Thursday, June 9, 2011

Raising a Healthy Adopted Child: Attachment & Bonding

On Monday we talked about trauma triggers and the job we have as parents to help our child navigate through them to emotional health. This was a huge part of parenting Mae in the first three years. For children who, sadly, had a harder institutionalization experience, dealing with trauma triggers may continue to need work throughout their lives. But you can do it! There is a large community that will support you.

Moving on to another big word in adoption, let us talk about Attachment and Bonding. Attachment in adoption can be tricky. If your child was lucky enough to have been in foster care, she probably did form an attachment to her caregiver. When transferred to you, there was most certainly a grieving period for that caregiver. Older children will often go to the door of the hotel, trying to return to the person who cared for them.

Many children spend their months in an orphanage, a Social Welfare Institute, or an institution. These three words mean the same thing and usually translate to a high baby to nanny ratio and limited engagement with the same caregiver. Initially, Mae and I bonded right away. She had never bonded with another caregiver and had no one to grieve for, other than the familiarity with her surroundings.

But a solid attachment is still hard, because these children, like Mae, have never learned how to bond. So they don't trust you. They don't trust that you will always care for them. They don't believe that you will come back to them when you leave. In short, they continue their institutionalized behavior of shutting down and not letting anyone in.

I was told by my adoption agency, CCAI, to seek eye contact as an initial step in bonding with my new daughter. This went well and she was able to make that step easily, while still in China. Other areas remained difficult for us.

  • Showing Affection manifests itself in different ways for different children. Many children withhold affection and tense up when being hugged, etc. Far from denying me affection, Mae has always been overly affectionate. While this is a pleasant problem, it means she is not fully bonded to me. It means she still thinks she needs to work hard to make me love her. I return the myriad hugs and kisses with my own, hoping that one day she will relax into her role as my beloved daughter.
  • Seeking Comfort is an area in which Mae has flip-flopped from what I would expect. Rather than shutting down, which we will discuss next, she demands my comfort when she is upset. It is wonderful that she wants and needs my consoling. But it is distressing that she cannot comfort herself. Still, I'll take this area on willingly. It is very rewarding for a parent to hold a sobbing child and watch her relax and calm down in your arms.
  • Shutting Down is a more typical response to pain, whether it be emotional or physical. These children often sleep more than usual (Mae did this in China) as a way to avoid the confusing emotions they experience when they are awake. Older children will not make eye contact, especially when "in trouble," and have a very hard time working through things that are troubling them. These children seem to have a very high threshold for pain, since they do not cry when hurt and do not ask for help.
  • Superglue Baby was a term I affectionately used for Mae, but since she is almost six, it is wearing a little thin. Some children will roam and only return on their own terms (as a reader commented in Don't Leave Me Alone) while others will cling to the parent. Mae used to spend all of her time with me, either next to me or on me. Touch was key for her. As she's aged, I no longer have to hold her, but she is always with me. I try to have patience. I encourage her to color in the dining room while I prepare dinner in the kitchen; that way we can still chat without me tripping over her. But it is a process, and a slow one.
  • Sleeping Alone affects many children, adopted or not. But for the adopted child, many parents find that their child simply cannot sleep alone at first. Even now, Mae sleeps with her door open and the hall light on. She is not afraid of the dark, but she is terrified of being alone. Many parents practice Attachment Parenting, and for those that embrace it, it is a lifesaver for those families. We chose to stay the route we had begun with our boys, but we did so gradually and with much love.
  • Expressing Feelings is the, dare I say, last step towards a full attachment. When your child can tell you that she feels sad because she is thinking of her Chinese mommy, for example, her world opens and suddenly all of those overwhelming pre-verbal emotions can be discussed in the light of her current knowledge. Mae is not yet able to express her feelings verbally, but responds well when I state them for her. "Are you feeling sad because you don't want to have different hair than your friend?" will elicit a wonderfully healthy discussion about how being different can feel very hard some days. With this last step, a child is ready to deal with the emotional trauma she has been storing.
Attachment in adoption is one of the key issues for many families, while others have no problem with it. This is another testament to the many different types of personalities our beautiful children have. Some children are naturally sensitive. Some are naturally optimistic. These differences are apparent in both adopted and biological children, but when we can help our sensitive ones to truly trust us, these differences can be slightly minimized.

Was attachment easy in your adoption? What help can you give to those that are struggling?

1 comment:

Heather said...

As someone who loves your daughter and watched some of the highs and lows of your journey to become a family, this made me tear up. Miss you guys a ton!!!