A viewer of Live On Purpose TV asked, “How do I help a child with reactive attachment disorder?” I've got at least seven ideas to share with you about that. Reactive attachment disorder is something that you may or may not know about already. Most parents who are familiar with reactive attachment disorder have adopted children. This is because reactive attachment disorder is most common in children who are adopted, who have an early history of neglect or failure to attach to a primary caregiver. There has been some kind of other childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. This causes some very problematic things to happen in that child's development.
It is so important for children to form a healthy attachment, especially to their primary caregiver. But, also to others who are important in their life. When that is missing in the earliest stages of development, children sometimes don't learn to make the kinds of connections that are going to help them as they move through their life. Children need to know for example that when they are distressed, there is someone in their world who is bigger and more powerful and capable of taking care of their needs. In the situations that I described earlier with neglect or abuse or a failure to attach, these kids don't have the assurance that someone will be there to take care of their needs.
They also don’t have someone to mirror their effect or to show them that they actually have an impact on the people around them. There are a lot of psychological reasons why this gets started, but children with reactive attachment disorder are very difficult to parent. I wanted to say that right up front because there are some challenges involved here that are unique to kids who have a reactive attachment disorder. Some of you are nodding and saying, “Yeah, I know exactly what you're talking about, Dr. Paul.” Because you felt it and you've experienced it. Based on that knowledge, one of the most important things that you can do to take care of a child who has reactive attachment disorder is to take care of you. This is enormously important because you are not going to get a lot of reciprocal support from that child.
In normal development, you'll smile at a child and the child smiles back. Now, if we are dealing with kids who are on the autism spectrum or have other developmental concerns, that is not always true for all cases. In most cases, there is some give-and-take. There is some feedback. Socially, the relationship that you have with your child is very reinforcing to you as a parent. This is one of the areas of deficit for kids who have reactive attachment disorder. So, you must be able to take care of yourself and feel good inside of your own skin. That puts you in a better position to actually meet the special needs of a child who has this kind of a problem.
This also puts you in position to do the next thing that I want to suggest, and that is to be very responsive to that child, but not needy. So, you will reflect to them the important cues that they were missing out in in their early development. We are still going to try to bring them up to speed because some of these kids can make up some of those delays later in life. A lot of that depends on how substandard their early care was or how much abuse they have encountered. But with that being said, you want to be very responsive to their needs. Not reactive, but responsive.
Some of the things that you'll get from a reactive attachment disorder child will trigger you into feeling anger or resentment. Watch out for that. Those are good signals to you that you need to make sure you are taking good care of yourself. You may need to set some other appropriate limits so you will be responsive to that child but not reactive or needy. You don't want to depend on them to have some particular response in order for you to feel okay. I know everything that I'm sharing with you here sounds so simple, right? Well, it is simple, but it is not easy. That is why it is important to know what you are dealing with and have the tools and resources available so that you don't get tipped over too easily.
I'm going to go a little different direction here for just a minute. I found some of the kids who have attachment issues that I've seen and worked with them and a pet can be helpful. This is interesting because… I'm remembering a particular kid that I was working with. He had been in the foster care system for about 4 years early on in his life. He had suffered some substandard care and neglect and abuse as an infant. He went into the system, he was shifted from one foster home to another. I picked him up when he was about 7 or 8 years old. He had already been in I think 4 or 5 different placements at that point. So, not only did he have the original factors that sometimes lead to reactive attachment disorder, but he had a repeated pattern of disrupted placements and attachments.
He learned basically, “It's not safe to attach to the caregivers in my life, because they are going to disappear anyway.” And so, he became more and more withdrawn. I'm pretty animated, and normally, I can make a good connection with kids very quickly in my office. Not so much with this one. He was polite, he was compliant, but there was nothing there in terms of a connection or an attachment. This is weird for me, but this is what his caregivers were experiencing as well.
His foster mother at the time was looking for ways to help him. She got him a puppy. Now, a puppy was something that he hadn't experienced before. And he didn't associate the same risks with having a relationship with a puppy as he did with having a relationship with an adult or a caregiver in his life. So, he quickly attached to this little puppy. It gave him an opportunity to experience some of the things that he was missing out on in his human communications and interactions with this little pet that he also had some responsibility for. He was to learn some things about what it takes to interact with another being on the planet even if it wasn't a human.
We were able to build on that and help him to develop some other attachment skills as a result of his working with the puppy. I thought maybe that would be worth consideration for you when you think about your options. You know, I chuckled a little bit as I was setting up this particular episode because how do you help a child with reactive attachment disorder? What if we just delete the end of that sentence? How do you help a child? Period.
There are principles that are consistent no matter what that child is dealing with. The research over the years has been more consistent in this area than any other area I can think about in psychology. Children need two things to be stable and healthy and well-adjusted. Do you know what they are? The first one is love. Your job as a parent is to love them no matter what and even if. I hope if you are a frequent viewer of this channel that you said that right along with me. We got to just get that into our head. Our job is to love them no matter what and even if. Even if they don't attach to us? Yes. Maybe especially then. Love is so important.
And the other thing is discipline. Some of the studies call it structure or some kind of system that they can predict outcomes. Kids have to have love and they have to have discipline. This is true of a kid with reactive attachment disorder or ADHD or whatever they have. They are kids. They need love and discipline.
Two more points, and these are especially important for the reactive attachment disorder. Community. I say the word community, because you are not alone. There are other parents dealing with this. And you know what? When you start to associate with those people, you start to feel a little less crazy inside of your own mind because what you are dealing with is stuff that other people are dealing with too. We have positive parenting groups that we are working with. We are holding positive parenting groups where some of these parents get to come together and share their ideas and their experiences. Even though I am there as a professional psychologist, as they hear each other share their experiences, it's like, “Oh… Oh. Oh, so I'm not so weird.” “Oh, yeah. I've been experiencing that too.” The power of community is amazing. We are trying to create that kind of a community here on our channel and in the groups that we are holding. Find someone to associate with. And there are lots of opportunities, either locally or online. Start to look and connect with other parents.
A final point, get some help. You are not intended to do this alone. Find a coach, find a counselor, find a therapist. Someone that you can talk to and keep you on the level, psychologically. This is a challenging task, and you don't have to do it all alone. Go on over to YouTube to Live On Purpose TV. You will find a plethora of videos to help. Check out the Positive Parenting Playlist.
Are you feeling like you could use even more help than these videos? The place to start would be a free breakthrough call with a member of our coaching team. It might even be me. Click on the link down below drpauljenkins.com/breakthroughcall. It's a free call. We'll be able to connect directly with you and help get you hooked up with some powerful resources. Get on a call.