Bonding is critical to development and can have a lifelong impact on everything from a child’s immune system and physical growth to their performance in school and their ability to form healthy and lasting relationships later in life. It’s common for adoptive parents to worry whether or not they will develop a strong bond with their adopted child—no matter the age.
There are plenty of books and theories that focus on the loss and anxiety that adopted children experience as a result of being separated from their birth families or primary caregivers. It’s important to understand that adopted children will experience grief at some point in their lives regarding the loss of a first family—and that this grief should be acknowledged appropriately.
However, in no way does this mean that adopted children are incapable of healing or of bonding or going on to both receive and give love. There is much evidence that despite this early loss, adopted children can—and do—go on to build healthy bonds.
According to Mary Beth Steinfeld, M.D.: “Fortunately, humans are not completely dependent on those early moments and have many opportunities to bond appropriately throughout the first year of life. We know that mothers who adopt babies and even older children are able to form normal attachment relationships.”
Whether you first hold your child in the delivery room, three months later, or three years later, the same rules of bonding apply. They include:
1. Open up the lines of communication.
Babies are reliant on mom and dad for everything. And everything—from feeding to cuddling to changing diapers—matters. While late-night rocking fests may leave you scrambling for coffee in the morning, they are a prime opportunity to get to know each other up close and personal.
Talk to your child often. Be present and interact with him or her. Play with your baby as he or she takes on all of those “firsts.” Be responsive to his needs. Babies need lots of reassurance and you both will learn about each other this way.
What about toddlers who have reached the “I’m a big boy now!” stage and insist on a bit more independence? While you encourage your child, also be there to meet his or her needs. Keep the lines of communication wide open. Toddlers and young children are full of a million questions. These questions provide a great way to connect and set the stage for meaningful conversations for years to come.
Just as bottle time and late nights were key for infants, mealtimes and bedtimes will continue to be great opportunities to open the floor with toddlers and young children. Try not to rush through these important family moments even if you have work to finish or a house to clean. Read and play games together. To build trust and responsibility, give him simple chores to help you around the house.
And remember that it’s common for a toddler or older child to be shy when being transitioned into a new family. Don’t force a relationship. Be patient as you learn about one another. Experts of toddler adoption often suggest that you set aside some time for your child to settle in and adapt to her new immediate family before visits and playdates begin.
2. Understand that rejection is not about you.
Early interactions make a lifelong impact on a child. It is important for children in hospital/foster/orphanage/institutional settings to be cared by a familiar figure and to make a connection early on. Studies have shown that children who have benefited from a strong early bond in a safe setting will transition more easily, while children who have been exposed to poor conditions and lack a strong connection to a caregiver often exhibit trust issues later on.
Mary Hopkins-Best, author of Toddler Adoption: The Weaver’s Craft, says, “Toddlers whose needs have not been met learn to mistrust. Most toddlers who have experienced rejection respond by becoming rejecting.” For adoptive parent who feel a sense of rejection or distance, it can be a confusing and hurtful process. It’s easy for adoptive parents to blame themselves. While it may feel overwhelming on your end, try to imagine how your child may be feeling, but unable to put into words.
One of the mandatory adoption classes we took while preparing for our toddler adoption explained that, for an adopted child, coming into a new family/home/country can feel similar to being a Martian landing on Earth for the first time. Everything is alien, foreign, and scary. Imagine what must be going through your child’s mind—one day in one home under the care of a familiar face, and the next surrounded by a new language, sights, smells, and sounds. An adopted child’s rejection may not be a rejection at all, but instead, an inability to process so much newness at once while trying to understand what happened to the people and place(s) she’d known and trusted.
While I never felt rejected by our daughter, I recognized that there was a lot more going on with our newly-adopted toddler than just “getting to know you.” A toddler who has never had a family before does not grasp the concept of “mom” and “dad.” Family is just a word to a child who has never experienced one before. A child only learns what family means by experiencing one firsthand over time.
I remember in some of the earlier moments with our toddler-aged daughter, despite doing all the things I’d read that I should be doing, she pushed and tested. In those moments, I would whisper into her ear. She was always curious enough to stop squirming just long enough to listen to my low, calm voice. I would tell her how much I loved her and that I would never give up on her no matter what. At that time, I wondered if she understood or even cared as her tiny toddler body eventually wriggled away from my grasp. It was easy to feel frustrated wondering if she had heard me. Did she know how hard I was trying? At the same time, what I should also have been gauging was how hard she was trying. Was I hearing her?
3. Offer comfort in any way you can.
If possible, arrange to have your child say good-bye to her caregiver. Take pictures of the people and place that was her life before you. Bring a piece of her past home with you: a favorite toy, photo, or article of clothing that she may wish to sleep with while she settles into her new home. Each adoption is different, and so you should consult with your adoption agency/support group to figure out what is in the best interest of your child. Once home, consider making an adoption journey photo album or a life book to let your child know that it’s okay for them to think about, talk about, grieve, or giggle over their previous life. Talking about your child’s adoption story is a great way to open the floor to any concerns she may have.
Adoptive parents should read and educate themselves with as much information regarding infant/toddler/older child adoption as they can get their hands on. Armed with a basic understanding of what to look for can make sense out of some otherwise potentially confusing and frustrating situations. And despite reading tons of information about international toddler adoption, I found some of the most helpful advice in articles and blogs related to foster care.
4. Find ways to make eye contact—but don’t overdo it.
They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. According to Kai MacDonald, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, “Eye-to-eye communication—which is affected by oxytocin—is critical to intimate emotional communication for all kind of emotions – love, fear, trust, anxiety.”
Oxytocin is a brain chemical associated with pair bonding. Babies typically begin to make eye contact at six to eight weeks old. So, while you’re feeding, cuddling, bathing, changing diapers, putting together a puzzle, playing dress up, picking out a snack, or reading a book together—make eye contact. And mean it. At the same time, recognize that infants, especially, may feel uncomfortable if you’re gazing into their eyes at all moments and expecting them to gaze back. Children may become confused or bored, so don’t freak out if your child looks away.
5. Know that it will take time.
There is no set timeline for bonding. And despite all attempts, you may still find your little one pulling away or not ready to open up and accept your love or to offer you his. Children who are unable to vocalize their feelings will act out, which doesn’t make it any easier! But know that it’s normal for all children.
Expect that your adopted child may be shy, scared, sad, hyper, or all of the above. The act of adoption equals transition, and even for the most well-adjusted child, transition is hard. Adoptive parents need to acknowledge and appreciate their children’s experience before a meaningful and lasting bond can be made. Be the rock. We all want the same thing for our children: for them to grow up feeling secure with themselves and to be able to make strong and healthy connections throughout their lives.
In her first year at elementary school, for my birthday, our no-longer-a-toddler daughter made me a beautiful card. In her just-learning-to-write scribbles, she wrote, “best mommy. love you so much. I never give up on you.” It had been a while since I’d whispered those words to her, but then I remembered.
I had learned to listen to her and she had heard me.