Attachment and Adoption

Thanks to Flipkart, got my copy of ‘Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today’s Parents‘ by Deborah Gray.  Until a year and a half ago, I had no clue what attachment was.  This is shocking in itself because adoptive parents are supposed to be prepared well on attachment, the lack of which is the mother of all adoption related issues!  Okay, in my reading and one ‘parenting as a life skill’ workshop, heard of how trust is developed in a child. But nowhere did anyone in adoption circles here speak of Attachment.  This is a specific concept, beyond the meaning of the word in regular usage.  I have attempted to summarize my readings to keep things in one place for adoptive parents, interested in learning a bit about this concept.  Please note that I am not an expert, just a parent trying to make sense of an important concept and interpreting it as personally applicable.

Attachment means the relationship that develops between a primary caregiver and an infant.  The infant cries for its needs to be fulfilled, the caregiver fulfills the needs and the infant’s satisfaction center gets a strong signal that things are okay in the world.  And an infant with secure attachment grows up to be a confident, happy individual who believes that people are generally good and the world is a good place.  When this circle is broken, anger builds in the infant and the signal the child gets is that adults are not trustworthy and that the world is an unsafe place.  Additionally, the child believes that he/she has to take care of themselves, without their intervention to assist themselves, survival is at stake.  Children who grow up with insecure attachment are likely to have issues with control, jostling for it with the caregivers in their lives.

As you can see, attachment is a process that happens in all children as routine.  This cycle can be broken in biological parenting as well – when the mother is not able to nurse the baby for several reasons, either one party is sick enough to be separated from the other, post partum depression, care givers being different, etc.  It seems like adoptees deal with some level of a break in the attachment cycle, the level of severity being the variable.

Insecure attachment can be ambivalent or anxious.  Children who are ambivalently attached could have problems expressing affection, be disproportionately social with everyone while being diffident with the parents, etc.  Anxiously attached children could have issues separating from their parents, unable to believe that they will return after an absence.

Attachment is normally completed at 18 months – this is critical time parents have to cement the concept of trust biologically in their children.  To me, the first thing that leaps out is that picking a child up should become natural to parenting.  Concepts like Ferberizing (letting the child self soothe, cry him/herself to sleep) seem to run counter to this theory.

Attachment disorder – if one skips over the scary technical word, means that a child has not securely attached to his/her parents.  It can manifest in various ways – the link here shows some symptoms.  If this goes to an extreme, it is called Reactive Attachment Disorder, where children are so distrustful that they detach from hurtful situations mentally, the hurt is so immense to them that how they naturally process a situation is hindered.  This means, they don’t learn what is normally learned from daily life situations, making their emotional maturity different from what one might expect of children their age.

On who attaches, the answer is that the parent and child simultaneously attach to each other.  When the cycle is broken, it becomes the responsibility of the parent to attach.  Since the child has issues with trust, all attachment efforts may be met with resistance, making it more and more difficult for the parent to reach the child.

Some good news, children who are adopted as infants seem to have lesser issues with attachment than older adoptees.  This does not mean that some symptoms will not manifest, but the level of the manifestation differs.  Since adoption parenting is different, attachment is a concept that all adoptive parents need to learn and apply.  Why?  Because ‘regular’ parenting methods do not work with children who are not securely attached.

Parenting is a relationship build on trust.  If the child does not trust that the parent acts for his/her good, then a shift in the parenting perspective is essential to get through to this child.  A punishment can be translated to being yet another rejection on top of all rejections/hurt so far.  To this child, the inherent unfairness hits without any connection to the action that they have done to be meted out a punishment.  The insecurely attached child truly lives in the present – any action a minute ago is done and gone.  And linking up a punishment to the action is not something he/she understands or accepts.

So all this is right and fine – as a parent interested in fostering attachment, what should we do?  The answer is something called Therapeutic parenting.  This requires accepting and understanding that your child might not be as emotionally developed as others his/her age.  And that traditional parenting methods may need tweaks to reach your child.  And that even if your child knows the rules, they may not be able to control their impulses well enough to abide by these rules.

This is an issue with no ‘cure’.  There is no magic pill, just constant reassurance and love to let them know that you will be there.  And teaching them to help manage their feelings, develop better impulse control and boosting their self esteem.  Parents will need to keep expectations on par with the child’s current stage of being.  Any actions that hit at the child’s self esteem will hit hard and fast, going to the core of the child’s feeling of being inadequate or being worthy of love.  And it seems like one needs an infinite amount of ‘good’ instances to fill that deep void in the child and build self esteem.

So far, this book is looking like it will become the second Adoption Bible to me.  Alongside the Adoption Parenting Toolkit book – that one told me about attachment, the core issues in adoption and brought me up several levels in terms of knowledge and other parents’ experiences.

If you are an adoptive parent who did not know of this concept, do check out what they say are some symptoms.  Now, reading things on the internet is dangerous and it is probably human nature to see what one is looking for.  But if 90% of the symptoms look like they are present in one way, shape or form, please get some professional help/advice based on the details of your case.

If you are a parent of a young child, it is tempting to get into denial mode and pooh-pooh the biological connection.  Believe me, I have been there.  And wondered what people were making such a fuss about, about how such a short time could have such long term outcomes.  If you are in this mode, don’t try to pull yourself out for me!  Do try and build self esteem proactively in your child – maybe this will prevent you from having any/too many issues with your child.  In any case, building self esteem can’t hurt.  And this in itself has aspects of therapeutic parenting.

And if you are a parent whose world is being blown apart bit by bit by a child showing signs of attachment disorder – count yourself to be lucky.  Children can go through life with issues and parents can have no clue.  That your child is showing you what’s happening in him is a great sign – the child has enough space to express things to you and by responding with empathy, you will be building trust.  Please do not be dismissive/critical of your child – they know what they are supposed to do but can’t seem to help themselves.  You, dear parent,  are not alone.

Some resources that are of help to me:

Attachment Disorder Maryland

An article on what to do to facilitate attachment with small children

Christine Moers on Facebook

Dr. Bruce Perry

Post Adoption Central – An attachment leaflet that explains to teachers how a child with early childhood developmental differences could be feeling.  With pictures.  A lovely, lovely aid.  And other publications.

Book reference: The Family of Adoption by Joyce Maguire Pavao

Some things I have learned to DO that might be of help in the big picture and long term is at another post here.

Caveat repeated: I am no expert, please consult a professional for advice that you can hang your hat on.

11 thoughts on “Attachment and Adoption

  1. Hi Sangi,
    Beautifully summerised writeup on attachment :)

    I am not an expert either, my two paisa worth:
    Parenting itself is an Eye Opener..
    so, why not parent WITH open eyes?

    Like a plant shows signs of not getting enough water, the child too shows behavioural signs for the parent to pick up & attend to..
    Isn’t Nature beautiful .. has a language of its own? :)


  2. Thanks, Radha. It means a lot coming from you.

    Yes, absolutely, parenting to pick up the cues your child gives you is the only way to go. Was kicking myself the other day for not picking up on some more-than-normal terrible twos.

    Parents need to stick to their intuition too – I believe that an aware parent knows their child much better than anyone else.

  3. Loved reading it . Attachment is so crucial in any relationship , for a child whose world is just around the parents , attachment becomes all the more important….intuition plays a large role in understanding what the child needs and how much attention and at what time is needed…what kind of communication is required…

  4. Pingback: Adoption challenge reading « Life and Times in Bangalore

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  6. Hey, I also read “Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew by Sherrie Eldridge”. It for Kids who are above 10. I must have read it atleast 3 times and every time I could relate to it in a diff way.

  7. Pingback: Knowledge is power. Links to books and more. | Desis Adopting in the US

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