Children of the Heart: Attachment and Bonding

Children of the Heart: Attachment and Bonding

Imagine. You are a young child--one, five, eight years old--or maybe older. One day, someone comes to you in your foster home or your orphanage and says: "Very soon you're going to be leaving the world you know here with us forever. You are going to live with people you don't know. They will be your new family. No one you know will go with you. You may not recognize many things in your new home or neighborhood, but you'll get used to them. Soon, you'll be happy there in your new life."

For most children who are adopted, this transition from a known way of life--however good or bad it may be--to an unknown world represents a major life change as well as a significant life "loss." Yet, even though such transition may be difficult at first, most adoption stories have very happy endings!

Children of all ages placed for adoption do make a remarkable adjustment in being with their new family in a fairly short period of time. And their new families embrace them with great love, care and sensitivity to their needs. During this transitional time, which can last from just a few days or weeks to a few months or even years, each person in the family begins to bond and form a loving attachment with the new child.

Attachment is a core issue in adoption. Because without successful attachment, life is often difficult, stressful, empty or lonely for the child.



Fears ultimate abandonment

Loss of biological, genetic, and cultural history

Issues of holding on and letting go


Placement for adoption as a personal rejection

Can only be “chosen” if first rejected

Issues of self-esteem

Anticipates rejection

Misperceives situations


Feels deserving of misfortune

Ashamed of being different

May take defensive stance Anger


Grief overlooked in childhood or blocked by adult leading to depression and acting out

May grieve lack of “fit” in adoptive family


Deficits in information about birth parents, birthplace, etc. may impede integration of identity

May seek identity in early pregnancies or extreme behaviors in order to create a sense of belonging


Fears getting close and risking reenactment of earlier losses

Concerns over possible incest (e.g. with an unrecognized sibling)

Bonding issues may lower capacity for intimacy


Adoption alters life course

Aware of not being a party to initial adoption decisions, in which adults made life-altering choices

Haphazard nature of adoption removes cause-and-effect continuum

As an adoptive parent, you want to bring a child into your home and make that child a part of your family forever. If you're like most adoptive parents, you don't make a distinction between an adopted child and a biological child. You simply want your adopted child to behave as if he or she had always been your child.

Adoptive parents often become impatient with the attachment process because it does takes time for the bonds to form. Sometimes longer than they like! But the wait, the effort and the love you put into developing an attachment with your adopted child are worth it in the long run!

What is attachment all about? In this feature piece, we'll take a look at key components of this important aspect of adoption. Here, you'll read about:

1) What is bonding? What is attachment?

2) Why is attachment important?

3) How can I tell if my child is forming a healthy attachment to me?

4) Are there signals that attachment is not going well?

5) What are some ways I can foster good attachment?

6) What books or information can I read to better understand adoption and attachment?

7) Where are the online resources related to attachment issues?

The terms bonding and attachment often are used interchangeably when people talk about the developing relationship between adoptive parents and their children. Actually, the two words refer to different aspects of that relationship. The distinction between the concepts is especially important for adoptive families.

"Essentially, you can have a bond with someone, or something, you don't even know," explains Marilyn Durbin, LCSW, a therapist specializing in adoption issues. "For instance, unborn children and their biological mothers have a bond, even though the two of them haven't met.

But adoptive parents don't have the opportunity to bond with their child in the same way that biological parents do. The attachment starts once you meet your child and the relationship actually begins. The distinction is important because in adoption there is no pre-bond--an important step in parenting. "You might bond with a photograph of an unknown child, but once you meet the child, says Durbin, "That's when the attachment begins."

So, what most people are talking about when they refer to bonding with their adopted child is really developing an attachment with their son or daughter. Because attachment is about building a relationship, you will find that attachment is truly an ongoing process that grows and changes over time.

Each family and child will have their own "timeline" for forming an attachment, depending on various factors. A child's age, genetic and environmental background, culture, mental and physical health status--as well as the parents' capability and willingness to allow attachments to form in their own way, at their own pace--all play important roles in forming attachments.

"There's reason to believe that a child's experience of his parents is an especially potent sculptor of the parts of the brain involved in emotion, personality and behavior. Some studies indicate that the strength of a child's bonding with his caregivers may increase his ability to learn and to cope with stress."

From "Babies, Bonds and Brains," by Karen Wright

Discover magazine, October 1997


What is normal attachment behavior as newly adopted children transition into their forever families?

All families, both adoptive and biological, go through different stages in the attachment process as the children and parents come to know one another. In adoptive families, the way attachment "plays out" often relates to the age of the child at the time he or she enters their "forever" family.

Newly adopted children of all ages, including infants, go through a grieving process. They have experienced a major break with a known way of life, even if that life may not have been good. This kind of break is experienced as a psychological loss. It will take time for your child to heal the wound from that loss and to adjust to a new life with you.

To determine whether your child is forming appropriate attachments, new adoptive parents can start by determining if their child is at the normal stage of development for his/her age.

"There is a whole spectrum of behaviors you'll see in newly adopted children as they begin forming attachments to their new parents," explains Durbin. At first, parents may see what's often call the "honeymoon phase," where the child is on her best behavior, following all the "rules" and making little or no fuss about anything. This phase eventually ends.

Once the honeymoon phase passes, parents can expect a newly adopted child to test the limits of the relationship. The bottom line? The child--regardless of his or her age--wants to find out if the parents are really, truly going to hang in there no matter what.

"The issue here is about trust," says Durbin. "Through behavior mostly, the child will be asking, 'Will this person (my new parent) really take care of me?' So early on, newly adopted kids usually set up situations to reject the relationship. This is normal for any kid coming into a permanent family situation."

In some cases, children test their new parents through fits of anger and rage, tantrums, lying, fighting or breaking even the simplest rules of the family. Other signs of trying to reject attachment might include problems with eating or sleeping, whining, clinging or regressing in toilet habits.

In other cases, a child might show what's known as passive-aggressive behavior. "These kids use quiet sabotage," notes Durbin. "They'll do things like get up in the morning, and while everybody else is rushing around preparing for a busy day, the child won't budge, but just sits quietly on the bed, looking sweet. After several days (or weeks or months) of this, parents get angry. And that's the test."

Many adoptive parents can easily become overly anxious about whether an attachment is forming, especially within the first few months after their child comes home. Parents should be cautious about over-stimulating their new children in their attempt to be "good parents," says Lois Melina, in her book, "Raising Adopted Children: A Manual for Adoptive Parents." "Babies may respond to such intensity by withdrawing. The adoptive parent who misinterprets the baby's need for rest as rejection may try even harder to communicate with the baby, prompting even more withdrawal."

What signs can you look for that may represent steps toward forming a healthy attachment? Children of all ages who make good eye contact, who want to be nurtured with touch, hugs, cuddling -- these are signals that the relationship is evolving in a positive way. "I would begin to worry after about six to 12 months if your child hasn't started to show some attachment behavior in terms of coming to you, allowing you to care for them, the anger or tantrums have lessened, and they aren't trying to be controlling," says Durbin.

There is a lot of information and many resources available to help families understand and deal with attachment issues. Be sure to check the "Resources" section at the end for suggestions.

What causes attachment problems? What behaviors signal problems with attachment?

In many cases, adopted children do not have significant problems with forming attachment. They make a fairly smooth transition into becoming a permanent part of their forever families.

So, issues most of these adopted children face are issues common to all children, along with issues related directly to adoption, according to Dr. Gregory Keck and Regina Kupecky, LSW in their book "Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Need Kids."

"The types of problems that adoptive families see in their children are most likely the result of breaks in attachment that occur within the first three years. And they are problems that impair, and even cripple, a child's ability to trust and bond--or attach--to other human beings," say Keck and Kupecky.

How can you tell if your adopted child is struggling with attachment issues? They probably will exhibit many, or even all, of the following symptoms:

• Superficially engaging and "charming" behavior

• Indiscriminate affection toward strangers

• Lack of affection with parents on their terms (not cuddly)

• Little eye contact with parents on normal terms

• Persistent nonsense questions and incessant chatter

• Inappropriate demanding and clingy behavior

• Lying about the obvious (crazy lying)

• Stealing

• Destructive behavior to self, to others and to material things (accident prone)

• Abnormal eating patterns

• No impulse controls (frequently acts hyperactive)

• Lags in learning

• Abnormal speech patterns

• Poor peer relationships

• Lack of cause-and-effect thinking

• Lack of conscience

• Cruelty to animals

• Preoccupation with fire

Source: "Adopting the Hurt Child" by Gregory C. Keck Ph.D., and Regina M. Kupecky LSW

There is a lot of information and many resources available to help families understand and deal with attachment issues.

Top Ten Don'ts for Parents of

Unattached Children

1.Don't take the child's behavior personally. Doing this leads you to lose good interaction and decreases the chance of attachment.

2.Don't get into blaming the social workers, the school, your spouse, yourself. Concentrating on blaming takes away energy needed for advocacy for your child and healing for all of you.

3.Don't doubt yourself. The hard work, love, and commitment you have given to the child counts, even if things don't go well all the time.

4.Don't always accept the first diagnosis of your child's problem. This is especially true if you have a gut feeling it's wrong. A second opinion is just as important for a child's psychiatric diagnosis as for a physical diagnosis.

5.Don't give up hope of finding help/resources. There are many helpful organizations out there, "creative funding" to help pay for some therapy.

6.Don't go beyond your limits or take on too much. If you overstress yourself and get physically ill or have a nervous breakdown you won't be able to help anyone, not even yourself.

7.Don't believe that one person, one couple can't do anything to make a difference. "The squeaking wheel gets the grease." If you're persistent and willing to write lots of letters or make many calls (to legislators, the media, etc.) you can shake things up, wake people up.

8. Don't forget to make and cultivate friendships with those who do understand.

9. Don't believe you aren't making a difference in your child's life.

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