Taking Attachment for Granted
What adoptive Solo Moms need to know about attachment
Experts say attachment issues are present in every foster and adopted child. This can create lifelong challenges. Attachment is a cycle of trust that has been disrupted for these children. Parents must take extra steps to establish healthy bonds with children who have been fostered or adopted.
Attachment, the bond between child and primary caregiver, is taken for granted in biological families. That’s in part because attachment starts neurochemically in the womb. The mother’s emotional state and how she cares for herself affect the baby’s brain development and, therefore, the baby’s ability to attach.
Why is attachment important?
Ideally, when babies are born, they are given to a caregiver who holds and feeds them, providing nurturing sounds, sights, touch, and scents. Over and over again, when the baby cries out in distress, the caregiver meets the child’s need, thus building this bond. This trust cycle lets the baby’s brain know he or she is safe in the world. It stimulates brain development and provides the foundation for this little person’s ability to regulate as he or she synchronizes his or her breathing and emotional state to the caregiver. This primary relationship between caregiver and child is the prototype for all future relationships.
What we know about attachment
The study of attachment started in the 1950s. As research progressed during the ’70s, ’80s, and particularly in the last decade, it has become clear that the quality of our attachment plays a huge role in our brain development. The damaging or breaking of that cycle of trust can cause neurological damage, resulting in behavior challenges, learning issues, and great difficulty functioning in the world. Not to mention, when attachment has been disrupted, as it has for every single foster and adopted child, we no longer view the world as a safe place. That distrust can affect every relationship in our life.
That bears repeating: Attachment, that cycle of trust, has been disrupted or damaged for every single foster and adopted child. In 2005, a diverse group of adoptive parents created the website A4everfamily.org. They wanted to share their stories in the hope of improving the lives of other adoptive families. Most had adopted babies under the age of seven months from different countries and situations. Their common thread was that they all wished they had been better educated about attachment before they adopted. They have all encountered difficulties.
A personal story
I, too, wish I had known more about attachment before I adopted my son. He’s now 11.5, and I got the call from the Division of Child and Family Services when he was just two days old. But I was leaving town in a few days to attend the wedding of my boyfriend’s brother. The social worker arranged for my son to go into foster care while I was gone. I did pick him up at the hospital and take him to the foster family, but I did not bring him home until he was 10 days old. When I think now about that lost bonding time, I am embarrassed that I thought a wedding was more important. When my son turned three and started to have huge tantrums, I began to learn about the impact of his horrific prenatal experience, the huge loss he’d suffered at birth, and how being in foster care for just six days damaged his sense of safety.
The good news is that damaged attachment can be repaired. When a child is placed with you, his or her emotional age is set back to zero. You get to start at the beginning, building that trust, by meeting your child’s needs as if the child was your new baby. If you are fostering or adopting an older child, this can be challenging, since the world expects them to behave at a maturity level commensurate with their age. It is even more challenging when a three-year-old child acts like an infant, and well-meaning family, pediatricians, and educators tell you that all the child needs is more discipline. They may suggest that you withdraw your affection through time-outs, by taking something away, or with a swift smack to the butt. But withdrawal of affection and punishments erode the safety of every parent-child relationship. They are particularly damaging when you are attempting to heal the anxiety and distrust that has become part of your child’s neurological makeup.
What you can do
The best answer is to practice responsive, empathetic parenting (often called therapeutic parenting) by responding to the child’s distress with empathy. Make your connection more important than controlling the child’s behavior. For more information on empathetic parenting, visit Hand in Hand, which helps families build a stronger parent-child connection through its Parenting Connection approach. Here are some additional resources:
In addition, practice daily special time. Give your child a small chunk (5, 10, 15 minutes) of your undivided attention. Set a timer, and follow his or her lead. The child gets to do anything he or she wants—within safety, financial, and time constraints—and you take the less powerful role. Let the child name what this special time is called so he or she can ask for it. This daily special time, even with very young children, will deepen your connection and reinforce that cycle of trust.
You also need to get support for your child. Disrupted and damaged attachment can and does impact the developing brain. Although you may have been told that your child will “grow out” of his or her challenging behaviors, if your Mama gut tells you differently, follow it. Here are more resources:
Finally, get support for yourself. Connect with other foster/adoptive parents on this journey, especially those who have information to share about the importance of repairing attachment. Here are some helpful resources:
We often need the most support in the area of our own healing. We may have to grieve that we are parenting a child with challenges. We may, as well, have to look at our own attachment issues. It has been said that fostering or adopting a child is a gift. It can be the gift of healing for our child and ourselves.
- Attachment issues exist in most, if not all, children who were fostered or adopted.
- Children with attachment issues need extra support.
- As the parent of a child with attachment issues, you need extra support as well.
- You can form close bonds with a child with attachment issues, but it requires extra work.
Photo Credit Shutterstock.com
Kathy Gordon is an adoptive Solo Mom of a beautiful 11-year-old boy. They live in Los Angeles, where she home-schools, acts professionally, and is a certified instructor of Parenting by Connection. Gordon hopes that by sharing their journey, she can make yours a little easier and a lot more fun.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.