Thursday, February 16, 2017

You Are Not Alone

Written by  Rev. Kelly Crenshaw

If you’re the parent of a foster or adopted child who has behavior issues, you may (or may not) have heard the term Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Let Google help you find where to look online for information about RAD and how it impacts children and adults who have lived through abuse, particularly abuse that occurs at an early age. Sometimes, these kids are referred to as RADishes; an attempt to add some levity to what can be a difficult life to live, both for the child and his or her parents.

Research tells us that between 75% to 80% of what a child knows about life, they learn in the first three years. By the time kids start pre-school, their personalities are pretty well formed.

According to websites like the Children’s Action Network (, over 400,000 children currently reside in the foster care system. The average age is nine years old. Most kids do not encounter the foster system until they enter school. It’s when someone else is seeing them every day that abuse is often noticed and reported.

What this says to me is that, for most kids, by the time they are removed from an abusive home, they have already formed permanent opinions on who to trust or not trust.

Many years ago, when I was in foster parent training, someone told our group that parents are often blamed by foster kids because our society tells us that parents are supposed to keep us safe. That means that when there’s a new parent, whether that is a foster or adoptive parent, that person is automatically suspect. The kids’ brains are programmed to be skeptical of parents, so when they start to feel like they are relating or attaching to new parents, they begin to lash out. Parents are always the bad guys.

But, let’s go back to RAD for a minute. When I was first fostering children, RAD wasn’t a term that many people referenced. I don’t remember ever hearing it from the social workers and I only heard it from one therapist that we saw – and we saw a bunch of different therapists over the years. Many of the children who came to our home, got there after having problems in previous foster or adoptive placements. And, those kids had teams of therapists who came along for the ride.

Many of those therapists were well-trained professionals. Some were not. Many of them were experts in trauma. Others were not. And none of them, not one, specialized in RAD. Not one! And, in my opinion, if specialized treatment is not provided, then treatment won’t work. The kids will seem to make progress, but then regress. It becomes the never-ending cycle that dominates your home.

So, what are the symptoms of RAD? RAD was first described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version 3 (DSM-III), first published in 1975 and implemented in 1978. The DSM is the standard utilized by mental health professionals for the classification and diagnosis of a mental health issues. According to, the behavioral symptoms associated with RAD can include: “stealing, lying, cruelty to animals and other people, avoidance of eye contact, indiscriminate affection with relative strangers and a refusal to express affection with family members, destruction of property, gorging of food, abnormal speech patterns, lack of remorse, impulsivity, inappropriate sexual behavior, role reversal, or overactivity” (Kay Hall & Geher, 2003).

Good parenting and love cannot overcome these problems. Talk therapy is often ineffective because these kids have learned how to charm and manipulate adults in order to avoid having to actually attach emotionally.

Finding RAD experts is still difficult. I know a couple who drive hours every week to help their adopted child get effective treatment from RAD specialists. And like many parents who are quoted on the Institute for Attachment & Child Development’s website, they were blamed for their child’s continuing struggles ( That was until they found appropriate treatment options. Look for therapists who know names like Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Bruce Perry, Karyn Purvis, Daniel Hughes, and Heather Forbes, among others.

And, know that these RAD specialists aren’t cheap. The Medicaid support that is provided to many adopted children does not usually cover this type of treatment. Private insurance doesn’t always cover it either. Parents tell stories of depleting their savings and retirement funds in order to get help. And, those who can’t afford it, usually struggle alone. The problems don’t go away. Adult RADishes continue to struggle with boundaries and relationships. And, we the parents, have to continue to deal with these issues as they arise.

If you’re a parent who is struggling to raise your RADish, whether officially diagnosed or not, or whether that RADish is a child or adult, I’m here to tell you that you aren’t alone. Many of us have raised (or are raising) RADishes of our own. We need people to hear our stories. We need people to stop looking at us like we’re the bad guys. We need to know that we’re believed and supported. And, as one article I read recently pointed out, sometimes it would simply be great if someone would bring us a casserole to show that they care.

So know that I’m here for you. I hear your frustration and I know your pain. You are not alone!

Rev. Kelly Crenshaw is the mom of 16 adopted kids, two biological kids, guardian of one baby girl and foster mom of dozens. Some are lesbian, some gay, some straight, and some bisexual. Kelly founded a K-12 day school where kids could have a safe, bully-free environment for learning. She is co-owner of a counselling agency that works with children and their families. Send your parenting questions to her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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