Disciplining a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Disciplining a child with reactive attachment disorder, RAD, can be hard. Discover discipline’s purpose and get helpful tips on HealthyPlace.

Disciplining a child with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) requires understanding, perspective, and patience. While this applies to disciplining any child, it is especially important for kids with RAD. These children were so severely neglected as infants or toddlers that they never formed a bond with a parent or caregiver. Lack of attachment to a loving adult is damaging. When disciplining a child with reactive attachment disorder, the emotional, social, and behavioral deficits are particularly clear. Helping a child with RAD learn rules and behavior skills is challenging and often exhausting, but armed with the right information, you can do just that.

A child with RAD is difficult because of the lessons they were forced to learn as babies. When a very young child learns though their experiences that they can’t count on their caregivers for security and safety, they withdraw into themselves for self-protection. They are unable to trust. They can’t bond with anyone. They form the belief that people are unreliable and the world is cruel and unsafe. For this reason, when you discipline a RAD child, you need understanding, perspective, and patience.

See: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) Symptoms

 Here’s a look at how to discipline as child with reactive attachment disorder.

How to Discipline A Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder

What is Most Important?

Looking beyond the misbehavior to understand its purpose will allow you to discipline in a RAD-friendly manner. These children misbehave because they’re dominated by fear and insecurity and they don’t know how to deal with their feelings—and they don’t know how to reach out or ask for help. Your purpose in disciplining your child is to help them feel safe and secure.

 The overarching themes of disciplining children with RAD are trust, connection/bonding/attachment, and love. Without a sense of safety, though, the other purposes of discipline can’t be met; further, your child can’t care about bonding and love until they feel they can trust you. Ways to meet your child’s needs for safety include:

  • Setting limits and boundaries to make your child’s world more predictable and less scary
  • Creating reliable routines so your child feels more in control
  • Be straightforward and clear in what you expect of your child, the behavior that is unacceptable, and the consequences for misbehavior

As a parent or caregiver of a child with RAD, safety, security, trust, clarity, and predictability are your guiding stars. When you discipline from this perspective, your emotions and interactions will help you stay steady as you discipline your child with reactive attachment disorder.

Discipline Tips to Use When Teaching A Child with RAD

Children with RAD require a discipline approach tailored to their unique needs and effects of their lack of attachment to a caregiver. These tips and strategies will help you discipline your child while minimizing emotional reactions.

  • Remain calm in your interaction. Becoming emotional (yelling, having angry expressions and posture, etc.) will make your child feel insecure, unsafe, and unable to trust you.
  • Begin a fresh start after disciplining. It builds trust and a sense of safety and shows your child that you’ll always be there, no matter what.
  • Maintain limits firmly but gently.
  • Use natural consequences. If, for example, your child refuses to take their lunch to school, they can eat the school lunch or be hungry until dinner time.
  • All consequences given should fit the present moment. Consequences that extend for days are ineffective and can make kids with RAD think they’re being “punished” forever; consequently, they are likely to withdraw and destroy the trust you’ve been building.

Guided by these principles, you’ll be able to establish your limits and consequences for positive discipline. Additionally, there are important discipline don’ts when working with children with RAD.

To Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Avoid Doing These Things

The following parent behaviors don’t work on kids with reactive attachment disorder. They can make your child’s behaviors and emotions worse because they undermine safety, security, and trust.

To help your child with RAD, avoid these discipline behaviors:

  • Yelling
  • Lecturing
  • Reasoning
  • Negotiating
  • Multiple warnings or reminders
  • Bribing or begging
  • Losing control
  • Becoming emotional
  • Get tangled in a power struggle (kids with RAD need control and will often stop at nothing to get it)
  • Believing their excuses and backing down (children with RAD are notorious liars, usually out of self-protection)

Because of what they’ve been through and the crucial attachment window they missed, kids with RAD have a very self-protective approach to their lives. Keeping their experiences and needs at the forefront will help you provide the discipline and guidance your child needs in a way that works for both of you.

Simple insight for how to discipline your child with reactive attachment disorder: Breathe deeply, and keep in mind that behind their behavior is a need for safety, trust, and security.

article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2022, January 11). Disciplining a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 16 from

Last Updated: January 16, 2022

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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