Today's Isolated Kids = Tomorrow's Killers?

Every human being needs to feel connected - attached - to other human beings around them. It's an innate craving we all have and cannot fight. The hunger for attachment begins with infants who bond with their mother's soothing voices, tender caresses and nurturing care. It's through this kind of attention the child comes to know the feelings of being safe and protected. The quality of the early bonds children form with adults in their world will affect every relationship they'll have for the rest of their lives.

Sadly, some children never get the love they need to grow into healthy, empathetic, trusting people. As they grow they form their own protective shield to keep out the rest of the world. They have no trust in others and their behavior often turns self-destructive and even criminal.

What ails this unfortunate group now has a name: Reactive Attachment Disorder. It's a fairly new addition to the American Psychiatric Association's book that lists every recognized psychiatric disorder known to man - The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The professionals say RAD, as it's called, this isn't just a trendy diagnosis du jour. They've discovered that young children who fail to form meaningful bonds, those who display early aggression and anti-social behaviors, often grow up to be sociopaths and turn to lives of crime.

In other words, RAD kids are the potential criminals of tomorrow. If we would only dedicate time and money to serve the needs of these children today we might all be spared their wrath, their potentially deadly deeds, in the future.

"If you see a serial killer chances are very strong they were a RAD kid," says Jay Pullen, Executive Director of The Attachment Healing Center in Albuquerque. He mentions convicted Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh as likely being a RAD sufferer. I mention serial killer and cannibal, Jeffery Dahmer.

Pullen says it's fairly easy to diagnose RAD children as they often display a wide range of similar behaviors: setting fires, making violent threats, smearing feces, killing animals or stealing food as a way to combat their early memories of being left hungry. All these behaviors are designed to repel other people so they can more comfortably retreat into their solitary shell.

Director Pullen is quick to say RAD is not a life-time curse, there are successful ways to treat these kids. All it takes is time, money and the determination to help.

States from New Mexico to Missouri, from California to New York are desperately searching for ways to lessen the plight of neglected children. The motivation perfectly captured in this quote from former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz of Minnesota's Supreme Court, "the difference between that poor child and a felon, is about eight years."

There may be no other time in history when so many children are separated, ignored or neglected by the very people who are supposed to love them the most. According to the Children's Defense Fund record numbers of kids are shuffled between foster homes these days or are reported to be victims of emotional and sexual abuse. If a parent is depressed or angry or addicted it's likely their children aren't getting the nurturing they need.

You may think you're not affected by Reactive Attachment Disorder but Pullen says nothing could be further from the truth. Your tax dollars go to deal with RAD kids once they enter the justice or adoption system. When you see graffiti on the side of a building, a neighbor's home damaged by an arson fire or when your child's classroom is repeatedly disrupted by the disordered child, Reactive Attachment Disorder does affect you and yours.

Pioneering in-house treatments have been devised to help willing parents learn the most effective way to deal with these self-sabotaging children. One mother of a RAD child had to learn to ignore her daughter's chilling notes. One the girl taped to the foot of her bed read, "I'm going to slash your throat with a butcher knife." Instead of reacting negatively to that as she tucked in the child the mother learned to say instead, "Yes, I see that. Now, hop into bed we have to get you off to school in the morning." That kind of statement acknowledges the youngster's message but reinforces trust by presenting the idea that parent and child are part of a team.

The experts on RAD say it all comes down to neurologically re-wiring these kids to break their bad behavior cycles. In cases where parents are at the crux of the problem RAD therapists recommend removing the children to a more nurturing environment. Foster and adoptive parents are often these kids best hope.

We ignore these troubled children at our own peril. If we don't help them assimilate now they could come back to grab our attention in much more serious and dangerous ways.

Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site: