The greatest fear during the adoption process is often only whispered between a husband and a wife. Perhaps one single-soon-to-be mom shares her anxiety with others on an email group. Sometimes the words are never spoken aloud: Will I love this child? Will she be able to love me? What if we don't ever bond?
Observation and research over the past fifty years tell us the period from birth through three years of age is the most favorable time for children to form a bond with their families. Furthermore, more recent research has confirmed the significance of the in utero experience for the un-born child. Nevertheless, adoptive parents have no need for undue concern as we also know developing a bond with an adopted child is not unlike the process of building one with a biological child.
Successful adoptive families share key factors that contribute to the bonding process. The availability of a support system or support group who has traveled the same journey has been shown to be extremely valuable in sharing knowledge and experiences in facilitating bonding with an adopted child. Additionally, parental knowledge of general child developmental dynamics and a positive perception of one's own parenting ability increase confidence and therefore enhance the bonding experience for parent and child.
When parents are flexible in their rule making and decision-making and are willing to spend time alone as a couple, both the couple and adopted child benefit. The importance of a sense of humor and the need for open communication in the marriage are important in all healthy families and should not be overlooked.
Bonding after adoption is a parent initiated learning experience. No matter the child's age, parents who are proactive in developing a bond with their child create an ongoing positive reciprocal relationship in which the adoptive child learns, as does the biological child, over time to respond constructively to feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. The behaviors of each family member serve as both a trigger and response for one another.
By being sensitive, consistent, and emotionally present, the parent satisfies the child's needs which leads to a reduction in anxiety and increased sense of trust and security. The child's development of trust in the parent's ability to consistently and satisfactorily address their needs leads to their sense of connection and belonging.
Adoptive parents need a variety of techniques to facilitate the bonding experience. Initially, they may feel awkward or uncomfortable in initiating the bonding experience with an older infant, toddler, or child. Some adopted children recoil or withdraw when approached by the parent, which can exacerbate the situation. The parent's ability to detach from the rejection and proceed with a different approach or at a slower speed shows respect for the child and fosters the developing bond.
Responding to the child's needs or demands in a nurturing manner even when the child is highly emotional encourages trust and recognition the child is lovable to the parent no matter what. Maintaining eye contact and genuine thoughtful loving touch promote a sense of being cared for and accepted. The warmth conveyed in a loving shared gaze is timeless and both parent and child bask in the enjoyment. Closeness can also be achieved through proximity in sitting together or hugging or patting a shoulder. Reenactments of earlier developmental tasks such as feeding, singing, and holding all serve to develop and strengthen the bond between child and parent.
The moments of anger and frustration experienced by child and parent are also opportunities for bonding. Underlying many tantrums and outbursts are the fear and anxiety the adopted child has he or she will be permanently rejected and suffer the loss of family yet again. However, over time, the repeated positive experiences the adoptive family shares together outnumber the frustrating painful ones and lead to a sense of not only being known but being genuinely loved and accepted for one's true self.
A child's adjustment to an adoptive family relies to a great degree on the quality of parenting received after adoption as well as the quality and nature of earlier bonding experiences and his/her reactions to separation and loss. Families who are emotionally and mentally equipped and receive adequate support and resources are highly likely to be successful in dealing with the challenges bonding with an adopted child can present.
Bonding, the sense of belonging together, is a precursor of love. It may take work and absolute commitment to the bonding process, but the love will come and grow.
Susan Anderson, MSW is a frequent contributor to RainbowKids.com. She lives in Oregon with her two blessings through adoption.