I am an older-child adoptee. I was six when I came to live with my family and eight when they adopted me.

I was never diagnosed with attachment (or detachment) problems because those names weren’t used in the early 70s, but I had problems shared by many older adopted children such as lack of trust, poor eye contact, pulling away from being hugged, manipulative behavior, stealing, and lying. (I hesitate to use the term “Reactive Attachment Disorder.” RAD is a psychiatric diagnosis—not a label that should be quickly assumed, and certainly not a diagnosis that should be made by parents, social workers, or ourselves.)

Adoptive families have to be realistic in their expectations. Based on my personal experience and that of my biological siblings, I’d like to offer these tips to parents of children adopted at older ages, to help them identify problems, and to help them help their children cope and adjust within the context of a past that may include varying degrees of abuse and/or neglect.

  1. Make sure the state/social worker gives you as much information on your child’s background as possible, including but not limited to:
    • The number of the child’s foster placements
    • What were the foster homes like? Friendly, violent, chaotic, sterile, too many kids?
    • Was the child sick and/or injured in placements? Did he/she receive timely medical treatment, or did family wait until outside intervention to get help?
    • How does/did he/she interact with others? Doctors, teachers, foster mothers or foster fathers, other children? Was he/she trusting or leery?
    • Does the child have physical scars or marks that need explaining?
    • Is the child extremely thin? Sickly? Very tired?
    • Is or has the child been very quiet? Shy? Withdrawn? Fearful? Have sudden angry outbursts?
    • Does he/she have problems with sleeping? Bedwetting? Wetting pants?
  2. Gather as many resources as you can to help, i.e., adoption support groups for parents and young adoptees (and siblings, if necessary), drawing on the experience and help of others who have gone through this and successfully worked through it with their children. There are support groups on the Internet and “in real life.”
  3. Throw your ego out the window. There is no shame to ask for and/or accept help to develop parenting skills.
  4. Don’t take your child’s attachment problems personally, it isn’t about you.
  5. Once attachment problems are identified and diagnosed, understand that it can take a long time to relearn trust, and the older the child, the longer it may take. These problems can last into adult relationships.
  6. Your child may not be able to articulate feelings, especially if the problems arise from repressed memories.
  7. You may have to “unlearn” some or all of what you thought you knew about parenting with an attachment-affected child.

My adoptive mother’s mistake was that she took my detachment from her personally. She also didn’t have sufficient resources to educate herself about attachment or to cope with many of her own feelings and it was a start to a very painful adoption for both of us, for that reason.

Remember, it is the adoptee who has been uprooted, who has the painful past, and who has to relearn to trust, not the new family. Some adoptees bond to a lesser extent, some a greater, and some adoptees never bond to their adoptive families in a way that satisfies the family’s want/need.

The best thing you can do for children with attachment problems is to let them know you love them, that you will always be there for them, and you will try to help them in any way possible if they ask you. They may need much more reassurance than you think should be needed. They need to be told it’s okay to be angry about what happened before, and that it’s okay to mourn the loss of original family if they remember it. They need to feel that they can bond or grow closer to their new family at their pace and not the adoptive family’s pace.