Oppositional defiant disorder Reactive attachment disorder
Reactive attachment disorderReactive attachment disorder

Reactive attachment disorder

Letters from Mothers



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Lisa, 17

Lisa was born at a bad time. My husband was in a deep, clinical depression. We had two older kids, aged three and five. I stopped working just before Lisa was born because I knew I wanted to be there for her completely, but this added to our money pressures. Although I tried my best to make our home a happy place, it was a struggle that I sometimes lost.

When I found Aaron Lederer, my older children were twenty and twenty-two, and Lisa was seventeen. I described tohim my relatively calm and peaceful relationships with myother children, and I had one question: why was Lisa so difficult with me and only me? Why did we have these explosions,as we called them, in which she seemed to know just whichbuttons to press to get me to lose my temper completely and sometimes even throw things at her? After every explosion, I would feel terrible and apologize. Our explosions had become so frequent and so bad that at one point I asked her quietly, sadly, "Lisa, what's wrong with us? Why does this happen?" She replied just as quietly and sadly, "I don't know, Mom, but it's really bad." I said, "We have to do something about it." She nodded her head miserably and walked away. After listening to my story, Aaron Lederer replied that it seems as if Lisa is stuck ("fixated") in the "terrible twos" developmental stage, where the toddler's slogan is, "I want what I want and I want it right now," alternating with, "I won't and you can't make me" and attempts to enforce these through her tantrums. He added that there is no strong evidence that such is the case with Lisa, but that often, when the mother is distracted by serious stresses, her bonding with the infant suffers and the infant enters the "terrible twos" unprepared and is unable to successfully finish it and leave it behind. He said that children who are stuck in their "terrible twos" are often diagnosed as having oppositional-defiant disorder. He then said that there seemed to be something more and asked me whether there was anything unusual about Lisa during her first two years. I then remembered that Lisa had suffered from recurrent earaches as a baby, up until she was about five. We went to the doctor frequently. Many nights she would cry with pain, and I would give her medicine and then let her sleep with us.

Aaron Lederer said, "This is very significant. She may have learned to associate her maternal attachment with pain because of her earaches. Now she seeks pain to feel attached to you. She achieves the pain of the attachment she craves through causing you to attack her." He called this tendency "negative attachment behavior," which means seeking hurt where others seek love. He added that the negative attachment behavior often induces negative feelings in the mother that are so overwhelming that she can't resist acting on these feelings.

I was fascinated by his explanation and asked many questions. It didn't quite make sense to me, but it had the ring of truth to it. Clearly, Lisa was provoking the explosions, but I had never been able to pinpoint the reason until then. It felt accurate to me that she did it to achieve a sense of attachment.

Outside of her relationship with me, Lisa was a success. She had a responsible position in the student government of her high school, and she was popular, capable, creative, and an honor roll student. She had found a well paying, Saturdaynight job playing her guitar at the Y, and she bought herself the clothes she wanted. But the relationship between Lisa and me was not only painful-it was clearly abnormal. Aaron said Lisa could be helped to change her "negative attachment behavior" to a positive one and that the person best equipped to help her accomplish that was me, her mother. He offered to lead me through that process.

When I concluded my conversation with Aaron Lederer, we agreed to talk on the telephone once a week. He asked me if I minded if one of the therapists he was training joined our conversations, mostly to listen. I didn't. I figured that more feedback might even be helpful to me (and it turned out that it was).

I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders after my first conversation with Aaron. I had promised Lisa that we would "do something" about the situation, and now I was.

I followed Aaron Lederer's instructions very carefully. When I felt myself getting close to exploding, I would quietly leave, e-mail him with the details of the situation and get his advice and instructions instead of yelling. It was not easy, but I did what he said. I had to physically walk away from a situation ("without an attitude," he said, if I could manage that), even if Lisa was calling me back. "Mom! Where are you going? We were talking about my best pants that you left on the floor so they got stepped on, and now they're ruined!" I tried to just keep walking, even though I was sometimes shaking from the effort it required for me not to reply or react at all.

By following all the instructions-it was hard!-I saw results very quickly. The explosions ceased completely. As of this writing, it has been four months since we began our weekly sessions, and there has not been one explosion. I truly believe they are things of the past. It is a huge relief. I did not enjoy losing control, because I felt abusive. Lisa certainly did not enjoy it either, although on some level she may have needed it and therefore provoked it.

We are going through another difficult time. My mother-in-law is very sick, and the burden has fallen largely on my husband. Guess who is the one child who has shown the most caring and sensitivity toward me and my husband? Yes-it is Lisa. As Aaron explained to me, "When you remove the negative attachment behavior, the loving, caring, affectionate person underneath can emerge."

For some reason, hearing him say these words made me cry. I was overcome with gratitude, and I was also blown away by how fast it had all happened. The hard, slow part was finding Aaron Lederer; that took us seventeen years. Lisa is a different person. She is much more cooperative, and she is often actually nice to me.

As Aaron says, a person who is just a little bit hungry can afford to be fussy. I'll take the steak, but no potatoes. I hate oatmeal, no thanks. But if someone hasn't been given anything to eat for several days, she will eat anything. Suddenly, even stale bread is delicious. My goal (and I did accomplish it!) was to starve the negative attachment behavior operating in Lisa's brain. Lisa was out to provoke negative, painful, responses in me. But if I refused to give them to her for long enough, she-by then starving for contact-would finally, in desperation, turn to the only alternative: positive behavior to stimulate me to give her positive responses.

When I controlled my negative responses as I had been taught to do, completely eliminating all forms of instruction except for the ones Aaron gave me, Lisa was thrown off balance- this is not the Mommy I know. It was fascinating to hear the changes in her voice. Suddenly, it was "Thanks, Mom, for the ride," and "Sorry about the mess I left, Mom," and "Let me do that," comments I had never, ever heard from her before.

I think that at this point, she is still waiting for the other shoe to drop. She doesn't trust that I am really finished exploding at her and lecturing her and screaming at her. But I really, really am done with those negative reactions. Now that I understand them, I don't have to play those games anymore.

I am so grateful to have dealt with this now, while Lisa is still in her teens. I understand that people with Lisa's problem tend to act this way with whoever their primary attachment figures are. So long as she was single, it would be me. Once she got married, it would be her husband. Had we not dealt with this, Lisa might have had a very stormy marriage, if not a failed one, in which she was always provoking her husband to explode at her. I wonder how many failed marriages could be prevented if parents would study and follow the Aaron Lederer method of dealing with provocative children. A month or two of work, no drugs or surgery, just verbal instructions, and you have saved a child's life and, by extension, generations to come.

I told Aaron Lederer this morning that I feel we are ready to discontinue treatment, and he agreed. Lisa and I have not had an explosion in the entire six months since we started treatment. I have become adept at disengaging in a casual, friendly way when she is trying to provoke me. Her provocative behavior has gone down in strength, on a scale of one to ten, from a ten (irresistible, you have to explode) to about a two (extremely easy to disengage, barely worth noticing). She hardly ever tries to provoke explosions anymore, and when she does, they are halfhearted attempts, the way one might scratch an itch that doesn't really itch anymore-just absentmindedly reaching for that spot out of habit.

I asked Aaron Lederer what to do a few weeks ago when Lisa humiliated me in front of my colleague from work. He said to wait until the emotion was spent and then to say to her, "Lisa, I really like the way our relationship has been developing. But there is one thing, and that is that when you snap at me in front of others, I feel hurt and humiliated. Will you do me the favor from now on of always trying to make me feel good, even when you feel bad?"

When I said this to Lisa, she rolled her eyes and indicated through dramatic hand gestures and facial expressions that I was not making sense. But I knew she had heard me. I had learned from Aaron that repetition is not reinforcement; it only makes the impact lighter when we repeat ourselves. So I gave a mysterious smile and walked away.

Asking Lisa to make me feel good even when she felt bad was the last request, the "global favor."

It has now been six months since the end of the treatment. Lisa has become a pleasure to live with. Who would recognize this child? She is no longer difficult. She loves when I come to hear her play guitar at her performances and is eager to go out to eat with me afterward. There are no explosions, period. There hasn't been one since day one of implementing Aaron Lederer's plan. Sometimes I think, soberly, of how Lisa might have ended up on drugs to "control her temper" or some other such tragedy. But my changes in behavior alone caused her to grow up and become a calm, happy person who has her needs fulfilled through positive behavior, not negative behavior.

Lisa still subconsciously tries to provoke me sometimes. For example, the other day she said angrily, sarcastically, "Thanks for letting me use the car, but you gave it to me on empty, and you knew it was on empty. I had to fill up the tank!" The old me would have taken the bait and would have responded with even more sarcasm, "Let me understand the problem: you had to pay for the gas to do your errands in my car? My, what a tragedy!" Instead, with absolutely no effort on my part, I nodded my head to show her I had heard her, then turned and walked away and got busy in the garden. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lisa give a sigh and turn on the TV. I could not help smiling to myself as I pruned my roses. I smiled because walking away from the provocation had been natural and effortless for me. I smiled because Lisa has fully absorbed positive ways to feel the love bond that all human beings need and because she has integrated these ways into her personality. I smiled because I cannot wait to see Lisa live a full, rich, and happy life. I feel lucky that I will be part of it.


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