Earlier this week, I wrote about Reactive Attachment Disorder and how it has affected my family (http://www.mommyhoodsfs.com/the-blog/2015/6/26/my-kids-have-rad). Our oldest two children came to us at ages 4 and 6 after several years of abuse and neglect from their biological families. Due to their early life experiences, they were diagnosed with this disorder shortly after we began to seek treatment for them. Since that time, it has been an uphill battle trying to get them to attach to others in a healthy way.
Are they bullying or are they being bullied? Are they using physical touch in an appropriate manner? Are they being too clingy when they meet strangers? Are they showing signs of grasping concepts such as respecting others, personal space, empathy, and love? Are they managing their anger or feelings of jealousy correctly or are they breaking things and hurting themselves instead? What does “playing house” look like to them? Are they being kind enough to our animals and nature, even when we’re not looking? Will my children ever stop lying or is this going to be a forever battle? Are they showing any signs of grief when they lose a favored toy or a person in their life, or do they still show no emotion?
These things and more are the questions that flood a RAD parent’s head with each play date, sleep over, and school day. But when we are at home, everyone usually lets it all hang out, as is the case with most families. And, with everything my kids have been through together, you’d think they would be close to one another. But the reality is, there’s an awful lot of anger and jealousy between the two of them. My son, the oldest, tends to treat his sister with violence, manipulation, threats, and disdain. Not all the time, but enough of the time. And frankly, any amount of this behavior is enough to cause retaliation on my daughter’s end. And let me assure you, she’s very good at what she does.
It’s not uncommon to hear screams and tears from both kids multiple times each day. Now, as a psychotherapist, I know that I should try for the millionth time to work through the problems, using each situation as a learning tool. But as a parent, I really just want them to shut up and stop screaming at each other! I know I should encourage a peaceful reconciliation, but I find myself only having energy to yell for everyone to go to their rooms. “If you can’t play together nicely, then you can’t play at all!!” (I’m sure I’m the only mom to ever use that line. Ever.)
So, two weeks ago, when the screaming started for the thousandth time that day, my blood began to boil. I bellowed my all-too-familiar line and sent everyone to their rooms. Ahh…peace. Except was it really peace? No. It was only a temporary situation - a mere band-aid on a gaping wound. I remembered back to my own childhood when my brother and I were at each others’ throats (yes, I am very much aware that this is normal child behavior and not just RAD behavior!) and my mom couldn’t take it anymore. I recalled her grounding us together. We couldn’t do anything alone. We were stuck to one another like glue. AND IT WAS AWFUL.
However, if the main goal is to help my kiddos build appropriate and healthy relationships, what better place to start than with each other? So that’s exactly what I did. I immediately called them from their rooms and explained to them that there was going to be a change this summer. We were NOT going to spend three months listening to them fight. Nor were we going to tolerate bullying of any kind. And we certainly were NOT going to let them grow up to hate one another. If this is the only thing they do all summer long, that is fine… but they will practice love. Period.
I then told them the new game plan. Stage 1: They were to sit at the living room table together. They would eat their meals there, they would do their summer homework assignments there, they would read their library books, do puzzles, play games, read, write, draw, or craft. TOGETHER. There would be no talking to anyone else and no visiting with anyone else. For every intervention needed from an adult, another hour of together time would be added. And IF they could manage this for two days, then we would move on to Stage 2.
I have to tell you, I have never seen my son cry harder than he did in that moment. I basically told him that he would have a constant play-pal and be able to do a plethora of fun activities, but because it was with his sister, he acted like it was a death sentence! I kid you not when I say that he choked on sobs for a full hour while they played the first few games. It was actually quite pathetic, and I told him so. When you have learned to love your sibling, then you may practice loving other people.
And with that, I left them to work it out. As the hours went by, I noticed that the crying had stopped. What I also noticed was that there were unfamiliar sounds coming from the room next to me… What was that?
It was the sound of two children, giggling. After all the games had been played, they’d made up their own game at the table and they were laughing like children who actually liked one another. Could it be possible? Could they really be getting along?
The next day, two children awoke and anxiously asked to come out of their rooms so they could go sit at the table together. It was like entering an episode of The Twilight Zone. But there they sat, all day, playing games, reading to one another, and helping each other with math problems. I praised them so much that they actually asked me to stop so that they could get back to their game. Wow.
By day 3, I announced that they were ready for Stage 2. This consisted of getting to play in each other’s rooms with toys… something that would usually cause a world war. The ground rules were that they would both clean up anything that was taken out and that they would both be given the opportunity to choose an activity. After all, compromises are part of all relationships. I also reminded them that bickering would get them more time and possibly send them back to Stage 1. They assured me they could handle it.
Four hours later, they had built a Barbie kingdom out of Legos and blocks, blankets and chairs. Cameron was the contractor, Taylor was the decorator. The room was a disaster. And the kids had never been happier.
I decided they were ready to move on to the final stage later that afternoon. It had finally stopped raining here in Western PA (after days and days and days) and the kids needed to get some exercise and Vitamin D. So I explained the rules of Stage 3. They were informed that they could go anywhere outside, but they had to stay together. There would be no wandering off to do separate activities. There were a few concerned looks as Cameron whined that Taylor would only want to swing and Taylor bellowed that Cameron would only want to play in the mud. Figure it out, I said.
And with play clothes on, water bottles filled, and sun screen applied, they were sent out into the yard to test their new skills. I was skeptical. I’d seen too many times where good interactions quickly became bad ones when the great outdoors was interjected. They were further away from adult supervision and prying ears. They were out of sight at times, which usually ends with me playing referee for a rousing rendition of He Said, She Said. But they had been doing so well. And I wanted to believe that things could be getting better.
I opened all the windows in the house so that I could keep better ears on them while Wyatt took his nap. And it was 20 minutes before the screaming began.
I ran to window and stopped dead in my tracks. It had not been screams of anger or pain that I’d heard. Instead, what I saw was this: My son in play clothes, muck boots, and his bike helmet had attached a garden cart to the back of his bicycle with a bungee cord. And sitting on the garden cart was my 40-lb daughter, wearing her bike helmet and her brother’s hiking boots. He was racing full speed down the driveway with his sister death gripping the cart behind him. I watched as the cart began to veer off the driveway and into the muddy yard. Two bumps later, my daughter lay sprawled in the grass, a muddy mess. And guys, you’re never going to guess what happened next.
My son jumped off his bike with lightening speed and raced to her side. He helped her up and asked if she was OK. (Wait, is that empathy? Is that Love?) She began to giggle (not wail, not tattle) and they ran back to the cart and began figuring out a better way to attach it to the bike. They did this for hours. They climbed trees, played hide and seek, made a fort in the club house, and hung upside down from the swing-set. My son even let my daughter teach him some gymnastics.
The following day, my kids anxiously asked what Stage 4 entailed. I explained that there was no Stage 4 and that their lesson was over. In that moment I witnessed two faces drop in disappointment. “Well, can we at least still play together?” My son, the one who had cried like a baby over having to spend time with his sister, was now close to tears at the thought of not spending the day with her.
And this is when the angels started to sing the Hallelujah Chorus.
I assured them they were MORE than welcome to continue playing together, but that they were now also allowed to interact with others and have alone time, as well. But they chose to play with each other for the entire day.
It’s been two weeks and we’ve had only the minorest of spats. This wouldn’t have worked a year or two ago, I can tell you that much. However, parenting children with mental illness requires re-trying interventions again and again, tweaking them until you find what works. And it may not work ever again, leaving you scratching your head in frustration and sending you back to the drawing board for more tweaking. Whereas I know that my children are still going to struggle with their disorder and that their days of relational conflicts are far from over, I do feel hopeful that this type of learning strategy can be incorporated into many other issues we’ve spent time trying to address with the kids.
It is also my hope that other parents will find encouragement in these words. Whatever it is that your child and your family may face, remember that you have a friend in Western PA praying that sunshine will replace your rainy days soon.