The Basics of Bonding and Attachment. A Guide.

Learn how to reach out to your adopted child at any age.

Susan Kuligowski April 01, 2015

It’s the moment you’ve been dreaming of—the first time you meet your little one and start bonding with him. After months or even years of waiting, with no more legal barriers to face, you suddenly wonder how you’re going to feel seeing him for the first time. You suddenly wonder how your child is going to feel seeing you for the first time. Will you be overcome with the love that’s been building within you for so long? Or will you look at each other as strangers, bound now by a piece of paper and nothing else?

The truth is, parent/child relationships are complex whether they are biological or adoptive. Bonding and attachment are different between every parent and every child, and building and maintaining a healthy and strong relationship is a lifelong journey. Bonding takes time. Bonding takes courage. Bonding takes love. And while every situation, every child, and every parent differs, bonding is possible for all who put in the effort.

“You can’t hurry love. No, you just have to wait.

You got to trust, give it time. No matter how long it takes.”

—You Can’t Hurry Love (The Supremes)

Are you considering growing your family through domestic infant adoption? For a free and confidential consultation with an adoption professional, click here.

Building Blocks
1. Building Blocks

Bonding and attachment go hand in hand and are not limited to adoptive families. According to many experts, bonding usually occurs in the first weeks after a baby is born, and is a feeling that originates with the caregiver, whereas attachment usually develops in the first two years of life and is a sense of safety that ebbs from the child.

According to WebMD, studies have shown that about 20 percent of new moms and dads feel no real emotional bond with their newborn in the hours after delivery. It can take weeks or even months to develop a true bond—which is completely normal.

While some parents feel an instant bond with their newborn, for others the feeling often comes with the behind-the-scenes tasks that follow birth, such as comforting your newborn in the middle of the night or memorable moments like the baby’s first smile.

Attachment is the result of the child responding to the feeling of being wanted by her parents. Attachment begins as the parent/child relationship develops.

It is important to note the importance of and differences between bonding and attachment when you consider the impact adoption will have on you and your child.

Family Ties
2. Family Ties

It’s perfectly normal to question how you will feel and how your child will feel upon becoming part of an adoptive family. Acknowledging this will help ensure that you’re taking important steps on your child’s behalf that will not only help you to bond, but increase the likeliness he will develop strong intimate relationships outside of family later in life.

Think about it—often, we are what we see. If your child grows up feeling loved and secure in family relationships, statistics show he is much more likely to seek out similar and/or familiar relationships in adult life.

This is Not a Test
3. This is Not a Test

Take a deep breath. You will not be graded after your first day as a parent and your child will not be judging your performance and reporting back to your social worker. While you prepare for your adoption, reading helpful books and articles is a good first step to better understanding the bonding and attachment process. However, bonding is not something you can “learn” from a book, but something that will occur through spending time with your child. Nobody expects you to understand each cry, cringe, call, gesture, or rejection straight away. Still, there are proven steps you can take to help your child to feel loved and secure.

Check out this book list for books to help you to prepare for your child.

And remember, it’s never too early or late to look for books about adoption. There are many books available geared towards all stages of development.

Oh Baby! Bonding with Infants
4. Oh Baby! Bonding with Infants

They say a baby changes everything, and oh boy, is that true. Slowing down your regularly scheduled lifestyle and focusing your attention on your baby will make all the difference.

Caring for your baby—feeding, bathing, changing, naptime—are all opportunities for you to spend time with your little one. This is a time to focus soley on each other. Hold your baby close, make lots of eye contact, talk to her and let her get used to the sound of your voice, your smell, your touch. Even if you don’t have what it takes to make it on Broadway, singing goes a long way in soothing your baby and creates an intimate moment.

Late night feedings aren’t fun for anyone, but sitting in a rocker in a darkened room with your little one, slowly rocking him back to sleep, is not just an opportunity to bond with your newborn, but a moment you will treasure. It’s a win-win. Even trips out to the grocery store can be a great time to make a connection. Think of these times, especially when they’re new for you, too, as little adventures that you’re embarking on together.

Check out what other parents are saying about bonding and attachment in our forums.

“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you as you are to them.”
―Desmond Tutu

Blink Once for Yes: Communicating With Your Baby
5. Blink Once for Yes: Communicating With Your Baby

While you may be overflowing with baby love, remember, your baby is very limited in how she can communicate with you.

Babies cry when they’re hungry, tired, wet, over-stimulated, over-tired, gassy, hungry again, and of course when they’re not feeling well or in pain, as well as for many other reasons. It will take some time to figure out your child’s cues.

Without being able to say so, your baby will look to you to set the pace for the day—being consistent and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important.

Although life doesn’t always allow for you to keep your child on a daily routine, making an effort to do so may save you and your little one some tears and sleepless nights.

Schedules are an easy way to help determine what she may be trying to tell you. Maintaining a routine also may help you to notice anything abnormal—if your baby is crying more than normal or rejecting a certain food. These things are important to note and share with your pediatrician to rule out medical issues such as allergies or illness.

Bonding with Toddlers: Toddlers Rule
6. Bonding with Toddlers: Toddlers Rule

Routines work well for toddlers, too. However it’s a bit more challenging to wrangle them in once they’ve discovered their ability to zip around the house whenever mom turns her head.

Your child may be at the beginning stages of language, and if that’s the case, that may help them to communicate to you some of their basic needs. Still, with a limited vocabulary, most toddlers struggle in communicating verbally their thoughts and feelings and are more prone to resort to nonverbal cues to convey whether or not they are happy with what’s for dinner, sitting in a car seat, or waiting in a long grocery line. Really listen to your toddler and acknowledge the fact that they are moving past the baby stage and are beginning to perceive both you and the world around them differently.

As with babies, continue to take advantage of the special moments you can share with them. By now, you may have formed some rituals and you should continue with these as your little one will most likely look forward to them. Not to mention, you most likely will be looking forward to those quiet moments as well.

Take Notes
7. Take Notes

If your adopted newborn has been with you from the start, you’ve probably established house rules from the get-go. However, if your baby or toddler has spent any time in foster care or an orphanage setting prior to joining your family, you will want to ask his previous caregiver about his former environment, routine, habits, disposition, and health before bringing him home so that you are ready to receive him in a way that will not upset his general routine.

For example, some orphanages leave soft lights on and/or music playing in the children’s quarters during bedtime hours. Variances like this may affect your child’s sleeping habits when he comes into your home. In some cases, he may have been exposed to a chaotic environment---or a structured environment---and expect the same in his new house. What we consider to be ideal and peaceful may throw him off while he transitions into his new reality.

What sort of daily schedule was he used to? Did the same nurse tend to him on a daily basis throughout his stay? Did he receive special services? Was he prone to getting colds or respiratory infections? These are things that you will want to know, if possible, to make a smoother transition, and so that you can better focus on and understand his wants and needs.

New Kiddo On The Block: Bonding with Older Children
9. New Kiddo On The Block: Bonding with Older Children

Just as babies and toddlers have their special needs, so do older children. Just as babies and toddler have special ways to reach them to build your relationship early on, so do older children. It is never too late to bond with a child and never too late for that child to accept your love and form an attachment as well.

Any child who has spent time in foster care or an orphanage should be expected to
have experienced some trauma. At the very least, they probably experienced the feeling of abandonment and most likely a steady stream of inconsistency in lifestyle. These are children who have not had the opportunity to bond with a primary caregiver, much less a parental figure, in the “normal” way. This does not mean that they are damaged, but it does means that they need someone to take the time to become that missing piece they have longed for.

Although the time for bottles may have passed, it’s not too late to establish intimate rituals such as singing a special song to wake them in the morning or reading books at bedtime. Even “big kids” like to be sung to, so long as it’s not in front of their friends. Find out what sort of games they enjoy and make time for a family game night. Really take the time to hear what your child has to say about everything and anything. Allow her to voice her feelings and make sure she understands that you are there to listen and to assist as needed, not to judge or analyze.

Research books to read together or that she may want to read on her own that touch on issues she may be experiencing. Keep the dialogue going, but don’t push. Let her take the lead.

Bonding with Adolescents: Teen Time
10. Bonding with Adolescents: Teen Time

Oftentimes, teens stuck in the foster system are deemed “risky,” and prospective adoptive parents hesitate taking on someone who has been in and out of foster homes his whole life. It is true that an older child or teenager may have been exposed to more in their lifetime and not have had the chance to develop strong bonds or attachments with anyone in their lives—but adoption may be the first step. You should be ready to take that long walk together and realize there will be bumps along the way.

Work to keep clear lines of communication open at all times. Teenagers in general are expert at shutting out their parents. It will be your job as a parent to make sure they don’t close that door all the way. They should be expected to understand family rules and stick to them! Just like it takes time for toddlers and young children to learn what’s acceptable, you must offer that same learning curve to a teen entering your home. It could very well be the first time they’ve encountered your lifestyle or your rules.

Let them know that they are no longer alone in their journey. Make sure they understand that they can count on you to be there for them through the good and the bad. Unconditional love is a pretty broad concept and sometimes hard to live up to, but your adopted teen should know clearly that your love for him doesn’t end when your relationship hits a rough patch.

Teenage relationships should be approached with firmness, consistency, and earned respect. While you are not your teen’s friend, you are guiding them into young adulthood and they will look to you as a model for behavior. They will test you for sure. Just as a parents must do with a little one’s meltdowns, you must do with your teen’s mood swings: take a deep breath and stay in control of the situation.

In addition to including the school as part of your support system, encourage your teen to get involved in school activities, join groups, play sports, and express himself artistically. These are options he may not have had before. Help him to find a healthy outlet.

What Not To Expect
11. What Not To Expect

There are countless books on the market ready to lay out what you should expect during the baby years so far as milestones and behavior, but the truth is, adopted babies and toddlers may not fit into this perfectly molded template for obvious reasons. Expect to encounter well-meaning family and friends who offer advice and suggestions, but you may want to consider asking other adoptive families what they have experienced in similar situations. You can also reach out to your social worker, adoption agency, or, if one is available, adoption support group. Can’t find one? Try Adoption.com Forums, or consider starting one.

Also, check out books written by and for, adoptees as well as adopters. For a deeper understanding of what makes us tick, there are plenty of clinical studies, articles, and books available. You’ll also find many helpful stories geared towards kids to help them work through their feelings or find the words to approach you regarding topics they may feel unsure about.

Siblings
12. Siblings

When siblings are involved, don’t forget that they, too, will will need time to bond with their new sibling in order to build the same sort of love and trust you desire. Children naturally experience both excitement and anxiety at the prospect of having a new sibling in their life. Before this happens, you may consider reading stories to your children to prepare them for their new brother or sister. Take time to explain to your children the changes that will be happening, while reassuring them your love will never change.

If possible, set aside special time to spend with each of them. However, grand gestures on your part may only be confusing. Rather, the same simple opportunities you take with your new child---such as quiet moments, eating, napping, and playing---will work for siblings as well. Once the child arrives in your home, gently weaving them into your family’s routine will work well for everyone.

You’re not going to be able to protect everyone’s feelings all the time. Encourage age-appropriate interaction between siblings. Be prepared for ups and downs as they come to know one another. Make sure the family rules are well-defined regarding respect, responsibility, sharing, privacy, etc.

For a toddler, older child, or teen coming into your home, you must acknowledge their past—recognizing if they have been separated from foster brothers and sisters whom they have bonded with. This can be a confusing time for an adopted child no matter the age. Be alert and listen. It can be trying to work on your relationship with your new child while monitoring and nurturing the relationships between all of your children---but by taking the time early in the process, the chances of developing healthy bonds and attachments will increase greatly.

Special Needs and Attachment
13. Special Needs and Attachment

Bonding with your special needs child requires the same patience and understanding. Touching, massage, and face-to-face/eye-to-eye contact are all ways you can reach out to your infant. With older children, hugging is a wonderful way to reward your child and at the same time reinforce your love for her in a physical way she can receive and respond to. Verbal communication is important, and you will want to engage your listening skills and allow her to tell you how she is feeling, rather than making assumptions.

Some parents may over-bond, which may result in becoming overprotective and smothering. Your goal should be to teach your child acceptance and coping skills that will build her up and help her be assertive in her own right. While parents may feel protective and have their children’s best interest at heart, like any parent/child relationship, it’s important to keep a healthy balance. Avoid pampering her or, on the flipside, pretending she does not have a special need at all.

Make sure to involve her pediatrician, helpers, and educators. They are there to help and act as a support system for your family. Check out this article for more information on special needs adoption.

Attachment Problems
14. Attachment Problems

Developing trust with your child will take time. Be patient! The process may seem never-ending, but consider some of your strongest friendships, including those you have formed with other family members.

Imagine coming into a new home as a young child or teen. Children who have not had the benefit of a safe home, primary caregiver, or family unit will not know how to respond to what you may consider a healthy relationship until they have had the opportunity to live it and until they have had the chance to “feel out” their new situation.
If, however, you have tried everything and you feel as though there is a distance or issue that you can’t seem to bridge with your child, it may be time to reach out to your social worker, pediatrician, support group, etc.

Please note, just because your child is not bonding/attaching “on schedule” does not necessarily mean he has a disorder. Often, adopted children come into a family ill-prepared to do so. Love takes time. For a child who has spent time in foster care or an orphanage, especially overseas, you must expect this process to take longer than it would with an infant.

Consider the Obvious
15. Consider the Obvious

Are you responding to your child’s emotional and intellectual needs? Are you aware of religious, cultural, and ethnic/racial differences? You must not only acknowledge these important parts of your child’s life, but provide clear lines of communication to help make him feel comfortable and accepted in his new environment. Often, adopted children want to please their adoptive parents and are afraid to express their feelings verbally—eventually, these feelings come through either physically, through acting out, or emotionally, as a child becomes anxious, depressed, or pulls away. He may have trouble in school or making friends.

Take the time to educate yourself on your child’s history and embrace the parts of her that make her unique. Consider adopting some of her past into your family traditions. Let her know that she is loved, not despite her differences, but because of them. Reach out to your school to see if there are any groups or clubs or sports teams she may be interested in joining. Help her to find her voice and her talents. Sports are a great way to allow your child to become involved outside of the house, while still allowing you to show your support.

International Adoption
16. International Adoption

For children coming into a home from another country, bonding and attachment may take a while longer while they first become acquainted with a new country and possibly living within a family unit for the first time. Understanding that not only have they left the only “home” they’ve ever known, but their homeland as well, will give you a perspective on the feelings of loss or confusion they may experience.

Although children are considered sponges when it comes to things like picking up a new language quickly, consider the fact that for an internationally adopted child, many things are coming at them at once. Trying to learn the language may not be top on their list of new things to learn. Often, children adopted from the age of toddlerhood up may require, or at least benefit from, speech therapy. If you find your child struggling to communicate with you, consider alternatives to language such as using pictures to allow them to express their basic wants and needs. Communication is integral to bonding and attachment.

Make them feel at home in their new house. Educate yourself about their culture and consider bringing things into your house that they would appreciate, be it artwork, books, videos, food, or music. Look around for support groups or activities in your area that you could participate in together.

Reaching Out
17. Reaching Out

If you feel that there is a larger issue taking place, do not feel ashamed to reach out for help. The frustration that you are feeling in dealing with negative behavior or your child’s lack of accepting his new family is merely a fraction of the frustration he may be feeling but unable to express in a productive or healthy way. Either way, it’s not healthy for you or your child to go it alone.

Unfortunately, some children, even very young children, may have been exposed to serious trauma in their young lives, which makes it difficult for them to trust or move on. Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is one result of trauma inflicted on a young person who then rejects bonding or attaching to foster or adoptive parents.

There is a lot of literature available to provide you with the symptoms of RAD, as well as ways to deal with it and other attachment obstacles and help your child to open up, but you should not try to do this on your own. Involve your pediatrician, social worker, family members. Just as you are building a support network for your child, you also will need support to get you through. Providing a nurturing environment has been shown to help children who have experienced trauma over time. Know that you are not alone and that neither you nor your child is at fault.

Going the Distance
18. Going the Distance

If you’ve made strides in bonding with your child and feel as though she is responding in a healthy way, now is NOT the time to stop making an effort. Parenting is a lifelong journey; so is your relationship with your child. Celebrate the strides you’ve made, but never stop working on it.

“The path of development is a journey of discovery that is clear only in retrospect, and it’s rarely a straight line.”
― Eileen Kennedy

author image

Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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