Teenage Boy Smoking

Why RAD Teenagers Often Need Wilderness Therapy

Teenagers With Reactive Attachment Disorder Often Require Intensive Wilderness Therapy
BY Garret Bolthouse

Families with teenagers who have been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) are often put into the position of living fearfully in their own home. Most of the families we serve in this situation have been so manipulated by their own child that they have trouble sorting out what’s true and what’s not.

Hallmarks of the disorder include explicit or veiled threats, excessive and aggressive need for control, manipulation on an almost genius level, inability to connect or empathize with other human beings, sexual promiscuity, reactivity and perpetration (including on their own family members), inability to trust other human beings at all, hoarding food, anger, rage and violence.

Some of our hardest cases, bar none, come from families with RAD teenagers. Why? Their disorder is literally built into their DNA. From a very early age, these kids depend so heavily on their ability to manipulate and control their world that it becomes almost like a drug, they become physically and emotionally dependent. As their dependency grows, it becomes a part of their physical growth as children. A deep and enduring need to survive, fear, and rage at the world exists at the very core of their being. Breaking these teenagers of their manipulative habits and freeing them of the need for control is often a long, hard road. Healing will most likely require a level of expertise that only exists in a very small corner of the mental and behavioral health world.

Where Does Reactive Attachment Disorder Come From?

Reactive Attachment Disorder starts around the time of birth. Sometimes it can even begin in the womb. Babies naturally require love, care, and attention, and mothers play a crucial role in creating mentally and emotionally healthy babies. Both in and out of the womb, children need to feel loved, safe, that they will be cared for and have their needs met, and they will attach emotionally to the person who provides that for them — because that’s how they naturally survive. Learning to trust other human beings truly begins at birth. In most cases, the person who provides the love and care that a child needs is mom.

When children don’t receive the love, care and attention that they truly need as babies, they are forced at a very early age to rely on themselves for survival, and no one else, period. That’s why teenagers with Reactive Attachment Disorder have a very hard time trusting anyone, connecting emotionally with anyone, and hoarding food. One of the ways RAD kids try to connect emotionally with others is through sex, often seeking connection but never getting it. They need to survive, they need to rely on their own manipulation skills, and they need to connect, but can’t seem to do it in normal human relational ways.

RAD is generally (but not always) exhibited among adopted and foster children. If the child lived in an orphanage for any period of time as a baby, they will most likely exhibit some level of Reactive Attachment Disorder. In extremely underserved places like Russia and Ukraine, it’s almost impossible for these kids to not develop the disorder. In fact, Russian law currently does not allow adoptions in the United States, partly due to politics, but also partly due to the number of Russian-born RAD kids that are now being placed into programs in the United States. Russia claims American parents are dumping children into programs, but our own experience with parents tells us that these kids will either need a mental and behavioral health rehabilitation now, or they will get the help they need in a jail cell.

Anecdotes from Families We Have Served

As we have traveled throughout the country, we have gotten the chance to speak to many families about Reactive Attachment Disorder. Many of the cases we come across are Russian and Ukranian-born adoptees. However, in one case, a mother could not point to any reason for their child’s development of RAD, until we started asking questions about the child’s birth. Turns out the child was born to a surrogate, who probably had no care or concern for the child during pregnancy. It’s most likely the case that the child was never able to attach to his biological parents.

Other stories include a family struggling with their young RAD girl, adopted, who was throwing fits of rage, threatening violence and could no longer live at home. She was failing to focus on her schoolwork with Grandma, and we pointed out that she was probably having trouble with her schoolwork because she was spending all of her mental energy trying to control her situation — something they had never thought about before.

Our most harrowing story was that of a family who adopted several children out of the Texas foster care system. Texas failed to tell the parents before the adoption that the kids had been sexually trafficked for an extended period of time, even though the parents told the State that they could not take sexually reactive kids. So the parents were horrified to find out, without any previous knowledge, that these kids were acting out sexually among their peers and among themselves. Because the adoption had already been finalized, the parents had no legal recourse against the State.

How Wilderness Therapy Can Help, and Why a Therapeutic Boarding School May Not Be Enough

Nature is a great teacher, particularly regarding self-sufficiency, relationships and consequences. Wilderness therapy works by breaking down the manipulative dependencies that RAD kids have on their environment, their family, their friends and the world. In nature, there are consequences, and you cannot depend on the manipulation of others to survive. As these kids spend a significant amount of time away from the people and the environment they depend on to survive emotionally, their world now replaced with the harsh realities of nature, and having to confront themselves in order to make it, they begin the process of looking inward toward their own thought patterns and behavior. Once they reach this point, trained professionals can help RAD teenagers recognize their position, cope with their reality, and build healthier ways of dealing with their pain into their lives.

Many parents begin the process of getting help for their child by finding a reputable Therapeutic Boarding School or Residential Treatment Center that is qualified to help their child. What they will find in the process, usually, is that most programs in the United States cannot take violent, extremely manipulative kids or runaway risks. RAD teenagers require a level of care and supervision that only a few programs in the country can truly meet. We work with several programs that treat these kids every day, we can help you find an appropriate program that may meet the criteria for care required for your RAD teenager. However, a therapeutic boarding school program is usually not enough to enact change in your teenager’s life. Most programs require these kids to pass through a wilderness therapy program first. As part of the wilderness treatment assessment, RAD kids are often required to pass a lie detector test before they can move out of the program.


The reality is that in some cases, RAD teenagers will never fully attach to their parents and will live a hard life of disconnected relationships. Because RAD is built into the DNA of teenagers, it can be very difficult to help kids recognize their need for help. It’s not a hopeless situation for sure, just a very difficult one for parents. If you can catch it early enough, and treat the disorder with trained professionals, there is plenty of hope that your child will live a full, joyful life. At the very least, wilderness therapy can help students recognize their reality and cope with their emotional disconnectedness in much healthier ways than they may have been doing so previously. We can help you find an appropriate program that may meet the criteria for care required for your RAD teenager. Or find someone who knows the right questions to ask and listen to what they have to say, it may just save your teenager’s life.

DISCLAIMER: This article is not intended as medical advice and should not be used as a basis for diagnosis. We are in no way a substitute for a licensed doctor or therapist. For medical diagnoses, please consult with a psychiatrist and have your child evaluated. If your child is presently suicidal or threatening physical harm to their self or others, call 911 immediately.

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