Kids diagnosed with RAD and trauma-related disorders of childhood often engage in “indiscriminate affection with strangers.”
Ever hear that quote from William Butler Yeats?
“There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”
Middle and Little also incorporate this attitude, but with a few alterations, changing the quote to, “There are no strangers here; strangers don’t exist, nor do friends, nor does family. This stranger lady can be my mom because she is no different than that lady I live with and see every day.”
When I told BioMom about RAD and explained the concern over their precocious friendliness, she said, “They’ve always been like that. A trip to Wal-Mart was always interesting because they would just talk to anyone who looked at them. That’s just how they are.”
It takes a keen eye to recognize my kids’ behavior with strangers as problematic. Most “outsiders” don’t see the problem… They see kids who are “extra-friendly,” “quick to warm up,” “extroverted,” “precocious,” “socially engaged,” and “socially motivated.” And, truth be told, “disinhibited social engagement” actually falls among the more pleasant of their RAD-behaviors. It’s nice to see them being cute and cuddly without all the stoicism, hysteria, and defensiveness.
So, what’s the problem? Why is something that looks so pleasant considered a nefarious RAD-behavior? After all, some kids are just comfortable anywhere… right? And we were both chatty little things when we were small… right? And didn’t Oldest try to give an entire group of tourists kisses back in Hawaii… several times?
The difference lies in the way Middle and Little treat Husband and me in the presence of strangers. Middle and Little act like we no longer exist when a new person enters into their orbit. When they were younger, they would not cry for their parents when left in someone else’s care, and their reaction to her return was minimal at best.
The DSM-V describes this behavior thusly: “The child consistently approaches unfamiliar adults (as if they’ve known them for a long period of time) and acts overly familiar with the stranger, does not check back in with caregiver at a rate that is appropriate for the child’s age, and goes off with strangers with minimal or no hesitation.” But I don’t think that really captures the essence of this behavior, so I’ll give you a few examples to help you better understand why this is considered abnormal behavior.
1) The first time I met Middle and Little, I fully anticipated them disliking me, or ignoring me in favor of their father, and I was prepared and okay with that. At the very least I expected them to be a little wary of me and clingy with their dad, and Husband and I talked about how he should take them with him if he had to to go somewhere and Oldest didn’t feel like leaving the house. I worried they would be scared if he left them alone with me since they were only three and four, and were away from their supposedly secure base (their biological mom); even though Husband was familiar to them, he’d been deployed or stationed far away most of their lives and they really only got to know him during their through Skype. They hadn’t seen him in six months and surely, I thought, they’d be nervous and a little confused about me.
But they weren’t wary. They didn’t look at me in confused silence. Nor did they demand to know who I was. They didn’t ask who Oldest was. They didn’t ask Husband why we were there.
They didn’t cling to their dad, either. Within ten minutes of our arrival, Little was up in my lap hugging and kissing me. I used a little stuffed Pooh doll as a puppet and told him a story. At the end of this extravagant production, Little eagerly asked for another show. And then another. And another.
After three stories, I started getting uncomfortable with Little’s attention to me. “Don’t you want to go cuddle with your dad?” I asked. “You haven’t seen him in a long time!”
“No, do it again!” he demanded, sitting harder in my lap.
“Go sit with Daddy, he missed you!” I said.
“No!” he said, digging his little butt bones into my thighs. “I wanna’ stay here. I love you.”
Eventually, Husband grabbed Little off my lap, and Little contorted his little body back in my direction, arms outstretched, fingers opening and closing in a desperate grasp. Then, he started crying and yelling that he wanted to stay with me.
Oddly enough, this didn’t raise any red flags for us at the time. I thought it was a little unusual that Little didn’t cling to his dad after being separated for so long, but I didn’t understand that he was dismissing his dad in favor of a stranger. “Besides, I thought, Little’s desire to stay with me means he likes me! Right from the very start!”
2) The weirdness of Little’s behavior didn’t really hit me until we went to visit one of Husband’s best friends (“B”) who recently married a lovely lady (“K”). It took us two hours to get to their home and by the time we arrived I was in desperate need of a cigarette (I know, I know… I’m actually in the process of quitting!). I hung back for about eight minutes to feed my habit while Husband took the kids inside and by the time I walked in, Little was snuggled up on K’s lap while she showed him pictures on her phone. He didn’t even acknowledge me when I walked in. In fact, he ignored me entirely. When I told him to get off her lap and use the potty, he loudly asked K about one of the pictures with a voice meant to drown out mine.
K coaches cheerleaders and the pictures were of the girls she teaches, so everyone giggled at how Little was totally enraptured with the photographs. I was annoyed at how Little was cuddling with this woman he did not know at all and completely ignoring me when I spoke to him. But I didn’t say anything, because that seemed like an absolutely ridiculous thing to be irritated over.
But things got weird later. Hours after all five of us bedded down in their guestroom (Husband and I gave the kids the bed and we slept on the floor in front of the door), Little left the room and very stealthily tiptoed into B and K’s room. He stood beside their bed, staring at K. She woke up, around 4:00 a.m., completely surprised to see a little blonde kid staring at her. “Ummm… I hafta’ go potty,” he said. She took him to the bathroom then back to our guest room and went back to bed. Before too long, though, he was back in her room. “I’m hungry.”
Kind K made him some breakfast and let Husband and I sleep. When I got up and heard the story, I asked Little if he’d tried to wake us up before he went to K. “No,” he said.
“It’s fine,” K kept saying. But my mind flashed back on the signs of RAD I’d been learning about, and I just knew this was a sign of “indiscriminate affection with strangers.”
“But it’s K,” Husband said. “He met her yesterday.”
“Yeah, for about half an hour. Don’t you think it’s odd that he went to her instead of you or me? Think back to when you were a kid. If you’d been in a strange house you’d never slept in before, with people you’d never met before, wouldn’t you have asked your parents to help you in the middle of the night? Especially if they were sleeping right beside you?”
“Okay… It is a little weird.”
3) Husband took Middle and Little to the swimming pool in our apartment complex the day he had to take the kids for their first visitation period with their mom. When they got to the pool, there was a lady swimming. As soon as they got into the water, Middle and Little swarmed her, before Husband had even had a chance to scope the lady out to see if she was okay to talk to and if she was open to the kids talking to her. Middle started going on and on about her upcoming visit with their mom. She hugged this lady around her neck as she spoke.
Luckily the lady was a kindergarten teacher and didn’t mind, but it happened so suddenly and without warning. Had she been someone less receptive to children, the situation could have quickly turned awkward or even scary.
We struggle with this every time the pool. Or the store. Or the doctor’s office. The level of intimacy they express with relative strangers is really unnerving at times, and is almost always awkward for Husband and me (luckily it’s not always awkward from the POV of the other adults in the moment).
4) This one’s a little hard to explain, but Middle and Little will miss and/or worry about people and things that they shouldn’t while completely disregarding people they should. For example, Middle misses her first therapist, whom she only saw a handful of times and with whom she didn’t really interact much. She also TERRIBLY misses her great grandmother who passed away… Sometimes even to the point of tears. Just last week she was tearing up in the back over Sarah Bareilles’s song “Brave,” because she said the repetition of “I just wanna’ see you, I just wanna’ see youuuuu” reminded her of her great grandma and how much she wants to see her. But she only met her a few times as well.
Last year, Little told his therapist that he misses J, their mom’s short-term boyfriend that they met during their first supervised visit after they came to live with us. They only spent two weeks interacting with J… Four and five year olds don’t typically cry about people they don’t know and haven’t seen in months or even years.
They’re manufacturing attachment with people who shouldn’t hold any sway over them and actively resisting attachment with Husband, me, and other important adults in their lives.
Another example of this misplaced attachment: about a month ago, I was driving Little home from his intensive therapy program. When we stopped at a major intersection, a lady pulled up next to me and asked me how to get somewhere. I told her I didn’t know and wished her luck. For two days after this, every time we hit that intersection, regardless of which direction we were traveling, he asked, “Where’s that lady who didn’t know where she was going? Did she find her friends? I hope she did. Did she?” When I asked him why he felt so concerned about this person we don’t know, he said, “I’m just worried she won’t find it.”
I told him that it was nice that he wanted the best for her, but reminded him that she was a stranger we really shouldn’t spend time worrying about. He responded with, “But her was my friend and I want to know if she found her friends.” He hasn’t mentioned that lady in a while, but I won’t be the least bit surprised if he asks about her again in the future.
The strange thing here, the thing that really hammers home the abnormality of all this, is that they hardly ever talk about people they should miss and worry about. Like their own mother, who was arrested for assaulting Husband. Middle and Little were three and two at the time, and Husband says they didn’t ask about her for nine days (he even emailed their mom to note his concern that they weren’t talking about her at all).
When we got custody of them, they didn’t talk about her, and they didn’t draw pictures of her… When Middle finally drew a picture of her and told me it was her mom, she later changed the identity of the drawing to her maternal grandmother.
As many problems as she has, she is still their mom, and most children will talk about their mom, draw pictures of her and for her, etc. That’s the “normal” thing you expect, even after the trauma they endured while in her care. But they don’t. In fact, we can go weeks without hearing a word about BioMom.
Turns out, children do react differently to strangers and new situations and their reactions are largely dependent upon their attachment style (which is generally dependent upon the life circumstances the child has experienced). One method that has been used repeatedly to test attachment in young children is the “Strange Situation” experiment developed by Mary Ainsworth.
Husband wasn’t in the country when they were that young so cannot state with certainty when they started showing signs of attachment issues, but we do know that they don’t have a healthy attachment to anyone.
But we are all certainly working on helping them to develop one.