The Elusive, Manipulative Adopted Child

Learning how to bond with my daughter, who found comfort in the familiarity of being alone, has come through understanding reactive attachment disorder.
Stephanie Loos/Reuters

My hands hover over the computer keyboard. They are trembling. I hold down the shift key and type the words with intention, saying each letter aloud: “R-e-a-c-t-i-v-e A-t-t-a-c-h-m-e-n-t D-i-s-o-r-d-e-r.” The words “reactive attachment disorder” are memory beads I gather into a pile and attempt to string along on a necklace.

I think back to when Judith, my neighbor who is a psychiatrist, offhandedly threw out the term the first time she met Julia. We were talking about babies who start their lives in orphanages, and she mentioned the disorder. She wasn't suggesting that my daughter Julia showed any signs, but she’d said it was a well-known problem with children who’d been adopted from Romanian orphanages in the '80s and '90s. I remember nodding my head and thinking, Shut up, Judith. We got Julia young. It shouldn't be an issue.

Then, when I raised concerns with Dr. Traister about Julia’s elusive but controlling behavior when she was a toddler, he also mentioned reactive attachment disorder. Did I want a referral to a therapist, he wanted to know.

No, I wanted to be like the other mothers sitting in his waiting room, worrying about a sniffle.

Now I remember something he said: The signs of reactive attachment disorder usually reveal themselves fully when a child reaches five- or six-years-old and they start having trouble in school settings. But when is it too late for a relationship to establish or to reestablish? My daughter was cut off at birth from nurturing and love. There was no one there to soothe her. Just because I want to love her doesn’t mean she’ll let me—or let anyone.

I retrain my eyes on the computer screen. There are scores of hits on “reactive attachment disorder.” I could scroll for days and there would still be things to read. I click through to the Mayo Clinic website. It says:

Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which infants and young children don’t establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers.

A child with reactive attachment disorder is typically neglected, abused, or orphaned. Reactive attachment disorder develops because the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection, and nurturing aren't met, and loving, caring attachments with others are never established. This may permanently change the child’s growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships.

Another source says, "The core feature [of reactive attachment disorder] is severely inappropriate social relating, which can manifest in two ways: 1. Indiscriminate and excessive attempts to receive comfort and affection from any available adult, even relative strangers. 2. Extreme reluctance to initiate or accept comfort and affection, even from familiar adults, especially when distressed."

Bingo. I've often seen this behavior in Julia: She wants to be in control, and she’s more interested in manipulating than in truly relating. In public, Julia is the waving beauty queen, the mayor of wherever, the cheerful, friendly, squeezable, adorable mascot. She runs to adult strangers, hugs them, works the room. She solicits their attention and wraps them around her tiny, agile fingers. She’s good at it. As for children, she shows little interest in them.

Strangers or fleeting caretakers tell me I have the most adorable, delicious, precocious, confident child. Some say she’s the most adorable, delicious, precocious, confident child they've ever encountered. I nod and smile and pretend to share their sentiment, but I keep my thoughts to myself. How can I explain to a stranger that at home this child is distant, elusive, emotionally closed off, and defiant? What stranger will not say, or at least think silently, Really? I don’t see that. It must be you because she’s not like that with me.

But the list I’m looking at is uncanny. If I had been asked to describe Julia, this is the list I would have come up with independently. The child is “superficially charming and engaging, particularly among strangers she feels she can manipulate.” Next, the lists say the child “doesn't have close friends.”

One day, my husband Ricky saw I was trying to play “dolls” with Julia, but I couldn't get her to role-play. He’d casually said, “Maybe she doesn't know how to play with someone else.” At the time I thought it must be me. Maybe I didn't have my heart in it and Julia sensed it. I realize now Ricky’s was a brilliant observation. Julia can keep herself entertained, perhaps longer than a “normal” four-year-old, but the only way she can “play” with someone else is to direct or orchestrate. It is never give-and-take, never back-and-forth.

“Doesn't make eye contact. Has a severe need to control everything and everyone. Is hypervigilant. Is hyperactive. Is lazy performing tasks. Has trouble understanding cause and effect. Has poor impulse control. Chatters incessantly.” Uncanny.

I’m often asked by a teacher or babysitter, “Does she ever stop talking?” I smile because they think Julia is simply a chatty, precocious child. But it’s not like that. She chatters from the moment she wakes to the moment sleep steals her from her worn-out vocal chords. She chatters incessantly at the table, in the car, while she’s playing. She escalates the chatter when Ricky and I start to have a conversation or when the phone rings and I answer it. She uses the chatter to control her environment.

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Tina Traster is a journalist based in Valley Cottage, New York. She has written for The New York TimesParade, and Time Out New York.

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