I have been an adoption educator for over fifteen years. Years ago, adoption educators warned parents that some adopted children were at risk for attachment disorder. They sometimes assured people that if they adopted newborns or at least children who were young enough (18 months or younger, preferably) or from a "good" orphanage, there would be minimal attachment problems. Yet, in my professional and personal experience, I have come to believe that we need to speak about this issue differently, not to instil fear but to help families be well prepared to parent their precious and deeply loved children.

It affects every adopted child

Now, when I teach about attachment, I tell families that every adopted child has experienced a disrupted attachment. Whether you stood in the delivery room and caught your child as she was birthed by her birth mother, whether you adopted a teenager who had been through a dozen foster homes before coming to you, whether your new child survived famine and hardship and the death of his parents before arriving in your home – that child is no longer with the person who gave him or her life. That is the first disrupted attachment. A child, even a pre-verbal child, recognizes that this is the first loss they have experienced.

For many, there is an ongoing sense of abandonment and rejection even when the circumstances surrounding the adoption are optimal (i.e. a birth parent lovingly, with the support of her loved ones, relinquishes care of her child to a couple she has chosen to give her child everything that she cannot at this stage of her life). One writer has referred to this as a "primal wound" (Verrier, The Primal Wound). Children (and even adults) sometimes cannot articulate these feelings, but many adoptees are aware that they experience an unsettling sense of insecurity and fear of loss around relationships.

Acknowledge the loss

It is important to acknowledge that this loss exists and is real. A wise adoptive parent gives space for their child to grieve this loss. An infant may exhibit grief by being fussy for a period of time; a toddler may seem unusually clingy or need a lot of reassurance that you will come back when you leave; an older child may need to talk about their birth family and why they are no longer with them.

At some point a child will want answers about where they came from. One adult adoptee told me that, before finding her birth family, she felt "... like a book, with the first chapter missing. I could understand most of the story, but I still needed to know how it started." Validate your child’s experience and meet the needs they are expressing. If they are young, you may need to make an educated guess about what these are. When they are older, you may also need to suggest what you think they may be feeling and let them know it is OK to feel this way. Remember that adopted children may be reluctant to say something they feel may appear hurtful or disloyal to you, as their adoptive parent.

Understanding attachment

Attachment develops in an optimal parent-child relationship via a cycle. For example, an infant is hungry. He signals this need by crying. The parent comes quickly and recognizes the child has not been fed for awhile. She picks baby up, offering comfort and the needed nourishment. Baby is soothed and realizes that the world as he knows it is a safe place where someone can be trusted to meet his need when he expresses it. Through multiple repetitions of this cycle, a child develops trust and attachment to the parent and a sense that all is well in his world. 

When this cycle is disrupted, however, a child fails to internalize the sense of safety that a loving, consistent, care-giving relationship is meant to establish. This can happen to children for many reasons. A parent may be ill and unavailable for an extended period of time; they may be neglectful, abusive or lacking experience or knowledge in how to meet baby’s needs; they may be absent due to hospitalizations of baby or parent, or due to post-partum depression, etc. When this occurs, to the degree that this occurs, a child may develop an attachment disorder.

Attachment disorder

Attachment disorder essentially occurs when a child has not developed a healthy sense of being able to trust others and internalizes a message that she will need to look after herself because there is no one else who can be depended upon to be responsible for her. This child may appear outwardly charming, outgoing, "together," even quite appealing, but their underlying motivation is to get their needs met themselves. Some common symptoms include:*

  • Resists affection on parental terms
  • Lack of eye contact, especially with parents – will look into your eyes when lying
  • Manipulative – superficially charming and engaging
  • Indiscriminately affectionate with strangers
  • Poor peer relationships
  • Steals
  • Lies about the obvious
  • Lack of conscience – shows no remorse
  • Destructive to property, self and/or others
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Hyper-vigilant/Hyperactive
  • Learning lags/delays
  • Speech and language problems
  • Incessant chatter and/or questions
  • Inappropriately demanding and/or clingy
  • Food issues – hordes, gorges, refuses to eat, eats strange things, hides food
  • Fascinated with fire, blood, gore, weapons, evil
  • Very concerned about tiny hurts but brushes off big hurts

What should we do?

This information is not intended to scare you off adopting. Rather, it is offered so that adoptive parents can be well prepared. Depending on the level of attachment disruption your child has experienced, you may see many or just a few of the characteristics listed above.

If you are adopting a child who has come out of traumatic circumstances of any kind, there is a greater chance that you will cope with some or many of these challenges. Be prepared! Ask your adoption professional to recommend the best current articles and books on this topic for the age of child you are adopting. Read, talk to other families, get good advice, build a support network for yourself, and enlist family and friends to be supportive of strategies that work best for your family’s situation.

Adoptive parents should be proactive in building attachment with their adoptive children. Assume that you are starting from the beginning. Do many of the things that you would do with a newborn, even if your child is older, such as having lots of time for just cuddling and holding, being quick to feed the child when they express hunger, figure out what acting-out behaviours mean for your child and meet the underlying need as soon as you can.

One mom put her 30-month-old internationally adopted daughter back on a bottle for six months, just so she could sit and cuddle and feed her, look in her eyes and say "I love you" at bedtime every night. Some families make sleeping arrangements that keep a child close; often babies sleep in the parental bedroom for a few weeks or months after homecoming. You may wish to consider this for a short period of adjustment with a newly adopted child, depending on their age.

Make a point of having only one or two caregivers (mom and dad) be the people who consistently meet the child’s needs; this communicates that these are the people who will "be there" dependably for the child. If possible, avoid using other caregivers (i.e. daycare or even grandma) until your child is feeling securely attached to you.

Canada offers parental leave benefits to adopting parents. Parents who are eligible and can afford to do so would be wise to utilize this resource to establish bonding with one or both parents in the early months after an adoption. Homeschooling a school-aged child who has recently come to your family can be very beneficial for a period of time, especially if they are still learning the language in your culture (or even just the language of "family").

Discipline with "time-ins" rather than "time-outs" (i.e. "Billy, you are having trouble with not hitting your brother, so please come and sit on my lap for three minutes until you are calm and ready to say sorry and play nicely" instead of, "Billy, if you cannot play without hitting, you will need to go and spend three minutes in your room"). Your calm response will help your child regulate his out-of-control emotions. Time-outs can cause a child with disrupted attachment to feel further rejected and abandoned.

Activities that help promote attachment include things like taking your child swimming (skin-to-skin contact between parent/child enhances bonding), playing ball (reciprocal cooperation), non-competitive games, even going to an amusement park. Building fun memories as a family helps!

Recognize your needs as a parent as well. Children can push your buttons! Children with disrupted attachments may not warm to you as you may have expected. They may push you away, literally and/or figuratively, prefer one parent over another, play you against one another or reject your attempts to love them. Try not to take this personally; remember that this is not about you, it is about the woundedness of this child.

Sometimes, these behaviours make it difficult for parents to attach to their children, especially if the parent had some attachment disruptions of their own in childhood (such as abuse, neglect, abandonment through divorce or death of a parent). If you find yourself struggling, give us a call (1.800.661.9800) and/or see a counsellor to work though this. Your child’s pain may be triggering some of your own. The healthier you are – mentally, physically and emotionally – the more you can offer your child.

If you find that, having tried all of these proactive ways to build attachment, your child’s symptoms remain challenging, I highly recommend finding a competent professional who can help. Not all counsellors are trained in attachment issues, so ask around until you find someone who is familiar with these behaviours. Call us if you need a recommendation (1.800.661.9800).

There are many strategies that can be employed early in your parenting of your adopted child. Learn as much as you can before you receive your child. Do things together to promote attachment in the early days. Pray that the Lord will heal the wounds your child has experienced as you pour your love into them. Take good care of yourself. Do what you can and leave the rest to God.

For more adoption-related information visit our Waiting to Belong

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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