Nature vs. Nurture

It’s been a while since I have written. But this topic has been on my mind. August’s younger brother was here for a week visiting during Spring Break and it drove the concept home so strongly.

Now August’s brother was a surprise born seven months after we returned from Russia. We had tried for seven years to conceive and it wasn’t until August’s adoption was finalized that it happened. I hate knowing that I’m one of the those “adopt and you’ll get pregnant” stories that people tell like adoption is a cure for infertility. Trust me, if it was I wouldn’t have waited seven years to try that route!

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But I digress. So the boys are almost four years apart in age. And arriving so close in time we didn’t know much how to parent either one of them. But we felt like we did things pretty much the same with each one and August hadn’t been identified as RAD yet. We didn’t know we were going to need to parent him differently. Of course they had different interests. But we read books to both, sang songs at night, said a prayer at dinner time, went to church, tried to carve out time for each of them individually.

August was always more independent. When he was three and four years old he could leave his bed at night in total darkness and roam the house with no fear. He’d fall asleep wherever he got sleepy and we’d be terrified trying to find him under the guest bed or behind the living room couch or wherever he landed. He could sneak down into the kitchen and get food and take it back to his room without us ever hearing him. The food hoarding started way back then. His brother went to bed and never woke up.

As the RAD behaviors started to emerge we probably made a lot of mistakes in how we addressed them. Hours and hours trying to calm August’s rage and keep him from hurting himself or us. A lot of it including us yelling too. A lot of time with him in his room and learning later that separating him from us was the worst thing to do. And then all the time we were spending trying to help him. Teacher meetings and psychiatrists and counselors and extra time with him doing homework and taking him to tutors.

All the time this was happening his brother was also growing up. And everything came so easy to him. He was smart, gentle, easy-going. He had several interests which we were able to fit in. He was fine being alone and developed a love for reading. When I had to spend hours dealing with August’s rages, he could occupy his time. I felt terribly guilty about what having a child like August who required so much of my time and who created so much chaos in the house was doing to him.

So fast-forward. It’s 10 years later. I continued to raise two sons with the same love and caring. As I learned about RAD I did parent them differently, understanding what would work for August. They both dealt with the end of my marriage and seemed to handle it much the same. I moved to Indiana, away from both of them, something I hated doing, but needed to do.

I have already talked about August’s path. School never worked for him. IEPs and homeschooling and constant behavior issues and run-ins with the law. A residential treatment program then more arrests and eventually his current time now in prison.

And his brother has been in advanced classes, won awards, starred in school productions. Doesn’t need to be told to do homework, overachieves on projects, goes to a gifted and talented high school and will graduate with almost a year’s worth of college credits.

Two children, raised identically except for the first three years. Given all the love and caring and opportunity two parents can give. And even when problems arose, all efforts were made to help and heal. August’s brain was altered before we ever met him. The abuse and neglect of his first three years had set his course. And while he could have healed and overcome his demons (and still can), the psychiatrist that diagnosed him said that the angst and discomfort that bonding feelings cause makes the RAD child fight like crazy against it.

So it seems that I was waging an uphill battle against nature with August. I don’t know if I did everything right (probably not). It seems to have helped with his brother (or maybe that’s in spite of me!) I hope I’m not out of time. I love both my boys so very much.

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Happy Birthday August!

Today is August’s 20th birthday. It is a day filled with so many emotions. I don’t want him to be spending his birthday locked up. But part of me thinks maybe spending a birthday in prison will be the wake up call he needs. Maybe he’ll make the decision that he wants to change and he’ll start focusing on school. Then I remember this isn’t how he’s going to heal. This isn’t how he learns. His damaged brain won’t repair by spending a birthday behind bars.

Every birthday since he became my son and even more so since he was diagnosed with RAD I have wished that I had been there at the moment of his birth. That I had given birth to him. He couldn’t be my son any more if I had but just that little difference; just those few extra years in his life could have spared him so much pain.

His first birthday with us we made such a big deal. He was a huge Scooby Doo fan and my sister and I stayed up so late making a handmade cake which looked wonderful but was so hard to make. We had about 10 little boys at our house in Oregon and thank goodness the weather was nice because I don’t know what we would have done if it was raining which it should have been!

Over the years his birthdays have been different with a variety of themes and kids. Sometimes big crowds, sometimes just a couple of friends. He’s always been really happy on his birthday, even when he was little and couldn’t remember what day it was! Mostly it’s because he likes getting presents. Can’t deny him that!

I sent him an email this morning. We aren’t allowed to send cards and presents. And because I charged him with stealing my car at the moment I can’t even visit him. Another “parent of the year” jewel in my crown. So an email and money on his account to spend on candy. That’s how I spend his birthday.

The reality is I am happy he’s even having this birthday. There have been so many times over the last few years when I didn’t think he’d live this long. His dangerous behavior and scary choices had me constantly expecting the sheriff to come to the door to inform me that he had been killed. So that there even is a birthday is a victory.

He has no cake and no candles to make a wish over and blow out. So I make wishes for him. Probably things he’ll never wish for himself.

  • I wish he finds the smile he had when he was little
  • I wish he learns the value of education
  • I wish he comes to realize how incredible and valuable he is
  • I wish he decides to face his demons and heal from his trauma
  • I wish he learns to build relationships built on trust and respect not manipulation
  • I wish he stays safe
  • I wish he has many more happy, healthy birthdays

Happy birthday my sweet, sweet boy. Mommy loves you so much.

 

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I had planned to write two weeks ago.  I had been thinking about what I wanted to say for a while.

And then Valentine’s Day came and Parkland, Florida happened. And everything I was thinking somehow took a backseat.

I went back and looked at the news reports from this shooting and from Columbine, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and The First Baptist Church in Texas. Here are just some of the words used to describe the individuals responsible:

  • Violent
  • Disturbed
  • Troubled
  • Threatening
  • Psychopath
  • Crazed lunatic
  • Lone Wolf
  • Genius
  • Quiet

Most of the stories describe them as “mentally ill” with a lot of interest into what kinds of medications they had been taking and how many times they’d been treated for psychological disorders.

I am part of several different groups of mothers and families of children with RAD and there was much talk about whether the boy in this latest shooting had attachment issues or what might have precipitated his choices.

And when these things happen there is always a lot of blame to go around…the gun, the child, the parents, the school, the law enforcement, the government, the mental health system. And I’m not going to get into any of that here.

But here is how it looks from where I sit.

I’m pretty sure, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” was invented for Moms of RAD kids. Even if you aren’t religious. Because most of the time you fear there is nothing your RAD isn’t capable of. And as details of the lives of the individuals who commit these awful massacres are revealed, you hear stories that sound so eerily familiar. The smart child who just didn’t achieve his potential. The child who had trouble making friends. The child who had a disruptive childhood.

And you can’t help but wonder if your child could be the next one. And the anxiety that you live with every day grows just a little bit more…

Now of course every child with RAD doesn’t become homicidal. And not every person who commits one of these massacres had RAD. But this is the world that families of children with RAD live in.

My heart breaks for the parents and relatives and loved ones of the families of the people who have committed these horrible acts.  Because they have to live with one of two things. Either there were signs all along that they saw and could do nothing about to help those individuals feel whole. Or there weren’t signs and they feel like they didn’t see the pain their loved one was experiencing right in front of them.

When August first started getting into legal trouble in some ways it seemed like the natural progression of his lying and stealing behaviors at home. So it wasn’t so surprising. And initially he was remorseful and frightened. And I thought maybe it would be a good thing in the long run–sort of a scared straight moment.

But then it happened again. And again. And it escalated. And he turned 18. And he got arrested as an adult.  And after a while the court system stops caring about any mental health issues that might be at play. And this last time involved guns. Something I never thought would ever happen. We never even bought toy guns when he was little.

So now I have to hope that the treatment he will receive in prison may reach him. I have to hope there is something in me that can still reach him. I have to hope that continuing to mature and eventually make better choices may kick in as he gets older. I have to hope he gets older.

Till next time. Peace and safety for all our children.

Shannon

 

 

 

 

So what is RAD?

First, thank you all for the warm reception and outpouring of well-wishes as I have embarked on this journey. It has already been an interesting experience and I was amazed at how much lighter I felt after just that one post. Definitely reinforces that I am on the right path. So bless you and thank you again.

It seemed like a good idea here, still at the beginning, to do some educating on what exactly RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) is and why it has been so horrible for August and those who love him.

The official DSM definition (i.e. the way doctors, insurance companies and hospitals describe it) is:

The newest guide to diagnosing mental disorders is the DSM-5, classifies this as a Stressor-related disorder which can only be caused by social neglect during childhood (meaning a lack of adequate caregiving). Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder is similar to Reactive Attachment Disorder but presents with externalizing behavior and a lack of inhibitions in behavior, rather the internalizing, withdrawn behavior and depressive symptoms present in Reactive Attachment Disorder. [2]:265 It is also recognized as an emotional disorder which begins during childhood. [1], [2]

Reactive Attachment Disorder DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria Code 313.89

A. consistent pattern of inhibited, emotionally withdrawn behavior toward adult caregivers, manifested by both of the following:

  • The child rarely or minimally seeks comfort when distressed.
  • The child rarely or minimally responds to comfort when distressed.

B. A persistent social and emotional disturbance characterized by at least two of the following:

  • Minimal social and emotional responsiveness to others.
  • Limited positive affect.
  • Episodes of unexplained irritability, sadness, or fearfulness that are evident even during nonthreatening interaction with adult caregivers.

C. The child has experienced a pattern of extremes of insufficient care as evidenced by at least one of the following:

  • Social neglect or deprivation in the form of persistent lack of having basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation, and affection met by caregiving adults.
  • Repeated changes of primary caregivers that limit opportunities to form stable attachments (e.g., frequent changes in foster care.)
  • Rearing in unusual settings that severely limit opportunities to form selective attachments (e.g. institutions with child-to-caregiver-ratios.)

D. The care in Criterion C is presumed to be responsible for the disturbed behavior in Criterion A (e.g., the disturbances in Criterion A began following the lack of adequate care in Criterion C.)

E. The criteria are not met for autism spectrum disorder.

F. The disturbance is evident before age 5 years. G. The child has a developmental age of at least 9 months. 

So what does this all mean? It boils down to this. Children who were abused, neglected or traumatized or in some way had inadequate caregiving from birth to age 5 may develop an inability to form healthy relationships. And this will continue even if an appropriate caregiver is introduced later on.

Doesn’t sound so bad maybe. But here’s some more common terms for how RAD looks:

  • anxiety
  • trouble sleeping
  • lack of boundaries
  • hypervigilant
  • extreme dependence
  • acts much younger than chronological age
  • underdeveloped conscience, lack of remorse
  • inappropriate responses (laughing or smiling when something is sad)
  • fake, not genuine
  • academic struggles
  • difficulty showing affection
  • disobedient
  • defiant
  • argumentative
  • controlling
  • bullying
  • aversion to physical touch
  • tantrums or rages
  • sensory issues or sensory processing disorder
  • withdrawal
  • lack of eye contact
  • not asking for help when hurt, sick or needing assistance
  • socially indiscriminate
  • manipulative (can be excellent at triangulating adults)
  • frequent lying
  • blames others for their mistakes
  • irresponsible
  • physically and verbally aggressive or abusive
  • mood swings
  • depression

The ones in purple are the ones I have experienced with August over the years. Most of them consistently.

The doctor that diagnosed him when he was nine explained it to me like this. When children are little, babies and toddlers, they cry and a caregiver does something to care for them. As an infant this is mostly meeting basic needs like food or sleep or a diaper change. But it is also providing soothing and comforting even when the infant doesn’t understand. This is a critical time because on both an emotional and physiological level they are learning how to trust. They learn when they are suffering, someone will care for them and they can trust that this care will happen every time. Their brain also is forming connections as it grows that help them learn that it is OK to trust.

If this constant caregiving isn’t present during these crucial formative years then the child does not develop the ability to trust. They have no assurance that when they are hurt or hungry that anyone will care and provide for their needs. The synapses in their brain are actually “pruned” and the brain does not learn that trust is something they can develop with any caregiver.

This is what August experienced. He was born to a teenage mother, from all accounts a prostitute, who didn’t know who the father was. There was no record of any pre-natal care. From infancy, August was left with friends, relatives or neighbors while his mother continued her life. He had a grandmother living in the home who moved away when August was one. At the time August was removed from his birthmother, records indicate he had probably been alone in his home (an apartment) for maybe up to two weeks. Neighbors alerted the authorities and he was found. He spent a month in the hospital with pneumonia before being placed in an orphanage. He was two years old. His information indicated he was the height and weight of a one-year-old. He couldn’t walk, talk or sit up. The doctor we had review his information when we were considering his adoption said if she’d seen this information she wouldn’t have expected he’d survive. He’s a fighter!

So after a year in the orphanage he was walking, talking, beginning to learn, and on the charts for height, weight and head circumference (though barely!) But even though the orphanage saved his life, he didn’t have a dedicated caregiver. So his emotional healing  was not as successful.

So this is what happened and what I didn’t know would set the stage for many years of tears and laughter, heartache and joy, anger and frustration and feelings of hopelessness. But mostly feeling so sorry for this poor child who had no say in what had happened to him and now was burdened with not even being able to enjoy the life that he should surely be ecstatic to have.

One of the best descriptions of what it’s like to be a child with RAD came from Nancy Thomas, who is considered one of the leaders in Attachment Therapy. She writes:

THE FROZEN LAKE  By Nancy L. Thomas

“In order to understand what an unattached child feels like, one must understand his perspective. Imagine that you are the young child who must cross a frozen lake in the autumn to reach your home. As you are walking across the lake alone, you fall suddenly and unexpectedly through the ice. Shocked and cold in the dark, you can’t even cry for help. You struggle for your very life, you struggle to the surface. Locating the jagged opening, you drag yourself through the air and crawl back into the woods from where you started. You decide to live there and never, never to return onto the ice. As weeks go by you see others on the lake ice skating and crossing the ice. If you go onto it, you will die.”

“Your family across the pond hears the sad news that the temperature will drop to sub-zero this night. So a brave and caring family member (that is you, the parent!) searches and finds you to bring you home to love and warmth. The family member attempts to help you cross the ice by supporting and encouraging, pulling and prodding. You, believing you will die, fight for your life by kicking, screaming, punching and yelling (even obscenities) to get the other person away from you. Every effort is spent in attempting to disengage from this family member. The family member fights for your life, knowing you must have the love and warmth of home for your very survival. They take the blows you dish out and continue to pull you across the ice to home, knowing it’s your only chance.”

“The ice represents the strength of the bond and your ability to trust. It was damaged by the break in your connection to someone you trusted. Some children have numerous bonding breaks throughout their young lives. This is like crashing them into the ice water each time they are moved, scarring and chilling their hearts against ever loving and bonding again.”

This has been much longer than I expected but I hope it has given some sense of the starting point of life with August and a reference point to understand how this beautiful child came to us so broken and unable to heal. I will add some additional references for those who might want to learn more about RAD.

Until next time,

Shannon

Welcome

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After many years of people telling me to do this, I am finally starting a blog about life with a child with RAD.  Many of you who are reading this initial few posts know me and know my son.

His name is August, hence the clever name of the Blog! Because when you live with someone with RAD you live with it all the time.

I am going to start here, at the present day and reflect back on how what is happening now came to be. A lot has happened over the last 17 years.  Some I’ve shared with my friends and family and some I haven’t.

But I want to talk openly and honestly about what life has been like, the good and the bad.  It’s necessary for me and I hope it will be helpful for anyone who might be trying to love a child with RAD.

Three weeks ago August began what may be up to a five-year sentence in prison. Five years is a gift courtesy of a very good, very expensive lawyer that his father graciously provided.  It should have been decades.  This isn’t his first arrest by far. In fact, when he got arrested this time he’d been released from jail for work release and never went back. In future posts I’ll talk more about this but first I’d like to talk about my son.

August is a gorgeous, smart, charming young man.  He’s funny and loves life. He likes to cook and loves animals. He is curious about lots of things. He is an amazing athlete having excelled in basketball, soccer and lacrosse. He loves being outdoors and enjoys fishing and camping.

I wish I could say this is the August that has been with me every day. But most days it has not been anything like this August.  I hope as I take this journey of revealing my life with a child with RAD I can show some of the amazing child that I know he is.

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