Eye contact plays a key role in the diagnosis and treatment of Reactive Attachment Disorder.  It is the first on the list of Common Symptoms of Insecure Attachment by the Attachment Institute of New England – “Poor Eye Contact (except when lying, manipulating or acting violently).”

Nancy Thomas, in her Letter for Teachers insists on establishing eye contact as “often as the opportunity presents itself” and Jessica Murphy, in Reactive Attachment Disorder: A Summary for Teachers advises “Always require that the student maintain eye contact when you are talking to them or when they are talking to you, even during simple interactions like the student asking to go to the bathroom.”

But, why?  Sitting in a recent IEP meeting, I felt I needed something more than the proverbial ‘the eyes are a window to the soul’ when explaining the inadvisability of a teacher’s speaking to the back of a Rad child’s head when giving instructions.  Murphy continues to reason that

Students who have RAD will often avoid eye contact unless the eye contact will serve to get them what they want.  At the same time, without eye contact, chances are greater that the student will misread the teacher’s emotional cues (thinking that the teacher is angry).

Since my own daughter suffers from acute anxiety, in particular, fears that her teachers are angry at her, that one really hit home.

Eye contact has played a significant role in every attachment therapy session we have participated in with our daughter.  It is also a cornerstone of our therapeutic parent training.  Nancy Thomas, Therapeutic Parenting Specialist, considers eye contact, along with smiles and sharing sugar, a key element in bonding between mother and child.  Radkid.org uses the ‘soul’ analogy to dig further into the how and why:

Eye contact is not simply looking at your child. You should strive to look into his soul with eyes that are rested, loving, and powerful. Loving yet powerful eyes send a message to the child that he is safe, and that he is okay. In order to break through the wall that the RAD kid has built up around his heart this message will have to be repeated over and over, until well after he is healed.

As many of those who have parented a RAD kid know, eye contact can be a powerful expression of love, and it can also be a weapon. Be aware of how you use it. Hard, angry eyes will do more harm than good. Never forget that this is what he does in an effort to push you away.

New neuroimaging studies now lead us to an even greater understanding of just what is going on when we look into those troubled eyes.  According to Abner Ravenwood in his article The Eye Contact Effect:  Mechanisms and Development, eye contact helps to fix attention, increase general arousal, decrease awareness of peripheral distractions, and increase activity in several areas of the brain directly related to social interaction.

In their review of Ravenwood’s article, Mind Hacks summarizes that “…recognizing eye contact and following the gaze direction of others are thought to be some of the most fundamental building blocks on which social communication develops in babies.”  Those of us with adopted children know that our kids missed out on a lot of this as infants.  The good news is, there are no limits on what brains and souls can do to grow and heal.

eye contact

So, here’s looking at you, kid.


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