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Attachment in Adoption and Foster Care
For any of the areas below, consider your child's "family age", the number of weeks and months your child has been a member of your family, rather than chronological age as a guide to "appropriate behavior and expectations".
Feeding: Anticipate your child's hunger. Encourage your child to make eye contact with you as she eats. Hold child on your lap while you feed him or her or while child feeds herself. Help child to recognize feeling empty and full. Make eating a time of physical and emotional intimacy.
Sleeping: Have child sleep in your room; a separate bed is fine. Tell child you are always available, and respond even to small sounds or cries in the night to develop your child to trust you at night as well as during the day. Stay near your child as he/she falls asleep. Remember, your child is only a few weeks or months old in "family time"; you wouldn't expect a two month old baby to put himself fall asleep alone.
Bathing: Bathe with your child and engage him/her in water play and body exploration. Skin to skin contact as well as eye contact are critical to building attachment.
Toileting: Help your child relate to you with eye contact and vocalizations when you change a diaper. Help your child learn to tell you when he/she is wet or dirty. If your child was toilet trained prior to adoption, expect accidents and perhaps a return to diapers. Remember to teach about and help your child to use our style of toilets.
Dressing: Dress or help dress your child, using this as an opportunity to have safe, contained physical contact, to teach vocabulary of body parts, and to comment on similarities (claiming): "Look we both have fingers on our hands!" or " You have brown hair and I have black hair: we both have hair!"
Injury: Respond, regardless of whether your child does, to any hurt or bump no matter how small. This is the way to teach your child to expect care when hurt, emotionally or physically. Model or encourage crying when it's appropriate, not stoicism, even in older children.
Emotions: Name and model all sorts of feelings. Use exaggerated facial expression and body language, and give words, phrases and dialogue for how to react emotionally. A basic beginning repertoire includes: happy, sad, confused, mad, and tired. Additions include: thrilled, furious, and frustrated.
Playing: Play with your child. Don't expect your child to know anything about toys or objects that are most familiar to you. Teach your child how to play.Minimize frustration; begin with toys that are for babies and toddlers.
Verbally: Describe what you and your child are doing to develop both vocabulary and your child's understanding of "how and why the world works". Include frequent references to how it might have been done one way in the orphanage (you sat in a chair and were fed quickly because lots of other kids were waiting) but in a family it's done a different way (you sit in my lap and I feed you slowly).
Picking up/Carrying: Remember "Family Time" when you debate whether to pick your child up. Most infants are carried without question until they can walk well, around 15-20 months. So give your self a good year of carrying. Get a backpack or front pack to help when you're doing chores. This close physical contact is critical to attachment and to bonding.
Socializing: Don't let your child go to other adults indiscriminately. Develop your child's sense of appropriate intimacy and expectation of care from just parents. Only parents should hold their child for the first month, and after that only extended family, if the child is comfortable. Define the following levels of intimacy : parents, family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers.
Frustration tolerance: Help your child develop ways to express frustration by demonstrating facial expression, physical and verbal ways to ask for help. Recognize when your child should be frustrated and coach your child to ask for assistance at that time. Emphasize the pleasure of getting (and giving) help.
Getting attention: Help your child learn to ask for attention. Demonstrate physical and verbal ways of asking for attention. Note when your child lets you "ignore" him or her for too long (phone calls, conversations with friends), catch yourself and explain to your child they have the right to ask for your attention, even when you are busy. Encourage child to do this.
Sharing: Children from orphanage settings sometimes share because they don't thing anything is really theirs. Help your child learn that certain things, including parents, belong to them and can not be taken away. Expect a short period of sharing, then a long period of possessiveness and eventually a genuine ability to share.
Sibling and Family Rivalry: Adopted children are often more jealous of sibs and parents or even parents showing affection to each other.
Regression: Expect it, even encourage it. This is your child's chance to be a baby with you.
Attunement/ Mirroring: Attunement is mirroring the emotional tone of your child. This and mirroring behavior and vocalizations helps build a child's sense of self and attachment.
© Patty Cogen works in Seattle, Washington, as a Child Development Specialist and Family Therapist with expertise in international adoptions.
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