Adoption days are happy and exciting days. Our family has had 2 awesome, amazing adoption days. Each day was meaningful and special – no less incredible than each of the days I gave birth to my biological children.

Do you ever wonder what life is like after the excitement of adoption day is over and life returns to the day-to-day?

Attachment Issues: When Family Life is Not Working

Last week I read the story of The Clark Family, a Georgia family that recently adopted a sibling group of 7 children. The family’s story is heart-warming and has continued to draw media attention.

As someone who lives in the world of foster care and adoption of children who have experienced trauma, I have mixed emotions when I read stories such as this one.

While I’m thrilled beyond belief that these children found a forever family and that the media is portraying adoption in a positive light, I not sure we are doing anyone any favors by glossing over the realities of adoption from foster care.

It’s not my place to make assumptions and I don’t know this family personally, but honestly I saw red flags in the details of this article. I’m sure my fellow foster moms and other parents who are raising children with attachment issues saw them, too.

When children have been through trauma, moved multiple times, and had failed adoptions, there are lasting scars even if these scars do not show on the outside.

It’s Not RAD, so What is It?

When we became foster parents, we had training and read books about RAD, Reactive Attachment Disorder. We did a short-term respite placement for a little boy from an overseas orphanage who was diagnosed with RAD. I knew the signs of RAD. (Click here to read my previous article about RAD.)

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This helpful graphic gives the signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder:

Signs of RAD

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While our adopted child had some of the criteria, many of them didn’t fit at all, and the overall composite picture was not a match.

I wasn’t ready to wrap my head around a RAD diagnosis for my child.

But family life was not working.

From the earliest possible ages, I have sensed and seen differences with my adopted children.

I have the advantage that before we adopted our younger children, I parented our three older biological children. So when “experts” told me the behavior I was seeing in our young toddlers was normal and they would grow out of it, I could clearly say, “Nope. Not normal. I’ve seen typical, and this is not it.”

No one could tell me what to do about it, though.

We didn’t go into their adoptions blindly. We knew they came from backgrounds of early trauma, insecurity, neglect, and more. (I keep my words vague here for their privacy.)

Yet we brought both boys into our home at a young age.

Even therapists have said to us again and again, “Surely the first couple months couldn’t make that much difference, could it?”

It could, and it did.

Understanding Early Childhood Trauma

Much is yet to be learned about early childhood trauma (child abuse or child neglect), but this we know for sure:

Early childhood trauma changes the brain.

(Sources: National Institute of Health, Time Magazine, Psychology Today)

The brain scan of a adult who has experienced early childhood trauma will show differences from one who has not had those experiences.

Many children who have had early trauma develop PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We often think of PTSD as associated with soldiers returning from war, but children also live with the effects of PTSD.

For a checklist of PTSD signs and symptoms in children, click here.

The best therapist we had strongly believed in focusing on PTSD and helped us see our child through this lens, which brought a better understanding than we ever had before.

(For a more in depth explanation about Understanding Early Childhood Trauma, click here.)

When Attachment is Interrupted

Many children who have experienced early childhood trauma have great difficulty forming healthy attachments.

From the earliest age, a baby learns to trust the adults in his world. He cries, then mom or another loving caregiver tends to his needs.

He is soothed. He learns that his cries work. He matters.Healthy Attachment Cycle

When this cycle doesn’t work, he does not trust, and attachment issues begin.

Attachment issues are on a continuum. In the most severe, Reactive Attachment Disorder is diagnosed.

There are many of us who are parenting children who don’t fit the criteria for RAD, yet life isn’t working right either.

RAD is a severe, serious diagnosis for children who lack a conscious. The diagnosis was meant for children raised in orphanages who lacked a primary caregiver or were severely neglected.

It’s important to note that while our experience is with foster care and adoption, not all children with attachment issues are adopted. Early medical trauma can cause attachment issues, separate from the mother or primary caregiver, or divorce situations where one parent is abusive or neglectful can set the stage for attachment disorder.

A new diagnosis has been suggested, Developmental Trauma Disorder. As of the writing of this post, it is not an official diagnosis but there are those who hope it will be in the future.

Others have suggested definitions within a continuum of attachment issues.

Attachment issues develop during the first 5 years of life, especially the first 3 years. Often children have had some healthy relationships and interactions during this time – leading to some attachment securities. Then, there are gaps and insecurities in other areas.


Attachment Issues: When Family Life is Not Working

For those of us who are parenting children with these challenges, what are the next steps?

We have used the words “insecure attachment” and “attachment issues” and “PTSD” and “attachment effects” to describe our child’s behavior issues. All of these define what our child faces — and we face — and none of them are big enough.

Are you parenting a child with attachment issues? What has been your experience? Please share in the comments below.

More Posts You Will Love

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD): What is RAD and Why Should You Care?

For When Your Heart Is Somewhere Else

When Our Son Came Home From Mental Health Treatment and He Was Not the Same

50 Books About Adoption, Foster Care, and Healing Child Abuse

Helpful Resources

Nancy Thomas, When Love is Not Enough

Nancy Thomas, Healing Trust: Rebuilding the Broken Bond

Bruce Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook

Attachment Issues: When Family Life is Not Working|The Holy Mess

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