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One family's story of adopting a special needs toddler with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Adopting a Special Needs Child and Dealing with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Secondary Infertility

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story anya and aiden korea picture 2 Our adoption journey took a long and winding path to get us to where we were supposed to be. We had no problems conceiving our son, but tried for multiple years to have another child with no success. We finally decided that we would move to adoption.
We decided on adopting a baby girl from China, but after researching Chinese adoption, we discovered that adoptive parents had to be at least 30 years of age. We were both only 27. I was heartbroken. I would have to wait three more years to even start on an adoption. I knew that I had love to give to a child right then!

A Special Needs Adoption

A friend of mine told me about the website,, that featured waiting children with special needs. My heart strings tugged. We were definitely open to special needs. My husband and I both work in healthcare and felt that we could parent a child with special medical or behavioral needs. After weeks of looking on Rainbowkids and inquiring and pondering, we saw her-- a beautiful Korean toddler with cerebral palsy. When I saw her, I knew that she was my daughter.
The social worker at the international adoption agency was very honest and warned us that this child may never walk or talk. Ryan and I talked and prayed about it. Were we prepared for the worst case scenario? Would we be OK if she never walked or uttered a word? Could we afford her long term medical care? These questions rolled through my head day and night. When we felt comfortable with our answers to these questions, we submitted our home study to the agency and said "yes!" Although it was very difficult at the time, the social worker kept asking if we were sure. "Yes, yes, yes!” I kept saying, but I was really thinking "I hope so!"

Meeting Anya
We flew to get Anya when she was 21 months old. The moment we laid eyes on her was magical. She was so beautiful. All was blissful until we noticed some strange behavior while we were still in Korea. Anya was fine while I was holding her, but if my husband tried to hold her, she would scream bloody murder, pulling her hair and biting herself. She would also try to bite him. It was pretty scary, but we attributed it to adjustment and just kept taking it day by day.

Reactive Attachment Disorder
Once we got home, Anya's behavior escalated even more rather than improve. If I was not holding her or sitting right there with her, she was beside herself. If I had to put her down to fix supper, she would scream and bang her head repeatedly on the floor. When I would try to hand her to my husband, she would scream even louder. Strangely, she would readily go to any strange man and be very charming. She would go to no other women other than me, but would go to every man other than Ryan. It was so distressing for my husband because he loved her so much, but could not get near her. It was exhausting for me because I could get nothing else done.
After several months of this behavior I felt trapped. This is officially called Reactive Attachment Disorder, but in our house it was called exhausting. Oh, and at the same time, we were going through all of this, we were also working on physical and speech therapies for her cerebral palsy. It was exhausting.

Working Through Reactive Attachment Disorder
We knew we needed to developed a plan to try to help manage Anya's RAD. First of all, we would not allow her to go to any other men besides Ryan. To the average person it appeared we were being rude when our beautiful little girl was just trying to be friendly, but they had no clue what we were going through.
We then tried to "de-sensitize" her to Ryan. I would hold her and sit by Ryan on the couch and feed her snacks. We then moved forward to me sitting by Ryan on the couch, while he fed her snacks. We couldn’t believe it, when she actually started taking food from him and wasn’t screaming!
After several weeks, we decided to try the next big step of letting Ryan hold her while I fed her snacks. She cried the first time, but it was not the screaming, hair-pulling fits that she had in the beginning. It was a sad cry, but she did take her treats and ate them through her crocodile tears. Day after day we did this and eventually she did not cry any more as he held her while I fed her snacks.
We finally worked up to him holding her while he fed her the snacks with me sitting by them. It worked! She calmly allowed herself to be held and fed by her dad. Eventually I was able to walk into the next room while they were sharing treats. It was amazing! I felt so hopeful.
Eventually, Ryan was able to hold her even if there was not food involved. Three years later Anya is a Daddy's girl! She is happy with either one of us, but we still have to be her boundaries out in public because she knows none.

A Reactive Attachment Disorder Setback
Anya had become pretty well adjusted, but when we adopted Aiden, who also has cerebral palsy, her behavior regressed severely, and we saw a lot of the original RAD behavior. It took her about six months to recover. The stress of dealing with two special needs kids, the specter of RAD rearing its head again, and our older biological child who needed our attention was tremendous, and probably as a result, I developed a case of shingles.
Anya and Aiden are good buddies now (with the occasional fights like typical siblings), and we are back on track. I think it is important for prospective adoptive parents to realize that even in the best cases there can be relapses of problematic attachment issues.
Reactive Attachment Disorder can be very difficult. RAD does not happen in every adoption, but it is a real possibility. There is help and support groups available. It’s best to do your research before you get your child home so that you are prepared in the event that your child has RAD. Remember to not take their behavior personally.
Adopted children live a life before they are with you, and that made them who they are on the day that they enter your family. The behaviors you see are not set in stone though. Love, patience, and understanding can go very far in the life of a child that needs you.

Rachel and Ryan

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