Parents of Reactive Attachment Disorder kids are caught in a bind. On the one hand, few of us just happen to have within our circle of intimates close friends who are also parenting RAD kids. On the other hand, we need a lot of support from our friends exactly because we are parenting in such a challenging situation. What do we do? I talk to the counselor weekly, but when I’m out with the girls, and we’re talking about our lives, if I’m going to participate, I have to talk about what’s really going on with me. When I do, I run up against frames of reference that may have almost no overlap with mine.
Case in point. I went to dinner with two girlfriends Saturday night, and we had a wonderful time, talked for hours on the outdoor patio while listening to live music. Maybe because Mother’s Day is usually tough for my family, we’d had a really rough week, and I shared some of the incidents, essays, conversations, consequences, etc. with my friends. They were obviously trying to be helpful, but one has two extremely poised, popular, dare I say gifted teenage girls, and the other has no children yet. So I had some technical overlap with the one friend in that we are both parenting teenage girls. But her situation is full of school volunteering, competitive soccer, academic awards, and fun banter with her daughters and their friends. Her house is the house all the kids want to hang out at. My situation, on the other hand, is full of counseling, horse therapy, failing grades, emotional walls, and loneliness for my kids who do not possess the social skills to make and keep friends. Can we really parent the same way?
My friend without kids? Forget about it. She shared her growing up with me, and I told her she sounded pretty RAD herself. She was always mad at her parents, even before they divorced, she never went to school, lied all the time, and didn’t care about any of the consequences they gave her. She said there was nothing they could have done to make her care. Absolutely no overlap between our frames of reference, technical or otherwise. When she talks about parenting, she’s talking about how her parents parented her, and how she wishes they had parented her differently. That’s simply not the same thing as being a parent yourself, as any of us know who used to have lots of great ideas about how other people should parent their kids. Then we had our own and nobody better say nuthin’ to us because it’s an impossible job.
My parenting is so structured, in part because that’s who I am and in larger part because I believe that’s what my kids need to function. Their brains are so chaotic and their emotions are so disregulated that order, consistency, and routine are critical. They need to reject me emotionally (and have done so for nine years now) because it feels life-or-death to them not to get close to anyone (especially a mother) who can hurt them again. That is simply not covered under “teenage girls are just selfish, she’s just going through a stage.”
My friends are too kind to say it to me, but I know they think I’m a Hitler, or as my mom used to say, Captain von Trapp without the whistle. The comment that got to me the most was when my younger, probably-RAD friend told me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but if I were your daughter, I wouldn’t be happy. Why don’t you ease up on her?”
At the time, I answered, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but if you were my daughter, I wouldn’t care if you were happy, I would care if you were good. I would want you to be happy as a result of being a good person, not because you’re getting what you want.” I explained my thinking that if my daughter can’t control her impulses, can’t discipline herself to work, can’t be trustworthy and honest enough to form healthy relationships, she’s not going to be happy anyway. Even so, I thought about her comment all day today. Of course it hurts. I don’t want my daughter to be unhappy because I’m her mother. If there’s something I need to change, I’ll change it.
So I thought long and hard about Kaylyn and what happiness I’ve seen her express over the years. For nine years, I’ve watched Kaylyn’s happiness come from mastering daily showers, setting boundaries with mean girls at school, getting out her hate feelings toward me on paper so that she could feel more positively, learning to control her temper tantrums, becoming more reliable at doing her chores well, and finally, becoming more attached to me. The last part is only possible when she submits herself to our rules and lets us be the parents, lets us take care of her, lets us make her feel safe.
I can’t explain any of this to my friends. Even if I said it to them exactly like this, they would hear it through their frames of reference, which are loving, bonded, healthy relationships that call forth a modicum of structure in the family, or the fantasy of having such some day. We parents of RAD kids live an alternate reality where the bond comes after and because of the structured relationships. No can really understand until they’ve walked a mile in our shoes, or lived a week in our home as it were.
We live on a parenting island where the truth is understood only by others on similar islands. Thank goodness for good friends who care and want to help, but we have to be very clear about what we’re doing and why. We have to know our kids and know what works for our kids. Or if nothing works, which is often the case, we have to know that we’ve tried everything and are still willing to try more if we come across new ideas. I heard it said the other day that if we pass on to our children only half the dysfunction that our parents gave to us, we’re good parents. That comforts me. I know I can at least do that. And who knows? Maybe when the acute phase of parenting is over and they are developmentally mature, some of this tenaciousness and grit to help them at any cost will pay off. My daughter’s Mother’s Day card to me today thanked me for never giving up on her no matter what. And I never will.
Photo credit: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02049/friends_2049532b.jpg