Seven Things Mothers of Children with Attachment Disorder Feel Daily
Updated: Mar 19
For Mother’s Day, I woke up with one wish.
“For Mother’s Day this year I would like my gift to be…not having to see my child for the entire day.”
What kind of mother says that?
I am a mother of children with Attachment Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder, and this is what I feel.
The truth is, I am a bit weary of motherhood right now. I feel worn down and unappreciated. I am tired of the constant daily grind of mothering a child with attachment issues. I’m exhausted by the emotional and mental heavy lifting that is required of me. I want to be left alone. I want one day of rest from the constant hyper-vigilance you need to have to parent a child with these issues.
I want a break from the anger, the lying, and the difficult behavior. I need a break from the guilt and hopelessness I wrestle with when nothing I do seems to help. I need someone to understand what it is like to live this life.
Attachment Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder are conditions mostly prevalent among adopted children, especially those from traumatic backgrounds. Children with AD are unable to form deep emotional attachments to those closest to them, and children with RAD actively lash out against any form of emotional closeness.
For kids with (R)AD, the mother often becomes a “nurturing enemy,” the main source of care and support, and the target of most of their attacks. These can take the forms of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. For the mother involved, such abuse can lead to second hand trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder.(R)AD kids are doing what they think they need to in order to survive, but it can tear down the very people trying hardest to protect them.
I am a mother of six. I have three adopted and three biological kids. I have a sixteen year old with Reactive Attachment Disorder, and a seventeen year old with Attachment Disorder.
I am not writing this to disparage my children. My children had no say in the trauma into which they were born. They are trying to survive and to protect themselves. But with all the support we need to give every child, we can forget about the mothers and fathers parenting these children. These parents need support and understanding as well.
So these are my thoughts and feelings: the day-to-day emotional issues moms of children with (R)AD have to deal with.
We feel guilty.
Yes, I know all moms have guilt. All mothers are afraid that we are not doing it right or not doing enough for our kids. We may get annoyed at our child, or forget to send something to school, and immediately feel “mom guilt”. Mothering is a hard job.
But mothering a child with (R)AD is on an entirely different level. It is hard to even call it mothering when there is no emotional relationship. (R)AD kids often target the more nurturing caregiver. They push away the one person who wants to help and love them. Most of this abuse is targeted at the adoptive mom.
If you are a mom of an (R)AD child you know the pain of angry words. You know the sting of physical abuse. You know the feeling of anger and betrayal when your child rages at you for an hour, then turns on a dime and warmly hugs your husband.
We feel guilt all the time: guilt that we are not doing enough, not loving enough, not caring enough. We have massive amounts of guilt about the fact that we dread the kids coming home from school. Our hours after school may start with a tantrum that lasts until bedtime. They may include lying, stealing, and abusive behavior. They may be peaceful, but this is highly abnormal for (R)AD kids.
It seems that no matter what we do nothing gets better.
We get frustrated because of this, and then feel guilty that we are frustrated.
We feel guilty because we are not enough.
We are bone tired.
This unending fatigue is due to several factors. One is the hyper-vigilance required to parent our children. My child will steal, abuse another sibling, or destroy property if she is not constantly watched. She cannot go to a birthday party without me. She cannot walk in a store without me watching that she does not steal. I have to count knives and make sure the pantry remains locked. We have to lock all the bedroom doors. I have to be extra vigilant with the computer. I do not want my child sending inappropriate or stalking messages to other kids.
Another factor is our constant search for help and understanding. I have explained to the school countless times that they cannot leave my daughter unattended. She will steal from a desk. She will bully on the playground. But these warnings go unheeded until it is too late. Kids with (R)AD are charming to others; they are great at manipulating non-nurturing relationships. Often the parent is the one being doubted. (R)AD is an invisible disability and often it is very hard to get help or respite, because it is impossible to see.
It is exhausting to constantly be fighting for you and your child’s invisible disability.
It is exhausting to always be on your guard against whatever they are going to do next.
It is exhausting to try perpetually to keep your child and those around them safe, and to fail at that.
We feel misunderstood by those who should be helping us.
At a parent teacher conference, a teacher once informed me that every single one of her conferences had been about my child and her bullying. Every other parent was using their precious twenty minutes of conference time to express concerns over my daughter’s behavior. When she said this, I felt a hot rush of shame and embarrassment.
All of those other parents were judging me.
I knew that my child was making school hard for so many kids. I knew she was bullying and harassing others.
But the school system would not move her to a contained classroom or give her more support. They don’t understand, because to them, she is charming and sweet. She looks “normal”. My child has told some pretty fantastic lies about me and our family to caregivers, teachers, and other adults. Some have actually believed her. I have clearly explained her disability, but most the time I come across as a too controlling, too intense mom. I have to be.
This doesn’t only happen with teachers and other professionals. It has happened with the people closest to us.
I have had dear friends give me (unintentionally) hurtful words of advice after I poured out my heart to them. I’ve heard advice that ranges from, “Maybe she just needs more attention”(believe me, she is already getting all of the attention) to “Have you tried fish oil?”
This advice is well meaning but it shows a lack of understanding.
But how can I expect them to understand? No one understands. I have friends with (R)AD kids whose own husbands do not understand.
We learn to live with the idea that no one will understand the scope of our child’s behavior, and the toll it takes on us.
We feel isolated and alone.
So many times in the past several years, I have felt judged, misunderstood and helpless. Underlying all of these feelings is the total isolation.
I know there must other moms out there like me, but where are they?
We hide. We hide in everyday life. We do not personally know anyone that understands this unique and lonely road we walk.
When you parent a child with (R)AD you do not have normal “mom problems.”
One day, I was standing with a group of moms at the soccer field. One of the moms was lamenting that her son did not get into honors math. That is a normal mom worry. In that moment, however, I didn’t feel compassion for this mom. I wished that honors math was my child’s biggest problem.
At that time, I was worried about my child’s recent suspension for inappropriately touching another child. I was worried about the upcoming summer break, and how I would mange with him home all day. I was worried about my other children and their physical and emotional safety.
Honestly, we sometimes downplay many of the issues we are having. I often say things like, “Things are rough but we are making it.” I am afraid if I start telling the truth I won’t be able to stop talking and will just overwhelm my friend who politely asked, “How is it going?”
Few people walk this same path, so it is hard to share our worries and feelings.
We know most people will not understand what we are going through. It seems just too much to share with others.
We want to protect our child’s privacy, but we also want to protect ourselves from judgment.
We are afraid of being misunderstood, so we isolate ourselves.
We are grieving.
We grieve the relationship we thought we would have.
Through no fault of her own, my child has an altered view of relationship. I want relationship. I know how it’s supposed to work. Our therapist told me that children with attachment issues do not even know they need relationship. They cannot see personal connections in the way we see them.
My child gets whatever he needs through whatever method seems necessary. For him, that means, lying, stealing, and manipulating. This is survival behavior, learned from life in an orphanage. He does not trust me to meet his needs, even though I have consistently done so. We all know that it is almost impossible to build a relationship without trust; my (R)AD children do not trust me and I certainly to do not trust them. They put up walls continually, and it is incredibly discouraging.
We grieve for our children as well. One of my children lived in an orphanage for over ten years. He underwent several surgeries to help with his physical disability without parents there to comfort and protect him. Another child of mine was exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero that significantly altered her brain. Neither of these children asked for this. It devastates me that someone else’s choices had such traumatic effects on them.
We grieve for our children’s past, and we grieve for their present.
We grieve because of the irreparable harm their trauma continues to do in our lives.
We are afraid.
We are afraid of the future — how can we do this? What will happen when she’s 18 and on her own? How is he going to make it in the world if he cannot be successful in our loving home? Will they end up in jail? Will they ever have satisfying relationships?
We are not only afraid of the distant future. We are also afraid of this afternoon, this upcoming week, or summer break. What am I going to do? How will I keep them occupied? How can I protect my other children?
There is also the fear of burning out, an anxiety that comes at the end of a long and difficult day. Can I do this tomorrow? Next week? Next year?
We are deeply afraid of the effect all of this has on our other children. I have four other children, and I have done my best to protect them and be there for them. Sometimes, though, they are living in the war zone with me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
We feel love.
In the midst of all this, we love our children fiercely, even if that love looks different from child to child.
I get up everyday and tell myself to put on love. I remind myself that loving these children isn’t always feeling love for them, but it is always helping and providing for them.
I take care of myself so that I can take care of my family. I let myself rest, I connect with other moms, I let myself heal mentally and emotionally.
Parenting kids with (R)AD is so very hard. These relationships do not look like typical relationships. I have to remember that putting on love for my kids is not about warm fuzzy feelings, but about the choice to do the right thing. I have to make decisions for their well being over my feelings.
I have to remember that their behavior is not a rejection of me as a parent. I have to know that this child’s struggle with relationship does not make me a bad mom.
I have to remember that I cannot control their future or change their past. I can only live this moment, and choose to do the best I can with love.
I have to care less about being judged. I have to be brave and reach out to find friends who will let me share and talk, and not try to solve it.
I have to keep advocating for my children. That is how I can love them, is to insist on them being seen.
I have to let go of all of this mom guilt and tell myself that I am the mom for this child and this child is the child for me.
I have to know that motherhood looks different for moms of (R)AD children, and that this is part of my story.