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Trust and Parenting with RAD children

The world of a Reactive Attachment Disordered (RAD) child is unpredictable, confusing, and dangerous. Every moment is seemingly a fight to stay alive, relying only on one's own wits and ability. Everyone is a potential threat.

Put yourself in those shoes for a moment. If you were a baby and cried because you were hungry, and no one fed you adequately, wouldn't you have a hard time trusting people? What if someone hit you when you cried? What if they did it more than once?  What if someone did worse things to you?

Like so many other aspects of parenting RAD children, teaching trust looks a little different.  Regardless of whether this is a birth parent, foster parent, or legal guardian, the process is similar. Let's look at four key principles that can facilitate trust and Parenting with RAD children.

Four Key Principles that can Facilitate Trust and Parenting with RAD Children

1. With RAD, trust is a one-way street!

Let's be clear about this right from the start.  This article is about helping a child with RAD learn to trust his or her parent/caregiver.  It is NOT about trusting the child with RAD.

By definition, a child with RAD is not to be trusted under any circumstance.  Severe behaviors, including violence towards self and others, sexual aggression, stealing, hoarding, fire-setting, vandalism, truancy, substance abuse, etc. occur regularly among children with RAD.

Many have a tendency to be aggressive towards pets and other animals.

They are highly susceptible to suicide, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

They have a knack for finding ways to exploit the smallest weakness in any system, whether it's the most vulnerable family member, a certain sound or act that drives you crazy,  or a moment unsupervised in an uncontrolled setting.

Lying and manipulating can seem trivial in comparison.

These behaviors occur daily and have significant and highly damaging consequences for a family and others.

The intention of all of these behaviors is to keep others at a distance, emotionally as well as physically, to exert control over anyone and in any situation.

Telling the truth about what he is feeling or thinking is to give away that control, leaving the child subject to potential abuse from others.

Lying is a survival tool to a RAD child. This is why it is so crucial to understand that you should not trust a child with RAD.

 The paradox is that the closer the RAD child is to a parent or other authority figure, the more severely the child may test that parent. In other words, the more he trusts you, the worse he may treat you.

How's that for motivation? 

2. Teach Independence

A child with RAD does not trust anyone to provide for his needs. So, what better way to show him that he can trust you than by letting him do things for himself?

Teaching a child to fend for himself as a method to teach trust may sound wrong. Think of it as the reverse process we normally employ with babies.

Babies learn to depend on us to provide for their needs.  It makes us feel good about ourselves, plus the baby reciprocates our feelings of love and affection, which feels even better, and increases the likelihood of more positive interactions.  Parent and child mutually build up each other.

Later, despite the emotional toll, we rejoice when our children successfully take on some independence.  Our success and pride as a parent is supplemented and sweetened by the love we receive back from our children.

Compare that to the journey of a parent and child with RAD.

From the beginning, the child has believed that he cannot depend on anyone to meet his needs, and rejects any assistance from the parent.

The parent has neither the fulfillment of helping the child, nor the reciprocal warmth and affection that the parent of a normal child receives.

Naturally, the parent begins to dread interacting with the child, which he of course senses and then returns the favor.

Each negative interaction contributes to a cycle of negativity that neither time nor money can fix.

Notice here the irony of the normal development process.

Independence cannot be achieved without first establishing a dependence on something or someone else.

In other words, the boldness with which a child tells his parents "no", and does something "naughty", is directly related to the degree of security and attachment he feels towards his parent.

He knows he is safe and is therefore free to explore the world, confident that mother or father will be there to catch him, or pick him back up, if he falls.

Parent and child love each other.

They trust each other.

A RAD child will test you with poor behaviors as well, but not because he trusts that you will be there to catch him.

He is counting on you to NOT be there at all, or to push him down instead.

In fact, the RAD child may learn to wait until you are not looking before he tries something inappropriate, and that's the danger.

The interplay between independence and dependence is the key concept behind this entire approach.

Take meal time for example.

From the earliest stages of life (and/or the age at which the child is first entrusted to your care. The same process applies.), a RAD child perceives feeding times as a threat.

He can't do it for himself, and doesn't trust you to do it for him.

Allowing the RAD child to feed himself, even with his hands only, gives him control over how quickly he eats (if at all), the amount of food per bite, etc.

It depersonalizes the act of eating. The parent still maintains control however, by providing the food options, portions, and meal times.

If all goes well, the child graduates to using utensils to eat, and once again, is left alone to figure out how to use them.

Over time, the child realizes that he is not being poisoned by his mom or dad, and can learn to trust the food choices that are presented.

What's more, once the child masters the art of eating with utensils, he may actually allow you to help.
We saw this pattern with our first adopted RAD child.  She became quite proficient at self-feeding, and it was only after she mastered using a fork with basic foods, that she allowed us to feed her with trickier things. This process took about two years.

3. Structure = Safety. Safety = Trust.

Structure takes on two forms: routine and organization.

Routine (structuring your time) is important because it is predictable.

For RAD kids, predictability reduces the anxiety and fear that fuels explosive moods and poor behavior choices.  It helps them feel safer, and feeling safe is as good as it gets for most of these children.

Being safe and predictable makes a parent more trustworthy in the child's eyes.

However, do not confuse feeling safe with behaving appropriately or following directions.

Feeling safe gives the child courage to try new, more rebellious things.   He wants to see what you will do if he tells you "no," lies to you and more.

Maintaining order and routine in the face of emotional chaos provides a steady influence that will be felt by the RAD child, even if it's not appreciated.

He can learn to rely on his parents to provide stability when he is feeling out of control or overwhelmed, increasing the level of trust he has in parents.

Early on in the relationship between a RAD child and parent, a simple but effective tool to begin trust-building is creating rituals.

A ritual is a set of events or behaviors that are done in the same way every time you do them.  It is like a routine, but more special since it involves a very personal interaction between parent and child.  It is chosen by the parent, but should involve something that the child enjoys to some degree.

Rituals provide for a positive interaction that is predictable and eases the anxiety around transitions that frequently leads to trouble.

If it's a nighttime ritual, a pattern can be established which subconsciously prepares the body for sleep, even when the RAD child's brain fights against it.

Experts believe that rituals create pathways in the brain that become very strong over time, and gives the child another reason to trust parents' words and actions.

The primary reason for organization (structuring your home) is safety.  Knowing where everything is and having safe places to keep knives, medications, tools, chemicals and other potentially dangerous items is vital to the safety of everyone in the house.

Door alarms, locks, etc. are all tools typically employed by RAD parents, as drastic as that might sound.  Peace of mind is worth it, even at such a high cost.  Secure rooms and constant supervision throughout the day are essentials, especially where younger, easily exploited children are part of the family.

Similarly, keeping the amount of stuff in the child's bedroom to a minimum is crucial.  Random searches of the room, closet, bedding, etc. will be necessary as the child develops.


RAD children are infamous for hoarding objects, food, comfort items, weapons, pens, etc. in hidden locations in the room, in addition to anything else they might have stolen or "borrowed."

Simply put, it's easier to search for things when there are fewer items to look through.

The RAD child will not thank you for subjecting him to random room searches, locks on doors and windows, etc. but, deep down, he will feel safer knowing that you are "on to him."

Again, trust really just means safe to a large degree.

The safer the child feels, the more he can learn to trust you.  Plus, structure affords the parent peace of mind and an upper hand in the constant struggle to keep everyone safe at home.

4. The parent's role:  communication and modeling

Trust is built on honest communication.  The way that you communicate with RAD children looks different than it does with most other kids.

According to RAD expert Daniel Hughes in the book Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children, RAD kids view verbal praise or other rewards as ways to manipulate you into giving them what they want.

They think that you are being nice to them because they tricked you into doing it. Punishment doesn't help much either, since punishment is more evidence that parents are "mean" and not to be trusted.

A simple strategy is to state behavioral expectations in the home and consequences for following or not following those expectations.

For example, if there is a rule about getting dressed and making the bed first thing in the morning, one simply states the expectation and the consequences (what will happen next) when they are met.

 Three benefits of this approach are:
1. The child determines the value of meeting expectations. Even better, he gets the satisfaction of accomplishing something on his own efforts.

2. The value of making responsible choices is emphasized clearly, not just compliance.  If the child complies, it is for his own benefit, not to make the parents happy.

3. More trust is established because the RAD child will see that good choices result in good consequences,  just as you have been teaching him all along.

Ultimately, the child does not have to comply because "mother knows best", instead he can trust that you say what you mean and do what you say.

Even though he will never admit it, the child knows deep down that mother really does know best.

Even if he doesn't "trust" you, he will learn to trust your judgment, which is the first step along the path to real trust.

Author and attachment expert Lark Eshelman offers an unlikely role model for parents to follow when it comes to communication: a military colonel.

The model fits not for the shouting and colorful language but for the directness of the message and the confidence of a successful outcome that it conveys.

She argues that RAD kids see the world as a battlefield, so she asks what kind of leader would a frightened soldier need. See the difference for yourself, from Eshelman's book, Becoming a Family: Promoting Healthy Attachments with Your Adopted Child on page 88.

Parent A: "Well, people, we are going to try our best to, um, do this thing. We can probably do this right?..."

Parent B: "So, people, here's the plan. It will work. I know.  This is your part and I know you will do your best. I will lead you and I will not desert you. We will win. You will be safe. Now let's go!"

Who would you follow into a battle if your life depended on it?


Parents of RAD children have taken on a social contract to prepare children to enter society ready and able to contribute positively, pursue success, and to live happily and harmoniously within their communities.

Of course, this may never happen.

The child may never learn how to function in society.

If you measure your success as a parent by how your RAD child turns out, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

However, all is not lost.

Raising these children responsibly is a duty.  Parents can learn to raise their RAD child without receiving or expecting praise, love or affection from the child.

Perhaps the best thing a parent can do is choose to live as happily as possible, despite the child's efforts to ruin that for you.

Trust comes when the child learns to take the parent at their word, whether the advice is heeded or not.

Even without much proof that it's making a difference, RAD parents know that they are doing the work of shaping the minds of their RAD children, even if they are unable to touch their hearts.

 Trust may never be possible when a parent-child relationship is affected by Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Without the possibility of a bond built by love, it can't be the goal either.

Yet, working together to form an agreement based on respect and fairness between a RAD parent and child is not too bad either.

These are noble goals and will require tremendous sacrifice on our parts.

It is worth our best efforts, and it will result in our becoming our best selves along the way.

The question is, can you learn to trust yourself?

About the Contributor:
Jason has a master's degree in Marriage and Family Counseling.  He has spent years working as a therapist to adults and children, in a private and group counseling sessions, and in residential facilities.  At home, Jason has four plus years experience as a foster parent with his wife Renae, caring for children ages newborn to eighteen years of age with multiple special needs.   He is also a parent to four special needs children, two biological, and two adopted, with diagnoses of autism, ADHD, RAD, PTSD, mood disorder, anxieties, and sleep disorders.  Jason has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD and Anxiety Disorder NOS.

Disclaimer:  Any advice or suggestions that Jason writes here CANNOT be considered therapy or professional consultation, due to counseling ethics standards. It is not really practical or possible to do counseling with someone he has never met. What we hope to offer IS our personal experience as as parents and foster parents of special needs children, plus things Jason has learned as a professional counselor.  Take any advice that fits, leave aside what doesn't fit.


  1. Excellent information on RAD. I love the part about doing our very best as parents to help these kiddos heal--but not beating ourselves up if they don't fit into society standards as adults. Or something like that. :)
    Selina, Mama to 8 (5 bio, 3 adopted)

  2. Very well written. I appreciate you continuing to share your wisdom and raising the awareness of RAD.

  3. I can't even begin to imagine the responsibility you have to shoulder with RAD. You are indeed a brave and strong woman! The children are so blessed to have you and Jason.

  4. Appreciate the insight. I have young family placement foster child diagnosed with mild R.A.D.