Because let’s be honest, if we can keep calm and collected with a chaotic and emotional child and not jump into a cycle with them, then maybe it’s possible for our child to learn from our example.

If nothing else, we’ll benefit from staying calm and keep ourselves emotionally healthier by not jumping into our child’s emotional cycle. 


Get Help


Getting outside professional help from counselors and therapists to learn how to break out of a negative cycle of behavior has always been an important resource for my children and for me. There’s the added value of having an independent voice that isn’t my own listening to my children, helping them problem solve, helping them identify their cycles, helping them identify their triggers, and helping them make a plan to replace negative habits with positive ones.


It has also been helpful for me to feel validated as a parent, and know that I’m doing the best I can for my kids. As I step out of their cycles and invite them to take the positive path, I maintain hope that their ability to self-regulate will increase. 


Have Patience


Quitting a negative habit and learning a positive one takes time. I’ve been trying to quit Diet Coke for years now and replacing it with water just doesn’t seem to cut it. I’ve tried several times to quit and have been successful for a while and then started again. But I still believe I can do it. I have hope. I’ve cut myself down to two cans a day and I do my best to stick to it. 

RAD children need to learn to self-regulate in a new and healthly way. This takes time, practice, and a lot of patience. They are going to make mistakes and we’re going to make mistakes along with them.

We’re in this for the long haul and parenting children with RAD really does take iron patience. I will tell you that I’ve seen slow, gradual changes. I’ve seen improvements and regressions. I’ve seen hope flicker and die, only to be kindled again. Have patience with the process.

 Have patience with yourself—forgive yourself. Yesterday I cracked and had a third Diet Coke at the Jazz game downtown. But I promise you, I didn’t enjoy it. :) We all make mistakes and none of us is perfect. Parents throw plenty of guilt on their backs today and if you have a RAD child who is particularly gifted at manipulation, then you may be experiencing a heaping dose of additional guilt. While it would be ideal if we could remain calm all the time, when our child is going through their emotional cycle, it just doesn’t happen. We have our own triggers, our own times when we’re at emotional lows, physical lows, times when we’re tired or grumpy, and these can clash with our child. You’re human too.


This is not parenting for the faint hearted. We are tough-as-nails parents who are going through the refiner’s fire as we raise our kids. And no, they aren’t thanking us for it right now. If anything, we often hear the “I hate you’s” because that dysregulation and that protection mechanism is the stronger habit that they use to keep them “safe.” 


Maybe our kids will thanks for all we’ve done later, but maybe not. If not, let me be the one to tell you thanks now. Thanks for being the amazing parent you are. Thanks for continuing to try, try, and try again with your kid, despite what you’ve gone through, are going through, and will go through as you raise your RAD child.  


You can do this. We can do this.


Robin Glassey

is surviving three kids with ADHD & RAD. Join her on her journey.