Our daughter was adopted at the presumed age of about two years. She spent her first year and a half with her birth mother. She came to the orphanage in an extreme state of malnourishment, very dirty, and covered in festering mosquito bites. The orphanage director told me our daughter ran to her when she arrived, calling her "mother". Her heart was touched by this, and she cleaned her and took her home with her. Our daughter stayed with this woman until I went to pick her up, where she received excellent care.
The foster mother held her when I entered the building, and then whispered something to her. My daughter called me her mom, pointing to my photo in a necklace I had sent her, now hung around her neck. She did not cry, stared at me, and seemed quietly anxious and curious. She didn't want to go to anyone else after I had her, she just wanted me to carry her. I was amazed and pleased with the easy transition! Little did I know! She was clingy and somber the rest of the day, but did not cry or act like she wanted to go back.
She was brighter in the hotel, after her bath and new clothes. She began to chatter to me more, and became animated, entertaining. She didn't seem afraid at all, seemed happy, and not sad. She went to sleep next to me in the bed fairly easily. She slept well that night. In the morning she was happy, cheerful, playful and funny.
We visited the orphanage the third day, and she played with the other toddlers and acted very happy to see them. She enjoyed seeing her foster mom, too, although when it was time to leave she did so eagerly. In fact, she seemed worried that I would leave her, and so kept her eye on me as I got ready to go. She still did not show any sadness or grief until later that night. When it began, it was a sad moaning while she stood in the corner, not really crying. I held her and she stopped. As the night wore on she did cry some, and was very clingy.
The next day she began raging tantrums. She still didn't cry much, but threw herself down on the floor and screamed, threw things, and raged. Nothing could distract her from these rages, she could not be held or restrained or stopped. The more I tried to soothe her the more intense the attacks would get. I found that if I just ignored her they went away faster. They would persist for one or two hours before stopping in tears. This was very disturbing and scary for me, and these attacks were far more intense than anything I had ever seen in any toddler before. Her screams were so tortured! I had read about toddler adoption before my trip, and they said tantrums were normal forms of grief, so I didn't become concerned that she had any problems.
After we got home we found she was charming to everyone she met. She was like that to all of us, like a little performer, animated and cute. She would take the hand of anyone and crawl onto a lap, then caress their face or their hair, as if she were their child. We knew this was an attachment disorder symptom, and her familiarity with strangers was very disturbing. She would have left with anyone in church or a store, without looking back. We were always scared to have her in public unless she could be restrained in a cart or stroller. She never looked for us if we were out, she just would take off.
The summer was wonderful with her. Her tantrums diminished within a couple of weeks, because we would ignore them. When she writhed on the floor we walked over her, ignoring her, or put her into another room so we could still hear each other talk. If only we had known about her problems and Holding Time then! We had the perfect opportunity to treat her for attachment disorder then, but in our ignorance we missed it. After she got over the rage attacks and tantrums she became quite charming and fun.
About five months after we brought her home, our daughter transformed. She still acted cheery and funny for dad, so he didn't see her change. But when she and I were alone in the house she became clingy, needy, disobedient, defiant, sneaky, destructive, and made the same irritating messes each day no matter how much I told her not to. I couldn't figure out why she was so hard to teach or control, and why she was bothering me.
I thought she needed more structure and activities, so I increased her structure and we began to go out every day to do something. Some days it was just to stroll around the supermarket in a cart, just so she could charm the public and get out. Some days I felt more like her activity director than her mom, and resented her for it. I have always enjoyed having young children around, but never had one that was so much work.
Then she began to accelerate her attacks on the family, even began to include dad in it. She could not be happy or let us be happy, either. She continued her destruction, disobedience, hyperactivity, her constant talking which was like torture, and we were all feeling annoyed by her. I began to think of disrupting the adoption. Things were harder than they ever had been for me, and I was depressed all the time. I was unable to get anything done, because she could never be trusted and was so demanding. She began to tell fantastic lies about the other kids, trying to get them in trouble and gain sympathy for herself. She could be quite a convincing actress, with a real tear in her eye and a tremble in her voice, as she told how her brother had hit her in the face. I often was with all the kids during the time she said the incident occurred, and so knew she was lying. The thought of her doing this at school, telling a teacher that we beat or abused her, was terrifying! We could lose all of our kids just because she lied about us!
I have a friend whose daughter from China has Reactive Attachment Disorder. She suggested our daughter might have the disorder, too. I looked at the Attachment Symptoms List and saw her there, very clearly. I joined a support group on the internet and they confirmed and validated my feelings. I read everything I could find on the net about RAD and began to use the things I read about. I began to speak to her about her losses, her birth family, her anger and other feelings she had trapped inside. I began to hold her regularly, feeding her a bottle and talking to her like a baby. She became infantile in her speech and actions during these times. I played attachment games and kept a better eye on her, trying to treat her more at her emotional age than her chronological age. She became a full time project, and it seemed like she was a bottomless pit of neediness. Some days I could hold her for hours and she would just suck it up, not wanting it to end. It was draining for me. We didn't see much improvement in her until I had been doing this for about a month. Then we could see subtle changes in her, she was better. It was working! This encouraged me to work harder and try more things, and to stick it out.
She still kept a tight lid on her emotions. I read "Holding Time," by Martha Welch, and tried things that way. She would rarely rage or cry like the kids in that book. In the beginning she would become stiff when I held her, sit up a lot, try to get away, fidget, wriggle, and squirm. After a few weeks she began to relax and mold to me. After that, all she wanted was to be held and spoken to, to make eye contact forever.
She still was fake happy all the time, not showing her real feelings. I began to see that when she was angry about something, that was when she would destroy things or get into trouble. She could not tell me of her anger, but would take it out on her victim in sneaky and hurtful ways. I started to work on helping her attach her feelings to words that described them. We played face games, where I would make faces showing various emotions and name them, then have her guess what the emotion was, then later she would do different faces and I would guess them. Then I would speak for her, saying, "I'm feeling mad," or whatever emotion she was having. I would tell her she was having a feeling and then ask her which one it was: happy, sad, mad, or scared. She began to be able to nod when I hit the right one. When she gets hyper or talkative or her face shows a feeling, we connect the feeling to its emotion and try to get her to open up about it and experience it. If she looks sad but denies it, I show her the mirror so she can see how she looks when she is sad.
We have seen a dramatic decrease in her annoying and destructive behaviors lately. She does backslide often, taking steps back after making progress. We understand this is normal. We now can anticipate some of her triggers and arrange our lives so that we don't set her off. She is able to relax and be quiet, play with her toys alone or with other kids, is potty trained, eating normally, is rarely hyper or talkative, takes a good nap each day, goes to bed at night without struggle, and her face even looks different. She shows a wider range of emotions. Her smile just seems more genuine now.
RAD can be treated and our daughter can learn coping skills which will help her live a normal life. She will be able to love and trust, although no one can predict to what degree. It's amazing how quickly some children build defenses around their emotions, and then how long it takes to tear them down.
Parent Coaching and Attachment Therapy via Skype or phone
It's easy to get started. Call me at
Station Inspector: We’ll let the orphanage deal with you.
Hugo Cabret: No, I don’t belong there
Station Inspector: Where do you belong then? A child has to belong somewhere.
Hugo Cabret: Listen to me. Please! Please! Listen to me! You don’t understand. You have to let me go! I don’t understand why my father died. Why I’m alone. This is my only chance. To work. You should understand.
Georges Méliès: I do! I do. Monseuier, this child belongs to me.
Hugo (2011, movie)