Adoption 101: Attachment

This isn't what you think it is going to be. In the past couple of days, there was a discussion on one of the groups I moderate about a parent who still didn't feel attached to her adopted child, even after a year and a half. In reply, I mentioned that it took more than twice that amount of time for me to attach to at least one of my children, and that I had some tips I could share that, while they wouldn't solve the problem on their own, could help with the general trajectory. There was enough interest that I thought perhaps it would be of help to a broader audience, so decided to turn my answer into a blog post.

My short list of things that can help the parent attach to the child in adoption... because it is just as likely that attachment issues will be that direction and not just the child towards the parent.

1. Normalize it

If you are struggling with this, know that you are actually perfectly normal. While it might not be something that is as openly discussed as other issues in adoption, based on my inbox and messages, it is pretty darn common. You are not somehow aberrant or lacking if you are finding it challenging to attach to your new child. It happens to a lot of people and a lot of people, over time, find they do attach and fall in love with their child. There is nothing wrong with you and this is something that can be made better.

2. Smile

If your experience is anything like mine, not only do you not feel attached to your child, the chances are good that nearly everything your child does irritates your every last nerve. The two things kind of go hand in hand. Then, on top of being irritated, you feel a great deal of shame, because this is not how parents are supposed to feel about their child. This shame is even magnified when you are out and about and every last person tells you how fantastic your new child is and how lucky you are to have them. You smile and nod, while on the inside you are a writhing mass of shame for both lying about how you feel and for feeling that way in the first place. The whole thing is a set-up for a not-so-happy parent. This type of parent tends not to smile, particularly at the source of the mental discomfort.

But you have to. This is the very first step. Keep a very close eye on how your face appears when interacting in any way with your new child. Every single time you find yourself looking at them with anything but a frown, you are going to have to grit your teeth and slap that forced smile on your face. Really. Just humor me and do it. I don't care if you mean it or not, because it is really doing something. First, it is just more pleasant for your new child to not have their new parent frowning at them all the time. It will help their attachment. Secondly, there is something funny that happens inside our brains when we smile... it changes our neural makeup. It doesn't seem to matter to our brains or not if our smile is fake, our brain notices we are smiling and as a result, ratchets down the alert system inside our head. A frown does the opposite, telling our brains that something is wrong, and the early alert system ratchets up a bit. I'm not making this up, this is actually something that has been studied.

So, if you begin by making a concerted effort to smile at your child, your brain will start to form positive connections when you see that child, just as it does with your other children you are connected to.

3. Change your thoughts

We all know that this attachment-stuff is really all inside our heads, so to change how we feel about another person that is where we need to do our work. If my experience is anything to go by, there is a lot inside our heads that needs to change. Here's how my thoughts would continually spiral out of control:

  • New child walks into room.
  • I decide that this time I'm going to have a positive interaction with this child.
  • Child does something weird or annoying or random or, well, frankly, anything, that kicks my over reactiveness into gear.
  • No positive interaction happens
  • I then spend too much spiraling in my own head about how much I do not really like this child, why are they so annoying? Will I ever love this child? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with the child? It's always going to be like this. What do I do if it is always like this? This child is NEVER going to change! I'm NEVER going to change...
  • Quick trip into the bathroom to read a book behind a closed door and get back into my right mind.
And even if I didn't go all the way to needing to recalibrate in the bathroom, there were usually quite a few negative thoughts before something else distracted me. It's not very flattering, but it's how it often played out... with more than one child.

You are not going to change these mental habits all at once, you are going to have to start slowly. For me, it was just realizing where my thoughts were heading and stopping them from going there by thinking about anything else. You first have to break the habit of negative thoughts. Put a bracelet on your wrist and move it from arm to arm every time you have to stop the negative thoughts if you need to. Sometimes having to do something like that will make it more evident when you are falling into this trap of negative thinking. Once you have gotten out of the habit of the negative thoughts, then you can start to add in positive ones. When you do find yourself thinking something negative, practice your stopping and then replace it with one thing that is positive about your child. Anything. It just needs to be positive. The idea is, like the smiling, that you are creating new neural pathways in your brain when it comes to your child. You worked really hard on connecting the negative ones, even if you were unaware of it, and it is going to take some work to make new connections. 

4. Positive touch

There is not a lot of drive to touch a child who is not appealing to you. In fact, you probably go out of your way to avoid it. Sorry, but the next step is to add in positive physical touch. When you walk by your child, give their arm or shoulder a soft pat. When you read to them, have them snuggle up right next to you or sit on your lap. Give random hugs and kisses. If you have children at home whom you are attached to, be a student of your own behavior. How do you interact with them? Copy that behavior with your new child. Chances are you will not enjoy it at first. It will feel forced and unpleasant. Do it anyway. One suggestion from Lisa Qualls is to rock your child for ten minutes a day. Not only does this use positive physical touch, but the rocking motion is great for proprioception and if you smile while you are doing it, are creating all sorts of positive neural pathways. And chances are, it will be like pulling teeth (yours) at the very beginning. 

5. Laugh

This is very much like the smiling suggestion. You need to start having fun with this child, even if it is for very brief moments of time. Look for things that you can laugh together about. Sing silly songs, play silly games, pretend your child is a baby and do all those things you never got to do with them... pattycake, peek-a-boo, finger games, etc. The book, Theraplay, has a lot of great activities listed in it to help do just this. The trick to this is to stop BEFORE your child begins to annoy you or make your angry (which, you know, is really just a convenient way to avoid being afraid.) It won't help if you end up in the bathroom every time you try to do this. Short is best at first.

6. Remind yourself you cannot predict the future

I know that rationally you are aware of this fact. But I find that when filled with fear and anxiety, I tend to forget I am not a fortune teller. I will have something happen with my child... they will forget something they knew, come downstairs with their pants backwards again, go back to disassociating 90% of the time, or just breath the wrong way... and I will spin out in my head what the inevitable consequence of this is. Usually the ending is bad. Life is bad and my family is ruined. Life is bad, my family is ruined, and I am miserable as are everyone else I love. 

And you know what? I have a 100% track record of being absolutely wrong. You know what else? When the hard parts of life have come (and they will), they have not looked as I imagined them. We got through them. Life did not end. Our lives were not ruined. 

I think so much of our fear of attachment is that by accepting this child as they are, we are somehow tacitly agreeing to one of those horrible futures. It's as if our attachment comes with a price, and we are afraid to pay it. But it doesn't work that way. We do not know what is in store for any of our children. Children whom you think will never be capable of anything may surprise you. Children you expected great things from may not rise to those lofty expectations. You do not know. 

Fear gets in the way of a lot. Learn to identify what your real emotion is and address that. For me, if I can identify what I am actually afraid of, I can see where my thinking has gone wrong. Nine times out of ten, it is because I have crafted an imaginary future.

This is probably as much for me as it is for anyone who is struggling in this area. R. has been home three years and our attachment to each other is still very much a work in progress. I have good days and bad days, and often have to go back to the beginning of my own list and start all over again. The only difference this time around is that I've been through this before. I've seen how long true attachment can take. I know it happens, but it happens in its own time. 


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