Parents by adoption often dream of our children before we meet them. We imagine them integrating seamlessly into our families and bonding instantly with us. We hear stories of attachment challenges. We watch the videos and read the articles in our foster care classes, and we assume, of course, that these are the types of things that happen in other families, to other parents.
Perhaps your adoption from foster care will end with happily ever after. Perhaps your child will integrate seamlessly into your family and bond instantly with you (and you with them). More likely (I’m sorry, but it’s true), there will be some challenges with attachment. These challenges range from mild and easily managed to severe and requiring intensive professional help. And the important thing to remember is that they are very, very common. If you and your child are facing challenges with attachment, know that you are not alone. Find another adoptive parent with whom you can be completely honest. Find a support group. Read all of the blogs and books you can.
Still need some practical suggestions? Try a few of these:
1 – Know that it’s not about you
Many children adopted from foster care lived a lot before they joined your family. Their stories are hard and they may have learned inappropriate ways of interacting that were actual (or at least perceived) survival strategies. The slamming doors, the screamed insults, the items hurled at the bedroom door? They are really not about you. This is incredibly hard to remember in the moment, but make it your mantra . . . “I didn’t cause this. I am helping to heal it.”
2 – Modify expectations
Some of those things that you dreamed about? They might not happen. That extravagant birthday party with all of the trimmings may be way too overstimulating for your child. Tone it down. It’s not the end of the world. That family reunion where you introduce your child to fifty new relatives may be the source of a giant meltdown. It’s OK. Take it slow. That beach trip that you take every summer will never be the same. Take a deep breath. Do what works for you and your child now. It does not mean failure. In fact, it means success (though it doesn’t always feel like it!) because you are teaching your child that their feelings matter, that they have a voice, that they are an important part of your family.
3 – Do fun things (with no strings attached)
I am a teacher. I was trained to offer rewards with clear expectations of how they will be achieved. “If you get out of bed without complaining every day this week, we will go out to breakfast on Friday.” For lots of kids, this works like a charm. For many, many kids from hard places, it backfires every time. It opens the door for manipulation, negotiation, sabotage, and meltdowns. It’s OK. You can still do fun things. Just do them when you choose (and preferably when your child is well-fed and well-rested), with little advance warning and no strings attached. “Hey, guess what? I’m feeling nice. Let’s go out for ice cream!” I know that if your child is raging a lot, you will feel reluctant to give this a try. Please do it anyway. It’s not rewarding bad behavior. It’s giving you a chance to connect with your child. In my faith tradition, we call it grace. Getting what you don’t deserve. And it just might save your sanity.
4 – Give it time
Spoiler alert: love at first sight doesn’t always happen. A variety of factors can influence attachment in adoption, including your child’s age, personality, developmental or mental health challenges, and life experiences (among other things). It can be difficult to muster up loving feelings about a raging child when you don’t have snuggly newborn moments filed away in your memory. This is totally normal. Give yourself (and your child) some time to build happy memories. And until then, give yourself permission to feel however you feel.
5 – Know when to ask for help
There is no shame in asking for help. You know all those people who smiled when they met your kid for the first time and said, “If you ever need anything, just let me know”? Most of them probably meant it. Call in those favors. Ask for food, for someone to take your other kids to the movies, for someone to stand guard so that you can shower and nap in peace. This is not selfish. It is self-care.
And if you are feeling helpless, please reach out to a professional. Ask for a referral from a fellow adoptive parent or someone at your house of worship. Talk to several therapists and find one who is a great fit for your family. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength, self-awareness, and good parenting.
What other suggestions do you have for connecting with your child when attachment is a challenge?