Adoption 101: Indiscriminate affection

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.


Janet and Kevin said…
Your posts have been so "right on" concerning the attachment and bonding process of newly adopted children. Having gone through this process (and still going through it) three times, I find myself reading your posts just shaking my head in agreement!

We have had this issue time and time again. Philip (from SFCV)had perfected this survial technique and took so very long to even want us to be his parents. Now, he is strongly bonded but it was a long road. We still have issues with this with Eli,who came home 2 1/2 years ago.

Just the other day, we went to a graduation party where Eli knew virtually no one, but when time came to leave he set about hugging everyone in the room. I quickly and gently stopped it, but then he wouldn't even hold my hand or come to me willingly. He is 4 1/2 and seemed to understand when we gently talked to him about it. We are instituting the rule with him now that he must not hug or love on people he does not know well. Also, we told him we need him to hug us and come and sit with us at times whenever we are in public. It is helping him a little to not be as confused about going to unknown people.

And our Sophia, home only since last August is still fragile in her bonding to us. We have to even keep reminding well-meaning relatives to back off a little so that she will depend on us while around others.

This issue is one of the most difficult things about adoption as far as I am concerned. Other people just don't understand why they can't be "let into" a newly home child's life right away, and a child doesn't know who to go to for awhile after coming home.

It is just a long path to that bonding and attaching. We can see after 4 years that Philip is well into a healthy and secure place, but we can also see that Eli and Sophia still have a ways to go.

janet and gang
Anonymous said…
I know that is what the books say, and I am glad that worked for you, but I didn’t do it that way.

My little one was supper friendly to everyone too. Instead of teaching her to not be friendly to others and encourage others not to respond to her.

I felt like me/we as a mom and her family, needed to earn it.

We knew we had a good family with good people. We needed to earn a special place in her heart so she would turn to us in time naturally.

I wanted to be her mom not because she had no one else to turn to, but because I was the one always there for her.

I was the best comfort. I was there when she was sick, hurt, cried etc. I always had her back.

She could have hugs from anyone but she wanted a hug from me because it met more to her. That kind of love takes time and in my opinion you can't force it by depriving her from getting affection from anybody but you.

I know most of her life she was hungry. If she asked me for oodles of noodles at midnight I got up and made it.

If she was afraid to go to the bathroom at night and called me I always got up and kept her company.

Earning it takes a lot of time and patience. It takes a lot of time to build trust with a child who has been disappointed by people before, but it did work, and without ever stopping her friendly to everyone attitude.

Everyone loves my little girl. She is still so very social to all but she knows I am mom and it is eight years now and the other shoe has never dropped.
LisaE. said…
Dan and I were talking about this just the other day. Maisey is very outgoing and Benjamin is much more reserved and they both came from orphanages in China. I think part of the hugging depends on the child. I have 2 girls who are not adopted and they are social butterflies. They hug everyone. They have always been touchy, affectionate girls. I think it depends on the child and what needs to happen within the family. I have encouraged the girls to not be as huggy with complete strangers obviously, but it just seems to be in their nature and I can't imagine stopping them from hugging my family and friends they have just met. I just wanted to give some perspective to the fact that part of it might be learned for survival and attention in the orphanage but some of it may just be her genetic makeup.
Anonymous said…
Lisa and anonymous I completely agree with both of you. In Other countries/ cultures people are very affectionate. I think it’s a beautiful thing. Strangers not ok. Lol 😝 I have an older adopted daughter and bio son. My daughter wanted only me and was only affectionate to me. And my bio son hugs everyone. I think it’s built into them. I think as long as they are learning boundaries with people that don’t want hugs and not hugging strangers you are all good. Children spend so much time at home with just their parents there should be plenty of time to bond at home. Love multiplies
What are your thoughts about volunteers at orphanages relative to Indiscriminate Affection? I'm not talking about voluntourist; I work with volunteers that go regularly to the same orphanages to see the same kids at the same time every week. We don't want to contribute to the problem (Indiscriminate Affection being one of them) but we also don't want to reject kids. We go every week precisely because we know the kids often don't receive love. I'm writing a 1 page training piece about Indiscriminate Affection and I want to include a closing paragraph, "What can we do as volunteers?" My thoughts- build real relationships by visiting regularly, get to know kids first, ask permission to hug/hold...what would you add?

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