Behavioral Therapy Techniques You Can Try At Home For Your Teen With Reactive Attachment Disorder


For teens with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), expressing emotions is often very difficult. This can make it challenging to build and maintain a relationship with a troubled teen with this disorder.

To truly understand teens with this disorder, this article will provide some of the symptoms of this disorder. We will also offer some techniques that you can use at home with your teen with RAD.

As a caution, please remember that RAD Is a serious mental disorder that needs to be treated and managed with a mental health professional’s help. At Liahona Treatment Center, a therapeutic school for troubled teen boys, we can help your son struggling with RAD. Our team of fully-licensed mental health professionals and staff will help your teen develop the skills they need to succeed in their social, emotional, and academic lives.

How to recognize Reactive Attachment Disorder in troubled teens

Reactive attachment disorder is a type of trauma-and stressor-related disorder. It’s classified under this category because a teenager with this disorder has often experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). According to the DSM-5, RAD occurs in about 10% of children and typically manifests between 9 months and 5 years of age. RAD generally is not diagnosed in children older than 5.

RAD symptoms in teens

    Withdrawn behavior

    • Not seeking comfort from a parent or guardian. For example, if a child falls, they might stay quiet and avoid turning to their parent(s).
    • They’re unresponsive to comfort. This might look like showing a lack of emotion after an attempt by the parent to soothe the child.

    Emotional and social issues

    • They’re unresponsive during social interactions. For example, showing very little emotion when hearing about the loss of a friend’s pet.
    • Showing very little emotion outside of negative ones.
    • Having periods of angry outburst, sadness, and fear even when the environment is safe.

    Experienced traumatic and adverse events in life

    • This includes all types of abuse such as neglect, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The key type of abuse is neglect and lack of emotional care by the parent or guardian.

While there are many more signs to look out for, what’s listed above are the easiest to recognize and the most common signs of RAD in teens according to the DSM-5.

Misdiagnosing Reactive Attachment Disorder and the effects of this disorder

Children with RAD are often misdiagnosed. They might be thought to have autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, or even depression when in reality, they have RAD. Some of the effects of RAD are also seen in the disorders that we have previously mentioned, which makes it difficult to diagnose.

The effects of RAD can be seen in teenagers’ emotional, social and academic life. A lot of troubled teens with RAD might be seen as “difficult to deal with” because of their angry outbursts.

Likewise, because teens with RAD might be emotionally unresponsive and unable to show positive emotions, they might struggle with interpersonal relationships. For instance, when dating someone, a teen with RAD might not be able to express themselves. That’s because emotional intelligence is one of the key aspects of building and maintaining relationships.

Behavior Modification Therapy: turning fear into trust

With behavior modification therapy, a type of therapy that emphasizes that behaviors are learned, teens with RAD are taught to trust others. New behaviors are introduced, and old behaviors are unlearned through positive and negative reinforcement.

Because behavior is learned, mental health professionals using this type of therapy will analyze the teen’s environment. They’ll find out what happened in a teen’s life that made them “shut down” and become fearful. By doing this, they help a teen unlearn the negative pattern of becoming distrustful of others, even when others are trustworthy.

For more information about behavior modification therapy, check out our previous articles in this series.

Behavior Modification Therapy techniques to try at home with your teen

Behavior modification therapy is beneficial for helping teens with RAD. Here are some techniques that you can try at home with your teen.

Encourage team building activities as a family

Teens with RAD tend to isolate and avoid connection with others, so one way to get them out of their comfort zone is to engage in team-building activities as a family. You could go rock climbing together at a fitness gym or for bike rides as a family. Try to use activities that you know that they enjoy.

This is a type of behavioral modification therapy technique because you’re trying to rewire their brain into seeing social connection as a good thing. You’re also using positive reinforcement because you’re using something fun (the activity) to teach them about something that they struggle with (connecting with others).

Limit punishment that involves isolation

A teen with RAD has already experienced significant neglect and traumatic experiences, the last thing that you should do is isolate them as a form of punishment. Every time that you single out a teen by isolating them for angry outbursts, you’re teaching that teen that they’re “different” and “abnormal.” A teen with RAD does not need that type of reinforcement and instead needs to feel seen and heard.

Consider animal-assisted therapy

Whether it’s walking a dog, petting a cat, or riding a horse, having a pet that your teen learns to love and be loved by is very therapeutic. Pets have been proven to help with isolation and fear of connection with others.

Teens with RAD struggle with showing affection and emotions, so a pet can help them gradually open up to others.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is hard; getting help doesn’t have to be

For a teen with RAD, the disorder may cause many effects in their lives. However, to truly help your teen, you need to get professional and licensed help.

Reach out to us a Liahona Treatment Center so that we can help your teen recognize that they matter and that adults are trustworthy.

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