Megan is one of those parents so many of us admire. After she and Brent birthed two children, they decided their family had more love to share and began the process of adopting a young girl from overseas. It took nearly three years, and the day they carried their new daughter into their home was one of the best of their lives.
That was six years ago, and Megan is baffled. She and Brent surrounded Natalie with love and nurturing, but she’s convinced her young daughter hates her, and she can’t understand why. She hasn’t done anything she’s aware of, and yet Natalie constantly pulls away from her. When Megan goes to hug Natalie, the youngster becomes stiff and refuses to return the embrace. She’ll snap at Megan, scream that she hates her, and ignores simple directions about cleaning her room or putting the dog out. Even stranger, Natalie doesn’t treat Brent or her older brothers that way. To them, she’s warm and affectionate. If Brent brings her favorite sandwich, a grilled cheese, she eats it with a big smile — but won’t touch the same sandwich when Megan serves it.
When Megan describes Natalie’s behavior to Brent, he suggests that she’s just imagining it or overreacting. Natalie is a delightful little girl who loves her family. Just look at how well she treats her brothers! Megan doesn’t think she’s imagining the behavior, but she’s starting to wonder about her own mental state. She came in to see us because she was becoming convinced that she’s going crazy.
Megan wasn’t doing anything wrong and she wasn’t going crazy. There’s a condition called reactive attachment disorder that can occur among adopted children who have experienced trauma in the early stages of development — in particular, neglect or abandonment by their birth mothers. Infants crave the connection with a mother figure, and if they sense that connection immediately after birth, their development usually follows a normal path. But if that connection isn’t there immediately or is interrupted for a long period, their brains may react to normal mothering behaviors as if they were threats.
Children who have this disorder tend to push away the adult who is closest to them, and that’s typically their adoptive mother. What makes it even more challenging is that their rejection is usually expressed through subtle behaviors that other people may not notice, or that are mistaken for normal behavior. As in Natalie’s case, they may physically pull away or lash out against their adoptive mothers. They may be compliant with others around them, but quickly become defiant when their adoptive mother asks them to do something. At times, they’ll tell other people (including teachers and therapists) lies about the adoptive mother and how she treats them.
Because other family members do not witness these behaviors, they may find them difficult to believe, and instead of offering their support to the adoptive mother, they respond with questions and confusion. In the short run, that can make mothers feel lonely and confused, and over time, can even lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Fortunately, professional counselors who have worked with adoptive families recognize the signs of reactive attachment disorder and know how to help the child and parents rebuild relationships. If you or someone you know is experiencing situations such as these with an adoptive child, setting a time to talk with a therapists is a smart step.