We have a horrible local news story in which an older lady was kidnapped from a shopping mall by two young men, driven to another area and forced to withdraw money from an ATM and buy beer. At the convenience store, a witness discerned that the lady was in trouble and, pretending to know her, hugged her and whispered, "Do you need help?" She let the witness know that she did. Police were called right after the young men left with the lady but as they sped away, they crashed the car, killing the unfortunate woman.
The people in this area are outraged about this. Poor thing, she must have been terrified. By all accounts she never harmed a soul. I asked a lawyer friend of mine, who is also an old cop, "What would possess these young men to think they could just inject themselves into another person's life just because they want to?" She shrugged and responded quietly:
"Reactive Attachment Disorder."
Now, I am not a mental health professional and don't pretend to have the training to diagnose reactive attachment disorder, or, RAD. However, I can share with you that a lot of my GAL kids have been diagnosed with this syndrome. It is not a happy diagnosis.
Speaking strictly as a layperson, my understanding is that children up to age three who are abused, neglected and/or have frequent caregivers sometimes (not always!) develop this disorder. The ramifications are severe. As it has been explained to me, a child under the age of three must first bond with a parental figure as a necessary step in developing a conscience. Once the child has bonded with a parental figure, the child wants to please him, which eventually results in the child developing empathy and a code of ethics. Bonding with a sibling or a cat is better than nothing and he might develop a bit of empathy. However, it is the bonding with a parental figure before age three that is needed to develop a conscience. Now, I am sure this is not exactly correct - this is just my working understanding of RAD which is enough for the type of work I do.
What are behaviors associated with reactive attachment disorder? Children with RAD can't form normal interpersonal attachments and you tend to see a host of behaviors as a result. These frequently include stealing, lying, cruelty to animals and other people, avoidance of eye contact, and a refusal to express affection with family members, destruction of property, gorging of food, abnormal speech patterns, lack of remorse, impulsivity, inappropriate sexual behavior, role reversal, and overactivity - See Kay Hall & Geher (2003).
We've all read about the adoptees from the orphanages of Russia or other Eastern European countries who are brought to America where they then wreck havoc on their adoptive families to the point where the parents seek to have the courts allow them to relinquish custody and their parental rights. These are the children who have languished in orphanages, sometimes for years, without human touch or normal interaction. RAD often results. Adoptions from some countries have been severely restricted due to the prevalence of this disorder.
It is that bad.
One additional symptom of RAD that catches some by surprise is that these children often express indiscriminate affection towards relative strangers. Whereas normal children are able to discern between her parents and strangers, a child with RAD may go to any and everyone with a smile on their face. When I meet someone who has adopted a child out of foster care and they go on and on about how friendly the child is, how he never met a stranger, etc., my heart stops. I'm certainly not saying that a friendly child has RAD. NOT saying that! But RAD kids would just as soon go home with the guy they met at McDonalds as they would their parents. This strips a child of certain built in protections so being exploited by sexual predators is not unheard of, as if these children don't have enough problems.
Don't assume that because these children lack the ability to bond or empathize that they don't actually like people. Likewise, when a con artist takes the life savings of a sick old person, chances are, he isn't motivated by rage or hate. He probably just wanted her money. He'd steal her cancer pain medication to sell if he thought he could slip it past her without a lot of trouble. And he'd do it with no more remorse than a Blue Jay.
When you are talking about is a sociopath, you're talking about an individual with no conscience and no sense of empathy for others. At best, they have learned to mimic socially acceptable behavior. Many can be charming and have learned to fake emotions, including compassion, love and kindness. Unfortunately, many of these ruthless people may be willing to poison the neighbor's dog, steal anything that isn't tacked down, cheat on their mate, spend their children's college fund, or, in extreme cases, kidnap and kill an elderly lady from a shopping mall so she'll pay for their beer. Internally, nothing exists to stop them.
It is hard for many of us to fathom that there are actually people out there who would steal from us or harm us and not lose a lick of sleep over it. When I did some criminal law, I saw this all the time. There are individuals out there who are completely devoid of empathy walking the same streets as those heroes among us who would give their lives for others. Sociopaths can spot the difference because they are aware there IS a difference. As I said, sociopaths aren't motivated by rage so much as self interest. They will seek out the weak and the gullible, avoid the strong and skeptical.
The prognosis is not good for RAD kids. The way you typically socialize RAD children is by imposing consistent external controls. Unfortunately, when you have a child born to a crack mama who passes him off to whomever will take him, by the time auntie or grandma (or foster care) becomes involved, it may be too late. Moreover, in a household where there are few rules or rules that are inconsistently imposed, TOO flexible routines, people who come in and out of the child's life, these kids, who are already lacking a conscience, don't even have the benefit of proper socialization to help them to learn how to adapt to civilized society.
Sociopaths don't have a normal childhood and suddenly, as an adult, morph into this mindset. They never had a conscience to begin with. A lot of perfectly normal children who have not yet developed good sense and do a lot of stupid things. Bill Cosby used to say that teenagers were brain damaged. He may be on to something. For these children, blessedly, maturity will take care of most of it. The RAD kids - well - that is a different situation.