I'm sitting here, about to start another year of school, and I'm burned out and I'm exhausted and I'm frozen by indecision. How do I decide whether adding ballet to the schedule would be a helpful bit of structure and guidance, or would be one more burden to our lives? How do I know which doctor to choose? How do I know where to push and where to lay off? How do I know if she needs medication or just better parenting? Or maybe counseling again? Or maybe I need counseling? What aobut speech therapy? Occupational therapy? Physical therapy? Or maybe it's time for more reinforcement instead of consequences, even though the presentation of a potential reinforcement used to cause immediate shut down? Maybe she has too much stuff? Maybe she has too many distractions? Maybe she feels like a failure or a bad kid and can't get past that enough to make any kind of different decision? How do I get over my own frustration in order to love and forgive and move forward? How do I help her feel secure so she doesn't need to control this relationship anymore? What do I do? What do I do?
I am a parent of a child with an attachment disorder.
I need to start off by saying that, if you met her, you'd probably like her. She is sweet. She is adorable. She is full of smiles, she loves to laugh, and she loves everything that is female and pretty and girly. She gives hugs. She holds hands. And the first day I ever met her, she called me Mom. She told me she loved me.
A lot of people hear that last part, the part about the instantaneous declaration of love, and give a deep, heart-felt "awwww". They think it's sweet. Like it was a sign we were meant to be together. Like she was just so happy to be with us. But the thing is, it didn't feel sweet. It didn't feel like love. It felt like brokenness. Because no healthy, healed child would cling to a woman she had never met and call her Mommy. Whisper statements of affection. Instead, it was our first indicator of the deep hurt in this child's heart: The fact that, deep down, she didn't really know what it meant to love someone at all.
So for the uninitiated, Reactive Attachment Disorder happens when, during early childhood, for various reasons, an emotional bond is not made with a primary, trusted caregiver. While this disorder is considered rare, it exists with relative frequency among children who have been passed around between caregivers, such as children who grew up in orphanages or in the foster care system.
Many kids with this disorder become withdrawn, angry, aggressive, and destructive. But not all. My child, in fact, may seem overly affectionate. She sits on people's laps. She hugs constantly. She holds peoples hands and pets their faces and their hair. But if you're around her long enough, you maybe notice it feels... off. She doesn't like you to hold her. She wants to hold you. Because this behavior is not about showering loved ones with earned affection. It's about her desperate, deep, yearning need to control the feelings of actions of those around her.
Emotionally speaking, I once described it this way: It's like you're on a first date. You're trying to get to know this person, to see if you like each other, and she's making copies of your house keys and filling your drawers with her undergarments. You're testing the water with a toe, she dove in head first.
Please don't hear me say that I think she's a terrible child. Because by NO MEANS is that the case. But raising a child who lies to you, screams at you, and then minutes later showers you with physical affection, it's emotional confusing. Your actual body, my actual body, can reject it. Can cringe back in response to the touch of my child. Which means that on some days, on some very hard days, it can take an actual force of will to engage in positive physical contact with my sweet, adorable, 7 year old child. I'm pretty sure there's no thing else in this world I'm more ashamed of than this.
I am ashamed. But I am not alone. Support groups and family and friends and many more amazing people have helped me along these 3 years. Have loved on my daughter, have loved on me, and have shared their own families, their own stories of struggle and clumsiness and the amazing labor it can sometimes be to turn a group of people into something that is a family. Which means even after my emotional breakdown earlier today, I had people to talk to, people in the trenches who reached out and shared their love and support and assistance. Good Lord, I love those people.
Oh right. And today, as I sat over my computer, shaking slightly and crying silently as I typed out the fears and questions that had overtaken my brain, my little girl walked up to me.
I saw that you were crying Mommy, and I'm sorry.
I'm sorry that I've been lying to you.
I'm sorry that I'm being someone who makes people cry.
I brought her to me, and I held her. Tightly, and for way too long. I am a parent to a child with an attachment disorder. But I am the child of a God who can heal all things, even those things as shattered as we are.