“Oh, what a cute game!” We exclaimed as our new daughter threw herself backwards over and over again while we held her. Some of the other babies in our adoption group were playing the same repetitive game, and we all laughed at their antics. When we were home with our daughter, she continued to play the game with anyone who held her. The rules were the same. Someone would pick her up and she would arch her back, roll her eyes upward, and then thrust her body away hard enough that you had to quickly throw your arm behind her to keep her from falling.
As time wore on and experience set in, we eventually learned this common body language from a young adopted child is not a game at all, but a silent message sent by a child who is desperately trying to get away from the arms that are holding her.
Adoptive parents often overlook, misinterpret, ignore or miss early signs their child is struggling to attach. Even parents that have other children, as we did, often miss the signs for various reasons. Perhaps their other children were biological without attachment issues, or their previous adopted children displayed different behaviors, or they simply never received the education necessary to recognize the signs at all. Though each child with their own distinctive personality and experiences will show various behaviors to signal their attachment difficulties, perhaps sharing some of the specific signals our children sent to us will help you recognize similar behaviors in your child who is trying desperately to send you a message.
Early Smoke Signals of Attachment Issues in Our Adopted Infant (12 months-24 months)
- Extreme arching of the back when held, thrusting her backward. Early on, this happened with no crying or facial expression at all. Later it included full-blown wailing and thrashing.
- Crying was often not comforted by being held, but would increase sharply anyway if you ceased to try to comfort.
- Did not seek out the comfort of a parent when injured or frightened but would either stare blankly or cry alone with a “glazed over” appearance.
- Was almost “too easy” to care for: would play alone for long periods without seeking attention, cried little, demanded little.
- Inability to differentiate between adoptive parents and any other men or women. Our daughter would call any man “Dada” and any woman “Mama” and sometimes even seek their attention to meet her needs. (This happens at some level with biological children, too, at a certain developmental stage, but it can be much more significant in a child who is not forging appropriate bonds with a parent.)
- Did not want to be fussed over, especially at bedtime. She wanted to just be placed in the bed and left alone, not rocked or held or cuddled.
- Would not look at you in the eyes if you tried to make close or extended eye contact.
- Would let anyone hold her without complaint or seeming discomfort, even strangers.
- Did not “mold” herself to parent when being held. Kept her body somewhat rigid and resisted being pulled in closer.
- Would seem to intentionally call others “Mama” when her needs were not being met (if she was hungry or sleepy she would go to someone else, hold her arms out to be held and say “Mama”)
- Seemed often to be somber. Her laughs and smiles seemed much more muted than our bio children’s had been. We rarely saw her just loose herself in joy the way kids do.
- Seemed unusually independent for her age.
- Emotionally withdrew after we returned from an absence instead of immediately trying to reconnect.
Smoke Signals of Attachment Issues in our Adopted Toddler (3-4 years)
- Would “fake” affection to get to a desired object. For example, she would climb up into the lap of a relative that she was not very familiar with and act like she was really wanting their attention, only to try to get to a piece of cake that was sitting in front of the person.
- Copied off the affections and loving actions of siblings instead of initiating any herself.
- Seemed to disassociate when cuddled. She would tolerate the holding and was not reactive the way our first daughter had been, but she didn’t react at all to the attention and seemed to have a glassy and disinterested look.
- Attached to objects and articles more than people. The loss of a piece of candy or toy caused her far more distress than the absence of a parent or sibling.
- Was overly driven to get to school or for a babysitter to arrive and was noticeably disappointed when we were reunited.
- Cried often and for inappropriate events that would not usually trigger crying in a child.
- Would return to small but inappropriate behaviors over and over again even after repeated attempts to intervene and train her in appropriate behaviors.
- Lied frequently even over very small things.
- Hid objects or behaviors obsessively; seemed to be very comfortable in a secretive life.
Many of the issues we faced with both of our daughters could be categorized into some general areas even though our daughters’ expressions of those issues varied greatly. The basic categories which were often the most significant measures for how our daughters were adjusting and attaching could be summed up as follows:
- More interest in and attachment to objects, food or places (such as a crib, a toy or a particular room) than family members.
- Inability to engage in intimate interactions with others such as close eye contact or close physical contact.
- Exaggerated reactions to the stimulus of being out in public, around crowds or groups of people, or to extended travel and changes in routine. The reactions often did not surface, however, until we returned home.
- Tendency to disassociate and emotionally either withdraw or the converse, meltdown or rage, after the absence of parents.
- A frequent and uneasy sense that the child was relating to the parent and others on a very surface level and not forging deep and intimate interactions with the parents.
While symptoms and signs of difficulties in your child can vary widely, it is simply important that adoptive parents learn to recognize general clues that something is not connecting in their child so that they can seek the help needed and help their child heal and bond as fully as possible. As in so many other areas as parents, we often allow our own love and feelings of attachment to our child to blind us to any difficulties they may be having, finding it hard to acknowledge our children may not feel as close to us as we do to them. It is not just important that we as parents are comfortable with their progress and our level of bonding to them. We also need to diligently educate ourselves to the sometimes subtle signs that our children are not grasping the great, complex web of interactions that forge the bonds of attachment with us. Perhaps the basic experiences shared here will be one step in the process to bring you closer to understanding the depth of your child’s struggle to come out into the light and participate fully in the intimate relationships of family.