mom of child with reactive attachment disorderBy Forrest Lien, Executive Director of the Institute for Attachment and Child Development and therapist for reactive attachment disorder

Sometimes the behaviors are overt. Other times, subtle. One thing is consistent, however – kids with reactive attachment disorder display maddening behaviors that often affect their primary caregivers (often the mother in our years of experience)—hour after hour, day after day. Hours turn to days. Days turn to years. Years later, the mom feels exhausted, hopeless, and angry.

I’m referring to the effects of the concept of the “nurturing enemy” – an idea I’ve witnessed firsthand throughout my professional career of nearly 40 years.

The primal wound–loss of a biological mother

I read Nancy Verrier’s book The Primal Wound several years ago. Her book made a lot of sense in relation to my work with adopted and foster children. Simply put, kids feel the effects of abandonment by their birth mothers for a lifetime. Mothers carry babies in their womb when attachment begins, can breastfeed, and are in positions for early bonding through these nurturing connections. If a mother neglects, abuses, and eventually abandons her baby, that baby is a person with a “primal wound”. If a mother figure (i.e. adoptive or foster mom) connects with a baby early enough—perhaps right from the hospital—the wound/loss isn’t usually as profound.

3 ways the primal wound/nurturing enemy plays out in the home:

1. In our work at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, most of the children we work with have a psychological battle with their mother figures. These are the women—usually adoptive mothers—who do all they can to attach to their children. Due to their past experiences with their biological mothers, children with reactive attachment disorder see maternal figures as threats and push them away through a variety of behaviors.

2. The father often believes the problem lies with his wife rather than the child with reactive attachment disorder. Kids with reactive attachment disorder have keen abilities to superficially charm others, including their fathers. The father doesn’t often see the consistent “push back” behaviors towards the mother. Yet, he often recognizes his wife’s anger and frustration toward the child. Unfortunately, many marriages suffer as a result of this dynamic.

3. The mother becomes an entirely different parent—someone she never wanted to become. In a child’s mind, this angry and exhausted mom feels like a threat. The child determines in his mind, “If I relinquish parental control to this mom, she will hurt or leave me too.” As a result, this relationship only perpetuates the child’s fear of close emotional relationships.

4. The mother feels alone. While the mother certainly feels the burden of her child’s behaviors, the rest of her support systems—including her husband, parents, and many therapists, etc.—don’t see it at all. The mother feels isolated and “crazy”. This is when adoption disruption and divorce may occur.

I understand how moms wince when I refer to them as the ‘nurturing enemy’. It’s certainly not the idea women had in mind when they once daydreamed about adoption. It’s important for these moms to understand that they are not to blame and aren’t alone.

If you’re a parent in this situation, make sure to reach out to others who understand. Please contact us or reach out to other parents on our Facebook page, other social media pages, or search for support groups in your area.

(Qualifier: When the father figure is the day-to-day primary caregiver for the child, he can also act as the “nurturing enemy. However, I have yet to come across this uncommon dynamic in nearly 40 years of work as the mother often fulfills such a role.)




ABOUT THE AUTHOR: For over 15 years, Nichole has helped to raise awareness of critical nonprofit programs and services in Arizona and Colorado. With a passion for family and healthy child development, Nichole has helped to connect thousands of adoptive and foster parents with one another and with resources and advocacy tools for their families. Nichole earned a Crisis Communication Certification (2017) and is on PRSA’s Association/Nonprofit Social Media Committee. Nichole holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism (University of Arizona) and a Master of Education (Regis University) and has been with IACD since 2012.

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