Oppositional defiant disorder Reactive attachment disorder
Reactive attachment disorderReactive attachment disorder

Reactive attachment disorder

Letters from Mothers

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Dennis, 16

For five years, my husband and I tried to have a child, aggressively pursuing fertility treatments. Finally, we decided to consider adoption. I talked to my immediate family about adopting a child from Asia. Because my uncle had been killed in the Pacific Theater during WWII and my brother had been wounded in Vietnam, I wanted to be sure that a child of Asian descent would be welcomed into the family. Everyone encouraged me to begin the process.

While I was on a business trip with my husband, we received word that a newborn boy was available. While my husband worked, I rushed out and bought a car seat, linens, clothes, and baby books. I even looked into information about nursing adopted children. That night, we opened a bottle of champagne and read our baby-naming book in the hotel's outdoor Jacuzzi, where we were joined by a gentleman who had also recently adopted a child. We simply could not believe our good fortune.

When he was one week old, Dennis came to us, and he was perfect: dark hair, intense blue eyes, never crying unless he needed something. We fell in love with him immediately. Because I was a psychotherapist, I couldn't just stop working without warning. I closed with my clients over a five-week period, but my husband, Brad, was able to work from home and care for Dennis. We loved having him near us-if anything, we spent too much time holding him and interacting with him. When my mom met him, she looked at him and said, "He notices everything; his road won't be an easy one." Her comment really irritated me. I thought, "The child is less than two weeks old, and already you're predicting trouble." Little did I know that this sixty-eight-year-old, former teacher was a prophet.

Dennis brought joy to the entire extended family. He walked at eight months and reacted with obvious intelligence to everything around him. Brad spent lots of time teaching Dennis to be gentle with the cat; he would stroke the cat, then stroke Dennis's cheek, softly spelling out G … E … N … T … L … E.

At ten months, Dennis hit me for the first time.

We continued fertility treatments because I didn't want Dennis to be an only child. (Most of my friends were onlies, and they hated it!) I have always had wonderful relationships with both of my siblings, and I wanted to provide that for Dennis. When he was nineteen months old, I finally conceived. I was thrilled about the pregnancy and was so excited that we would soon have a real family with two children! A few days before I gave birth, I looked at the sleeping Dennis and wondered if I could ever love another child as much as I loved this one. I worried about our relationship changing, and I hoped that there would be room in my heart for the new baby. Jill was born, and I could not imagine being happier. After fifteen years of trying, my family felt complete: I had "one of each."

One day when Dennis was two and Jill was six months old, we were sitting around the table, enjoying a simple meal, when Jill let out a bloodcurdling scream. "What happened, little girl?" I asked anxiously. Dennis looked at me proudly with his forefinger extended and said, "I poka baby eye." That was the defining moment of their relationship, and it would continue to be that way for the next sixteen years.

Dennis was also often hostile to his best friend, our next door neighbor's little boy. Dennis would play with him at first but would then push and hit him until he left.

At age four, Dennis began to have asthma attacks. I completely redid our house, had Dennis tested for allergies, and avoided any substance that might provoke an attack, but nothing helped. I suggested that there might be an emotional cause because I'd noticed that Dennis often had attacks on holidays and special occasions. The allergist didn't want to go there!

At the ages of three, four, and five, Dennis was a perfect, very bright student. But at age six, I was told that Dennis needed a special reading program. I knew this did not make sense; something was off, but I could not identify the problem.

When he was in first grade, I was informed by his teacher, who was also a friend of mine, that Dennis had been sent to the principal's office that day for telling a boy to "have sex" with one of the little girls in the class. At first I thought that he hadn't known what he was saying and had just repeated something he had heard, but upon further investigation, we discovered that he was quite aware of the sexual act. I had to go through a whole apology session with Brad, the teacher, and the little boy's parents. I told Brad, "I'm not doing this for the next twelve years!"-a prophecy that did not come true.

By the time Dennis reached sixth grade, school crises, including suspensions and expulsions, were the norm. Brian, a boy Dennis's age, lived across the street, and they began to hang out. When they were thirteen, Brian (who is now in jail for manufacturing methadone) introduced Dennis to sex and drugs, and we put Dennis in therapy. We had difficulty setting limits and enforcing rules, and our family life continued to deteriorate. I looked for a private school for Dennis, but none seemed to be right for him. The closest one was fifty miles away. And anyway, Brian was right across the street.

What had happened to my perfect family? Dennis and Jill hated each other's guts, and Brad and I were wiped out from trying to keep them from killing each other. Jill was clearly suffering, and Dennis was spinning out of control.

I slipped into a major depression and was hospitalized over Christmas. I was barely able to function as a parent. I started serving grilled cheese sandwiches and canned soup for dinner. (I used to serve organically grown vegetables and homemade everything!)

We continued with Dennis's therapy, but we continued to have great difficulty setting limits and enforcing any household standards at all. Dennis and Jill fought constantly, both verbally and physically. During their violent fights, they broke household item after household item: double-mirrored doors, walls in the living room, wooden bedroom doors, French doors, porch windows. Dennis began writing on himself constantly, and the dark ink looked almost like self-mutilation. He drew excessively violent pictures: Nazi symbols, skulls, bleeding heads, flames, and gang symbols. He also carved them into doorframes, walls, desks, and boxes.

I had three more major depressive episodes, though I was not hospitalized for any of them. I was finally diagnosed as bipolar in 2001, and the right medication has kept me on an even keel since then.

Things peaked when Dennis threatened to stab a classmate. The classmate's mother pressed charges. Dennis threatened suicide, and I stayed in his room all night. Eventually the boy's mother dropped the charges at her son's urging.

At the end of seventh grade, we learned that Dennis was failing all of his classes. He entered a special program but often fought us in the mornings, not wanting to go.

Dennis managed to pull his scores together enough to get into high school. He played soccer, basketball, and baseball for his high school teams. He lettered in soccer and baseball and was always a starting player. He began to mess with his coach occasionally, but by some miracle-maybe because the coach was our friend, maybe because Dennis won games-the coach still wanted him on the teams.

By sophomore year, Dennis had become increasingly aggressive with both his classmates and teachers. When a teacher tried to break up a fight between Dennis and a classmate, the teacher wound up in the hospital. The school told us that something had to be done. They suggested residential treatment for a time. Dennis refused to go, so we had to arrange for an ex-Marine, ex-parole officer to shackle him and drive him to Boys' Town. This man had to receive medical treatment when we arrived: Dennis had injured him while he was being shackled.

For twenty-eight days, Dennis was perfect. When we visited, he told us he loved us and missed us. At the end of the month, his evaluation read, "Dennis does all his household chores; he never fights with anyone. He has become a favorite of both staff and clients." We had family therapy, and he was sent home. We had renewed hope.

Within a few days, it was hell again. Dennis swore at everyone, broke doors and walls, verbally abused his sister, came and went as he pleased, and caused trouble at school. We got a new parent group therapist, and she wondered aloud if Dennis might have reactive attachment disorder because he was adopted. I tried to find the woman she recommended for treatment, but I had no luck. She had gone on maternity leave, and I didn't try to contact her again. Dennis completed his sophomore year of high school, but not before provoking his coach so much that he caused his resignation. We were the coach's friends, and Dennis's great pride in having made him leave was matched only by our great shame.

I looked up RAD on the Internet and found the RAD Consultancy and Aaron Lederer, who said he could help me. The first session was free, so I figured I had nothing to lose. After our first session, I realized that after seven years of family therapy, five therapists, three psychiatrists, and two homeopaths, I had finally found someone who understood Dennis's problems.

Aaron explained to me that Dennis could not relate to people in a positive way; that he had a compelling need to provoke people to react hatefully toward him, a trait common in many adopted children. Then he gave me an entirely new way to talk to Dennis and interact with him, one that seemed counterintuitive. We were told that instead of telling him what to do and reinforcing him when he did it, we should respond neutrally. We should let him make his own decisions; we were not supposed to praise him if he did well, and we were not to bail him out if he got in trouble. If I couldn't control my anger, I was to leave Dennis's presence before I lost my temper.

The change in Dennis was almost immediate. He took Driver's Ed and got a B without having one run-in with the teacher. (This man had been Dennis's teacher before, and they had not gotten along.) He also began to address me in a more acceptable manner.

However, he was still bent on self-destruction. Dennis got a job and then made sure to lose it. He got a car, then lost it for not keeping up the payments. He needed only two more credits to achieve a 2006 high school graduation, but he fell short and could not graduate.

He still hung around with kids who had no supervision and no goals and who did drugs, fought, and stayed out all night. They all begin crashing at our house, stealing from us, and stealing from my parents. Aaron Lederer told us how to put a stop to that, and we did, thus infuriating Dennis, who threatened to kill us and to destroy our things. To show he meant business, he kicked a huge dent in our old van and keyed our new one. Both my husband and I had a lot of trouble followingAaron's advice; it was difficult for us to respond neutrally and to disengage before "losing it," as instructed.

Things went from bad to worse. Dennis stole Jill's car, and after we got it back, we took out the fuses to disable it. He found the fuses and stole it again, and this time he wrecked it. On Aaron's advice, we called the police, but they recommended that we not file charges. "Don't get him into the ‘system' with a felony," the kindly sergeant advised.

Under Aaron's guidance, I completely stopped telling Dennis what to do; I only took action. When he drove without a license, I took his keys. When he got tickets, I didn't pay them. When he failed to make his car payments, I let the dealer repossess the car. When he hit his girlfriend, I called the police. When he was incarcerated, I didn't bail him out. I was very reluctant and scared to try these things, but Aaron assured me that it was what my child needed, and he was absolutely right. It was hard for me, and I could tell I was being a difficult client, having been a psychotherapist myself. Aaron must have been most impatient with me at times, but he never showed any frustration. Frequently, I didn't want to do what he said, and sometimes I totally refused to implement an intervention that he recommended. Fortunately, he didn't give up; he gave me alternatives that eventually worked for both of us.

Dennis began sleeping in other places, but he still came in and out of our house at his whim. He began treating Jill and me better, but he still constantly fought with Brad. Their fights occasionally became physical, and we become good friends with all the policemen in our town. Aaron told us to let Dennis know that he could not stay at home anymore. We hadn't been very good at following Aaron's instructions, and this was no exception. Although Aaron said with certainty that we needed to get a restraining order, I was reluctant to take that step. Instead, we offered Dennis the deposit for an apartment and the first month's rent. Dennis accepted happily and moved out, but his uninvited visits continued.

Soon afterward, Dennis was arrested for missing a court date regarding one of his many illegal acts. We did not bail him out. We left him in jail, and I visited him only once. After five days, he was assigned a public defender and released.

We left for a family reunion, and Dennis stole Jill's car again. I called the police, and they also told me to get a restraining order, which was what Aaron had been suggesting for months. Dennis called Brad, and Brad told him that he could no longer legally enter the house. Dennis called me and asked if he could pick up his things. I put them outside, and his girlfriend and her mother came to pick them up. When his girlfriend's mother asked permission to let Dennis live with her, I agreed.

The more I listened to Aaron's instructions, the better things became. I no longer feel angry, guilty, and distressed all the time. Letting Dennis take care of himself has relieved me of a tremendous burden. It has also improved communication between us. As long as I'm neither judgmental nor compassionate, we enjoy each other's company. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and I occasionally fall back into old ways of communicating, but I can see that they never work. I only wish that we'd found Aaron when we first noticed that Dennis had serious problems. I wish I had understood the special needs of adopted children, who have, by definition, experienced total abandonment and terrible loss.

Now, Dennis is on his own. (This was our main goal.) He still sometimes calls and asks me to make deals with him concerning a car. When I refuse, he no longer verbally abuses me. He just hangs up or says "okay," and I change the subject. I never thought we could have such a good relationship. I believe that eventually it will be even better. I truly believe that if we had found Aaron earlier, Dennis's life would have been 100 percent better, and I know that mine would have been as well.

For the first time in sixteen years, I have been able to divorce myself from the horrible weight of feeling like a total failure as a parent. I no longer own Dennis's problems, and I am finally able to give my daughter some of the attention she needs and has needed for a long time.

Dennis no longer has violent outbursts, and we have begun to allow him to come into the house again. There are no new dents in the car, holes in the wall, broken windows, or broken doors. He now addresses me in an appropriate way most of the time: there is no more "I'll kill you" or "I'll take you to court" or "You'd better watch your back." We sometimes have "couch time" when we just sit and talk about what he is doing. As long as I remember to respond as Aaron taught me, we do fine.

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