Fostering Emotional Connection: How To Discipline A Child With Reactive Attachment Disorder

Last Updated
April 23, 2023
An example of a foster child turning her back on her adoptive parent

How To Discipline A Child With RAD
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- Establish a strong, secure relationship with the child.
- Clearly communicate rules and consequences for both positive and negative behaviors
- Praise and reward good behavior
- When disciplining, remain calm and avoid raising your voice
- Use time-outs as a consequence for negative behavior.
- Consistency is key
- Avoid physical punishment
- Work with a therapist
- Progress may be slow, but it's important to remain patient

Disciplining a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) can feel like an uphill battle, but it's crucial to remember that you're not alone. With the proper knowledge and approach, you can overcome the challenges and help your RAD child navigate their unique struggles. RAD affects roughly 1% of children. [1] Although it might seem like a small percentage, it translates to many families dealing with this condition.

In this guide, we'll dive into the essential principles and strategies for effective learning how to discipline a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder while avoiding common discipline mistakes that can hinder progress.

An example of a child with reactive attachment

Understanding Reactive Attachment Disorder

Reactive Attachment Disorder is a rare but severe condition impacting a young child's ability to form secure, healthy attachments with primary caregivers, including foster or adoptive parents. It typically develops due to neglect, abuse, or inconsistent care in early childhood. Children with RAD often exhibit a range of emotional and behavioral issues, including trust problems, difficulty regulating emotions, and challenges forming relationships with birth parents or adopted children.

According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine children with RAD are at an increased risk of developing various psychiatric disorders, highlighting the importance of early intervention and appropriate parenting skills and discipline strategies. [2]

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) affects approximately 1.4% of children in the general population. RAD is also more prevalent among children who have experienced early life trauma or neglect, with rates as high as 19% to 40% among children in foster care or institutional settings. [3]

An example of a child with reactive attachment with his back to his primary caregiver

Causes Of RAD

  • Early childhood neglect: A young child who experiences severe neglect, such as a lack of emotional and physical care, is at a higher risk of developing RAD.
  • Frequent changes in caregivers: Multiple changes in primary caregivers, including foster care, can disrupt the formation of a stable attachment, making it difficult for a RAD child to form secure bonds.
  • Abuse: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during early childhood can severely impact a child's ability to trust and attach to caregivers, such as adoptive parents.
  • Prolonged separation from primary caregivers: Extended periods of separation from primary caregivers, such as hospitalizations or parental deployments, can hinder the development of secure attachments.
  • Institutionalization: Foster children raised in institutional settings like orphanages may lack consistent, nurturing relationships, increasing their risk of developing RAD. [4]
Symptoms Of RAD infographic

Symptoms Of RAD

Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder may exhibit a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Emotional withdrawal: A RAD child may appear detached or unresponsive to affection, showing little or no emotion when interacting with primary caregivers.
  • Resistance to comfort: Affected children often resist being comforted, even when distressed or upset, due to their mistrust of caregivers.
  • Difficulty forming relationships: Children with RAD struggle to develop close, lasting relationships with others, including peers and family members.
  • Indiscriminate attachment: Some children with Reactive Attachment Disorder may exhibit indiscriminate attachment, seeking comfort and attention from anyone, regardless of their relationship.
  • Developmental delays: Children with RAD may experience delays in language, cognitive, and social development, often struggling with emotional regulation and expressing their feelings.
  • Behavioral issues: RAD can manifest as aggressive or disruptive behaviors, such as destructive behavior or self-harm, as well as withdrawal in social settings, making it essential for caregivers to help the child understand the consequences of their actions and the importance of physical contact. [4]
An example of a child with reactive attachment refusing to make eye contact

Impact on Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Development

Children with RAD often experience significant emotional, social, and cognitive difficulties. They may have trouble regulating emotions, understanding social cues, and adapting to new situations. RAD can also lead to learning difficulties, academic struggles, and behavioral problems in school settings.

Children with RAD are at an increased risk for other mental health disorders, with 58.5% of children with RAD meeting the criteria for at least one other psychiatric disorder [5]. Studies have shown that children with RAD have significantly lower scores in social competence and higher scores in emotional and behavioral problems than their peers [6].

Cognitive deficits have also been reported in children with RAD, with one study finding that children with RAD scored 15 points lower than the comparison group [7].

An example of a boy with rad

The Importance of Early Intervention

Early intervention is crucial for children with RAD. Research has demonstrated that children who receive appropriate treatment and support are more likely to develop secure attachments and improve their overall functioning [8]. Involving professionals such as psychologists, therapists, social workers, and pediatricians can provide a comprehensive support system for the child and their family.

One study found that children who received attachment-focused therapy showed significant improvements in attachment security, emotional regulation, and behavioral functioning after 12 months of treatment [9].

Foster parents, adoptive parents, and birth parents must understand the child's behavior and develop strategies for deciding consequences, improving emotional health, and implementing behavior modification techniques. Encouraging physical affection and building trust can also help mitigate negative behaviors in children with RAD.

A teen boy with with reactive attachment

Essential Principles for Disciplining a Child with RAD

Discipline for a child with RAD should focus on building trust, promoting attachment, and fostering a sense of safety. Here are some essential principles to keep in mind:

  • Establish predictable routines: Consistency helps children with RAD feel more secure and in control. Implementing daily routines for mealtimes, bedtime, and other activities can provide a sense of stability.
  • Communicate clearly and calmly: Use simple language to explain your expectations and consequences for misbehavior. Avoid yelling or becoming overly emotional, as this may trigger feelings of insecurity in your child.
  • Offer unconditional love and support: Show your child that you care for them, no matter their behavior. Celebrate their successes and provide reassurance during difficult times.
  • Collaborate with professionals: Work with therapists, educators, and medical professionals to develop tailored strategies and interventions for your child. [10]

Effective Discipline Strategies

To effectively discipline a child with RAD, consider implementing these strategies:

  • Remain calm and composed during interactions.
  • Provide clear and predictable routines and boundaries.
  • Use natural consequences that fit the situation.
  • Avoid prolonged consequences that can harm trust.
  • Offer a fresh start after disciplining, to demonstrate your commitment and support. [10]

Discipline Mistakes to Avoid

When disciplining a child with RAD, it is important to avoid these common mistakes:

  • Yelling, lecturing, or becoming emotional.
  • Losing control or engaging in power struggles.
  • Bribing, begging, or negotiating.
  • Believing the child's excuses and backing down. [10]

Supporting Children with RAD in School Settings

Children with RAD may face unique challenges in school settings due to their emotional, social, and cognitive difficulties. To support these children, educators and school staff can:

  • Collaborate with parents and healthcare professionals to develop an individualized education plan (IEP)
  • Provide additional support and accommodations, such as modified assignments or additional time for tasks
  • Foster a positive, inclusive classroom environment
  • Encourage peer interactions and social skills development [11]

Building Trust and Security in Your Relationship

Fostering a sense of safety, trust, and security is essential when disciplining a child with RAD. This can be achieved by:

  • Establishing consistent routines and boundaries.
  • Demonstrating unconditional love and support.
  • Communicating expectations and consequences clearly and calmly.
  • Encouraging open communication and providing a safe space for the child to express their emotions.

Treatment Options for Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Attachment-Focused Therapy

Attachment-focused therapy is a specialized form of psychotherapy designed to help children with RAD develop secure attachments with their caregivers. This type of therapy may involve individual sessions for the child, family therapy sessions, or a combination of both. Techniques used in attachment-focused therapy may include play therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and trauma-focused interventions. [12]

Medication Management

While there is no specific medication for RAD, some children may benefit from medication to manage co-occurring symptoms or conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD. A qualified healthcare professional can help determine if the medicine is appropriate for your child and monitor their progress.

Personal Stories: Navigating the Challenges of Parenting a Child with RAD

Building Trust Through Consistency: Sarah's Journey

Sarah, a mother of two, faced significant challenges when her husband adopted their second child, Matthew, who had been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder. At first, Sarah felt overwhelmed by Matthew's lack of trust and constant testing of boundaries. Determined to help her son, Sarah committed to providing a consistent and predictable environment.

She established routines for Matthew and ensured that consequences for his behavior were predictable and fair. Over time, Matthew began to trust Sarah, and their bond grew more assertive. Her unwavering commitment to consistency helped lay the foundation for a loving and trusting relationship.

Maintaining Patience Through Emotional Outbursts: John's Experience

John, a single father, adopted a young girl named Lily, who had Reactive Attachment Disorder. One of the most challenging aspects of raising Lily was dealing with her intense emotional outbursts. John realized that staying calm and composed during these episodes was crucial for helping Lily feel safe and secure.

He practiced deep breathing exercises and reminded himself of the underlying fear and insecurity driving her behavior. By maintaining his patience and responding with empathy, John was able to support Lily through her emotional turmoil and gradually help her develop better-coping mechanisms.

Balancing the Needs of Siblings: Karen's Family Dynamics

Karen, a mother of three, struggled to balance the needs of her biological children and her adopted son, Ethan, who had Reactive Attachment Disorder. Ethan's challenging behavior often demanded more attention and energy, leaving Karen's other children neglected.

To address this issue, Karen set aside dedicated one-on-one time for her children, ensuring they all felt valued and included. She also encouraged open communication within the family, allowing her children to express their feelings and concerns. Through her efforts, Karen successfully nurtured a supportive and understanding family environment for all her children.


Learning how to discipline a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder demands understanding, patience, and a customized approach that caters to their specific needs. By concentrating on trust, connection, and love, as well as employing effective discipline strategies and sidestepping common errors, parents and caregivers can assist children with RAD in developing healthier emotional, social, and behavioral abilities. Online therapy can also provide valuable support and guidance in this process.


How do you build a bond with a child who has Reactive Attachment Disorder?

Building a bond with a child who has RAD requires patience, consistency, and understanding. Establishing predictable routines, offering unconditional love and support, communicating clearly and calmly, and providing a safe environment for the child to express their emotions can help foster a stronger connection.

Can children with Reactive Attachment Disorder recover?

While there is no guarantee that a child with RAD will fully recover, with appropriate intervention and support, many children can develop healthier emotional, social, and behavioral skills. Early intervention, consistent care, and a loving environment are crucial in helping a child with RAD improve their attachment abilities and overall well-being.

What types of therapy are helpful for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder?

Several therapeutic approaches can be helpful for children with RAD, including attachment-focused therapy, family therapy, and individual therapy. These therapies aim to address the child's emotional and behavioral challenges, promote attachment, and improve family dynamics. It is essential to consult with a mental health professional to determine the most appropriate therapy for your child's specific needs.


  1. Scielo: Management of a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder in the Dental Clinical Setting: A Case Report
  2. National Library of Medicine: Parental Risk Factors among Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder Referred to Specialized Services: A Nationwide Population-Based Study
  3. National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Complex Trauma and Mental Health of Children Placed in Foster Care
  4. Research Gate: Reactive Attachment Disorder
  5. BioMed Central: Mental disorders in foster children: a study of prevalence, comorbidity and risk factors
  6. NLM: Signs of attachment disorders and social functioning among early adolescents with a history of institutional care
  7. Academia: Neurodevelopmental problems in maltreated children referred with indiscriminate friendliness
  8. Research Gate: Challenges to the Development of Attachment Relationships Faced by Young Children in Foster and Adoptive Care
  9. Research Gate: Treatment for Children with Trauma-Attachment Disorders: Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy
  10. University Of Alaska: Teaching Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder
  11. Research Gate: Reactive attachment disorder in the classroom
  12. Academia: Attachment Focused Family Therapy by Daniel Hughes

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