This reflection is one of a series written on behalf of a mom who placed her children at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development several years ago. She writes from a place of love as a woman who has endured the feelings of love and loss after adopting children with reactive attachment disorder. Her boys are now grown men. These are her reflections and memories, from life experiences and the wisdom that time bestows. And from a place of frailty that only a parent can know.
(The author uses pseudonyms for the protection and privacy of her children.)
For a long time, I felt the emotional exhaustion of riding the ups and downs of my sons’ moods and their behaviors. Both of my sons who have reactive attachment disorder also presented mood swings characteristic of early onset bipolar disorder from early ages. One son tended toward being more depressive, while the other tended toward mania. I learned early on that there’s a correlation between reactive attachment disorder and mental illness. This is because parents who neglect their young babies often suffer from mental illnesses themselves. Given the genetic component of mental illnesses, neglected children often suffer the environmental impact of the neglect as well as the inherited impact of mental illness.
As a young adoptive mother, I rarely experienced balance or equanimity. There seemed to be constant fires to extinguish. I would worry about my teenager who slept all day and had no energy or motivation to get up and do school. On the other end of the spectrum, I felt consumed and could hardly keep up with the high energy of my younger son. At twelve years old, he was sneaking out and roaming the streets. He thought nothing of wandering around to a friend’s home in the middle of the night.
The therapists and the psychiatrist at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development helped me understand the distinction between my sons’ reactive attachment disorders and mental health disorders. Yet, their behaviors, no matter the cause, often looked similar. The experts at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development also helped me to learn that to identify the causes of my children’s behaviors (whether mental illness or RAD) were less important than to develop the tools to respond to those behaviors.
Gradually, I learned how to get off the emotional roller coaster, stand on the platform, and wave to my children. The first practice that helped was to become attuned to my emotional rhythms separate from my sons. I began to recognize and honor my feelings of grief and loss. I gave myself permission to enjoy my life. When I learned to step back and recognize their moods as separate from mine, I developed a center inside myself to access the empathic support and nurturance my sons needed from me.
I would often employ mantras or ready made reminders that I could repeat to myself when I felt myself falling into their emotional swings. One example of phrases I repeated to myself many times was, “Even though I have this worry, I am okay and I accept myself” or just simply, “Stay on the platform, stay on the platform”.
I now know that this emotional distance helped my sons experience the conflict and natural consequences of their moods and behaviors. And while it still saddens me to see them struggle, the trials and triumphs of their own journeys lend to their emotional growth, insight, and maturation. For my part, I will make every effort to remain, even from a distance, an empathic grounded presence in their often chaotic journeys.
Please call and invite Forrest Lien, Executive Director of the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, to speak at your parent and professional groups worldwide at (303) 674-1910. When we learn together, we can work together to advocate for children and families struggling with reactive attachment disorder.