How to deal with attachment issues

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My 11-year-old ran toward me when she saw I’d hurt my finger. Leading me by the elbow, Olivia sat me down to examine the wound. She gently disinfected the cut, applied a bandage and offered a kiss. I was moved by her tenderness. She’d been at high risk for an attachment disorder. An adopted child, she had been with three other families in her first three years of life. In those early days, I wondered if we’d ever have a bond like the one I shared with my biological sons. We’d come a long way.

Attachment between a parent and child is crucial—it leads to positive emotional development and a sense of security. It also profoundly influences the relationships a child has with others. In fact, poor attachment changes the brain, leading to learning and behavioural difficulties and making healthy relationships seem impossible. Because attachment suffers when needs aren’t met, many adoptive parents worry about whether they can make up for a child’s early experiences. Some therapists believe every adopted child’s attachment is affected; after all, the woman who carried the child is not the main caregiver. Even if a child was adopted as an infant and shows no signs of an attachment disorder, they say feelings of loss, grief and shame can surface years later.

two little boys on a teetertotter at the parkWhen will I start feeling like my adopted sons’ mother?

Attachment issues can show up in countless ways. Babies may be uninterested in affection, never make a sound or cry for hours; older kids may be exceedingly charming and manipulative. When we adopted four siblings from the foster care system, we dealt with everything from hoarding food and extreme anger to separation anxiety and charming strangers in case they needed a new family. (At age four, Olivia asked every adult she met if they were her new parent.) It’s worrisome when babies make no sound, avoid touch or don’t follow caretakers with their eyes. Lying, showing little empathy and having an inability to play may indicate an attachment disorder in older kids.

To strengthen emotional bonds, parents need to be predictable, sensitive and deliberate in their nurturing—this helps kids understand their needs will always be met. Another approach is to give kids what they’ve missed—literally. I’d often joke around, carrying my kids like babies, but as they laughed they’d also mewl, regressing into infants in order to receive something they’d longed for. Sometimes we’d turn a blanket into a hammock, and holding the ends, we’d swing each child while singing to them. Our nine-year-old son loved to be cradled, while our seven-year-old daughter liked to be swaddled in a towel after a bath. We followed their lead. Slowly brushing their hair or applying lotion, running to them if I heard them crying, scooping a last bite of food into their mouths when we were rushed—all of it strengthened our bond.

For our family, attachment was a lengthy process, but even if small signs of disrupted attachment still surface during times of stress, watching my daughter lovingly bandage my finger reminds me that despite all odds, Olivia did learn to love and connect.

Read more:
Adoption diary: “When will you get a baby?”
What it’s like to foster 115 kids

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