If you are part of the adoption world, this phrase is probably very familiar, if you're not (and I know I have more than a few readers who have landed here who are not) it might not mean anything to you. So, in the interest of continuing education, that's what I'm going to write about today.
Indiscriminate affection is the term used to describe the behavior of children who are willing to love anyone and everyone. It is a survival mechanism born out of not having a person to permanently attach to. An orphanage is not a natural place for a child and to survive it, children cope in different ways. Learning to gain the attention and affection of the adults who are there is one of these ways. And what better way to get the attention and affection of those adults than to be charming and make them think this particular child is madly in love with them. Even if the child just happened to meet that particular adult five minutes ago. And the behavior works and so is encouraged.
It's tricky when the child is still in care because they do need love and affection and attention and the feeling that they are loved and special. Isn't that the reason many volunteers go and serve in orphanages in the first place? But it poses problems when the child is placed in a permanent family. To the child, this is just another set of adults to charm and win over. (And understand, this is not a conscious decision, but a behavior that has become innate, instinctual.) But this pair of adults doesn't shower with affection and then leave. This is a permanent relationship, and as such it changes into a real relationship where everything isn't so lovey-dovey all the time. Boundaries need to be set and correction has to happen... all while the child is being loved, but it seems very different. It is a relationship that requires all parties to be vulnerable to one another. Being vulnerable is not a way to survive in an orphanage; it doesn't come naturally. It is hard to understand this new definition of love and relationship. And learning to function in this new way can be hard work.
We all have the human tendency to want to take the easier path, and in this scenario, the easier path is continuing with the easy, superficial relationships that are gained by being charming and loving. This is made even trickier by the fact that adults in the US tend to eat this up. Everyone wants to be loved and having a charming child express love so immediately is flattering. This is the kind of relationship the child is used to and is certainly easier than the relationship with the new parents has become. That's harder, more difficult. The child will nearly always gravitate toward the stranger and the superficial over the parents and the developing real relationship.
As you might have guessed, we have been dealing with this to some extent with H. She has perfected charming and immediately loving of, well, everyone. Even the bizarre man in the alley who peered over our back fence to ask about renting our garage. H. loved him, shouting out her affection for him. Um, yeah. Well, you can imagine we're keeping pretty close tabs on our girl.
So what can you do when you meet a child who is new to their family and that child starts showering you with love? The most helpful thing is for you to deflect it. Does the child want to hug you? Please don't let him. Instead direct the child to the parents and say those are the people the child should hug. Does the child want to sit on your lap? Please don't let her, bring her to her parents instead. Does the child want to hold your hand? Please don't let him, tell him to hold his parent's hand instead. Does the child say he or she loves you? You can say, "Thank you, but you don't really know me yet. I look forward to getting to know you." The first couple of months home, the child might not understand the words, but she will get the tone. Even if the child doesn't seem to want to be with the parents, these are the things that still need to be done. And please don't be offended if the parent comes over and detaches the child from you. They are doing their job to help their child grow emotionally.
This isn't a phenomenon which most people are aware of and because of this aren't aware that encouraging a child in their misplaced affection can slow down the child's attachment to their parents. But as I see more churches developing adoption ministries, this means that more adopted children will be joining churches. Not everyone in a church will be called to adopt, but everyone in that church is called to support the families who do. Educating yourself on what new adopted families will be facing with their children and how you can appropriately respond to these issues is one way you can support these families.