Parenting Tips: How to Deal With RAD in a Foster Child

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is a serious condition seen in infants and young children who cannot establish a healthy attachment with a caregiver or parent. RAD can develop if the child does not get his basic needs for affection, comfort, and a nurturing environment. He is unable to develop a caring and stable attachment with the adults around him.

With the right type of treatment, children who have RAD may develop healthier and stable relationships with caregivers and teachers. Treatment options can be varied, but a strong focus will ensure the child has a nurturing and stable environment.

For a foster child, particularly one who has been in one or more unstable environments, RAD can be something they struggle with extensively. Foster parents may find it difficult to connect with these children as they adapt to life under the same roof.

RAD and the foster child

Many foster children struggle with reactive attachment disorder. These children were often removed from homes where they faced neglect and abuse, which can be a key factor in preventing them from forming healthy connections with caregivers.

Many foster children did not get their emotional needs met during the all-important formative years, so they lack an understanding of the correct social response or interactions with other children and adults.

Bringing a foster child into your home very often extends past providing them with a safe, warm, and nurturing home. Many foster children will show the symptoms of RAD, which can make an already emotionally charged situation just that much more difficult to adapt to.

The signs of RAD

RAD can be seen in children of all ages, with the signs and symptoms being quite commonly shared across children struggling with it. Knowing what to look for can help a foster parent and other adults in the child’s life begin getting the right type of help.

Some of the signs and symptoms could include:

  • A lack of smiles, even when shown cute or funny toys or other stimuli.
  • An appearance that is listless, but the child is otherwise in good physical health.
  • Not lifting their arms or reaching up to adults when picked up.
  • Showing no interest in playing with adults or children.
  • Refusing to ask for help when it’s needed.
  • Not looking to be comforted when sad or hurt.
  • Not responding if comforted.
  • Irritable, sad, fearful, and withdrawn, without apparent reason.
  • Observing social interactions, without taking part in them, even with other children playing.
  • Angry and violent outbursts, with or without apparent cause.

Many of these same signs are seen in children who are on the autism spectrum. This makes it important to have children appropriately diagnosed by professionals familiar with both autism and RAD.

If a child is misdiagnosed as having autism, treatments and therapies for autism will not help with any of their struggles with RAD.

The risk for other disabilities

The very same abusive and neglectful environment responsible for RAD can be responsible for a child developing one or more intellectual or physical disabilities. This makes it that much more of a priority to get the correct diagnosis for a child showing some of the signs of reactive attachment disorder.

Children who show the signs of RAD by acting out with anger or refusing to listen to instruction can be difficult to work with. If they refuse to participate in any of the therapies being offered to them, it can lead to further concerns with their mental and physical health.

A comprehensive treatment plan can help children with RAD get treatment. Some examples include:

  • Speech therapy
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Play therapy and counseling

Caseworkers can be a great resource to help you and your foster child get the help needed.

How you can help your foster child

When you decided to open your home to foster children, you did so with the idea that you would be providing a safe space for these children to thrive. You may have expected some level of difficulty for everyone in the home as the child adapted to life under your roof.

It can take significant patience, compassion, and of course, consistency to help foster children with RAD. Whether they have RAD alone, a physical, intellectual, or developmental disability, there will be challenges for all involved.

That said, there are some things that you can do to make the adjustment period somewhat easier for both the child and the other members of your family as you navigate RAD.

  • Focus on patience. Even the most patient person in the world will struggle and be frustrated, particularly when trying to navigate a brand new situation filled with high emotions. We often like to think that things will be infinitely easier and smoother if we offer plenty of love without condition. The truth is that progress can be slow and often take major steps back for no discernable reason. If you find yourself on the edge of frustration and losing your temper, try to focus back on being patient and being the best foster parent to a child in need.
  • Set realistic expectations. The path to working with RAD can be a long and difficult one. Positive changes may not be immediate or fast. With that, be sure that you and your family praise even small achievements and steps in the right and positive direction.
  • Establish a support system. Parenting can be difficult enough without a strong support system in place. When fostering children with RAD and potentially physical disabilities, you will need additional support from family, friends, and other community resources. You may also find that support groups for other foster parents of children with RAD can be a great place to get the emotional support you and your family needs.
  • Don’t let children pick up on your stress. Don’t display signs of anger if you can help it. Children can be so sensitive to the way that the adults around them are feeling and behaving. A child with reactive attachment disorder may also struggle with PTSD if they grew up in an abusive household. This can make it more of a priority that your home is as stable and calm as possible. Don’t raise your voice, slam doors, or otherwise, show signs of anger that could make the child feel unsafe.
  • Take care of yourself. If you feel stressed, frustrated, or on the verge of an angry outburst, this could be a sign that you need to take a break. Self-care can be so important. If you have run yourself into the ground by taking care of everyone around you, you may not have enough energy to care for your mental and emotional well-being. Be sure that you are in therapy, as this can offer you the support you need to help your family adjust. Take offers for a parent’s night out or a weekend away. You deserve to be well taken care of as much as your children and family do.

The future of a child with RAD

It’s natural to wonder about the future of a foster child with reactive attachment disorder. The good news is that many of the children with RAD can form healthy and stable connections with their caregivers, teachers, and others in their lives. The key is to get the right type of treatment for the child. These early bonds can provide a healthy model for forming other relationships in life.

Children who cannot get the right type of treatment for RAD can face the potential risk for further mental health and development issues. Children can be incredibly resilient, so not all children in the foster system or adopted will experience RAD.

With the right kind of support, nurturing environment, and the knowledge that they are loved, safe, and accepted, foster children can begin to form those healthy connections and work through their RAD.

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