Attachment and Adoption

Attachment. Most go through their day to day lives without an understanding of terms such as “secure attachment”, or “insecure attachment” or “reactive attachment disorder”. So why is “attachment” on my radar? For one reason, I have learned a little about the utter importance of attachment as it relates to child development in my social work training. But that was several years ago in my BSW program. More recently, as friends and acquaintances adopt or are attempting to adopt, attachment is a major topic.

What is an attachment disorder? This article by an adoption educator is excellent! Click here to read the whole thing. Here’s a brief explanation:

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.

Several years ago, I volunteered to help run a VBS program. There was a little girl from the community who came the first day. She checked out all of the adults and then chose me to try to be close to while at VBS. Within 30 minutes of meeting and hanging out with her, she took my hand and asked me, “will you be my mommy?‘ My heart melted. I was so flattered at the time. Now, learning about attachment, I reflect on that experience differently. This was a little girl (not adopted), who was a latch key child, who was not able to relax and go and play with the other children. No, instead, she was motivated to get her needs met for adult attention by asking me to be her mommy.

I work with a Child Psychiatrist. In her years of practice, she has come across the devastating effects of attachment disorders. The vast majority are children who were adopted. While most were adopted as toddlers and older, in one case the child was adopted as a newborn! This shocked and surprised me. I have also been made aware of the devastating effects of attachment difficulties. I have worked with several teens with attachment disorders and it is heart breaking. I wish so badly that I could give them back their early years , I know their current difficulties stem from not having their basic needs met in those formative years. While attachment problems certainly can happen in children who are not adopted, the vast majority that I have come in contact were.

I appreciate the following blog post (and the comments!) regarding how ill prepared many who adopt internationally are in regards to attachment and other adoption related challenges. Several who have adopted chime in and state that they have been surprised to realize that their attachment work with their child will last for years. They expected, at most,  to experience 1-3 months of attachment work when first home. Here’s the blog post from “Scooping It Up”, it’s really worth the read: Agency and Social Work Fail.

The fact that adoptive parents are beginning to open up and talk about attachment difficulties related to adoption is a step in the right direction. Adoption agencies and social workers do a disservice to the child and new parents by not educating and preparing them for attachment difficulties. It may be helpful to be prepared for the worst case scenario re: a child’s attachment so that appointments with professionals are booked for when the child comes home. Prospective parents should also receive training re: attachment being a two-way street. Sometimes the adopted child does not have difficulty attaching to their new parents but it’s the parent(s) who find it difficult to attach to the child. “Fake it till you make it” has been a motto for these types of situations.

Attachment and adoption: its a topic that needs more understanding for adoptive parents, their family members, and their extended communities. Hopefully, with more understanding, the shame surrounding attachment difficulties related to adoption may be lifted. Then, and only then, will a newly adopted family feel less isolated. Then they will begin to receive more casserole dishes and less judgement in their time of need.

4 thoughts on “Attachment and Adoption”

  1. This is such a huge and important topic. After learning and reading for our own adoption, it’s also made me reflect on my experiences at an orphanage in Honduras several years ago. I found it so charming and “cute” that a little girl grabbed my hand as soon as got there and didn’t leave my side the whole time. Looking back, I imagine she had gone through a lot of trauma and attachment difficulties and was going into survival mode to charm her way into getting her basic needs met. I also wonder if mission teams showing up, creating bonds, and then leaving time and time again did more harm than good. Did it just cement in the kids’ minds and hearts that adult bonds are temporary, and how did that affect their relationships with their forever families after they were adopted? So sad and so hard. We’re doing so much reading and so much listening in preparation for our child, but I am sure we’re only scratching the surface, and will be, until we’re officially in the trenches.

  2. Isn’t it interesting what some insight into attachment can do to previously “cute” situations?

    About a week ago, I read an article where in Thailand they have volunteers work in their orphanages for a day or two. They prefer white volunteers so the children won’t be so scared of white people when they are adopted. The article was meant to be all positive but I got upset by it! Hello — you let a volunteer (who you have NOT done background checks on) come and play with a child for a day and then leave? How easy would it be for these children to be abused?! Also, this is Thailand — lots of rich North American men come to Thailand for sexual experiences! Red flags all over. While safety is a concern, the impact of this system re: attachment is also one. I’d imagine that encouraging this type of “drop in” and briefly invest in a child’s life can’t be healthy for their attachment. Sigh!!

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. There is also the little matter that adoptive parents really and truly do not want know about attachment disorder risks when they are PRE-adoptive parents, ie they’re required to complete 10-80 hrs of training and it doesn’t seem to help.

    Two seconds with google would bring up a plethora of information on attachment issues in adopted kiddos. It is the responsibility of the PAPs to look into this — they mostly cannot be bothered!

    There’s also a really creepy “sub-culture” of self-proclaimed trauma mamas on the web, who have their own very odd theories on how to therapeutically parent their kids (like, and who pathologize ordinary kid issues (not wanting to go to bed or to school) into something bigger. They disregard all sane, sensible advice … and it’s a self-reinforcing loop of scary parenting behaviors.

    (Don’t get me started on homeschooling — a way to keep mandated reporters away from their kids).

  4. Attachment is such a complicated aspect of raising adopted children. I have two adopted kids and they both have attachment issues that manifest themselves in very different ways. There is no right or wrong answer and there is no right or wrong way to parent–in fact, every day presents new challenges that seem to disregard all the parenting books in the world! At this point, I’ve given up the idea of the “perfect” bonded family and am just trying to make sure we all stay relatively sane throughout the day 🙂

    Oh, and it wasn’t until this year (year 6 in our adoption journey) that my oldest child voluntarily said “I love you” to me. Sometimes these things take so much time!

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