Click to toggle navigation menu.


ExpertBeacon Logo

Adoptive parenting: Building bonds of strong, healthy attachment

Adoptive parenting is a rewarding and challenging experience that asks a great deal of everyone’s hearts. You are all falling in love with each other in real time. As a result, it is important to be fluent in the dynamics of attachment. What does it look like? What are the markers of disconnection? How do you stay grounded in your underlying emotions and not get carried away by content? When does it become necessary to seek professional help?


Do recognize that trust and safety must be built and earned step-by-step

Children who enter a family by birth are taking their place on an already established continuum of genetics and family history that belongs to them without question. None of this applies to an adopted child, which is recognized on many levels by both the child and the parent. So trust and safety must be built and earned step-by-step. One of the most crucial things to remember is that attachment is a process. Give yourself permission to fall in love with each other and understand that connecting emotionally is primary--not necessarily following rules or imposing good behavior.

Do educate yourself about adoption and attachment

As an adoptive parent, it is very important to take advantage of the resources available to you. Join online parenting groups that give you some context of other parents’ experience, such as

Read everything you can get your hands on, especially if it reflects your specific situation, such as international adoption, toddler adoption, foster-to-adopt or transracial adoption. This book is a great gateway book,, as it is filled with short, practical essays addressing many topics.

Most importantly, understand that adoptive parenting requires an extra level of parenting due to the inherent loss in the situation. Your child’s heart has been broken, and he or she is depending on you to mend it.

Do learn the markers of failing attachment

Is your child comfortable with direct eye contact? Will he allow himself to be cuddled? Does she run to the first available adult to be picked up or held? Does he call every adult that he sees, mommy or daddy? Will your child not let you out of her sight? Maybe there is poor impulse control and consistently demanding behavior. Maybe you have discovered that your child is hoarding food and/or candy in her room. As a child gets older, attachment issues can show up in oppositional and controlling behaviors that are not responsive to the imposition of consequences. It is vital for parents to recognize these behaviors for what they are, which is an underlying cry for help.

Do understand the impact of trauma on the brain

When a child is separated from his/her birth mother--even at birth--an attachment rupture has occurred. If that rupture is not successfully repaired in an ongoing, safe and committed relationship with a new parent, the child will be re-traumatized with each successive real or perceived abandonment. This is especially true with kids who have been institutionalized or are in multiple foster placements. Their sympathetic nervous system will be tuned and ready for the next catastrophe because the hyper-vigilance and easily triggered fight/flight response that results is what drives behavior. Behind this is just a terrified kid fighting for his/her life.

Do utilize the HALT acronym

HALT is an acronym that represents four critical questions to ask of both yourself and your child when you are at your wits end with an upset child.

H stands for, “Is my child hungry right now?”
A stands for, “Is my child angry about something else that is showing up here?”
L stands for, “Is my child lonely?”
T stands for “Is my child tired right now?”

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, be sure to address that issue first, and then you can come back to the actual substance of the conflict when everyone has calmed down and is feeling better. When you or your child feels hungry, angry, lonely or tired, your resilience and capacity to stay grounded is significantly impaired and the chances of any satisfactory resolution are slim.


Do not take it personally

If your child is unable to accept affection and maintain eye contact, or is behaving in an oppositional way, it is important not to interpret this behavior as an indictment of you or your parenting. Alert autonomic nervous systems that are in a perpetual fight/flight mode create scared kids who are doing their best to protect themselves from further emotional traumas, otherwise known as broken hearts. They are defending themselves in the best way they can. Your job as a parent is to connect with that scared child. Underneath the words and behaviors, remember to build safety and trust on a moment-to-moment basis.

Do not expect gratitude

It can be difficult to manage when your parental expectations and fantasies run up against challenging encounters with kids. When a child is adopted, the temptation to yearn for acknowledgement of everything you have gone through can be significant. However, do not place that burden on your child. He or she is struggling to reconcile a deep loss and may be angry that his/her fate seems to be in everybody’s hands but their own. You must acknowledge all of this and re-affirm your commitment to your child whenever possible.

Do not doubt your capacity to parent successfully

Parenting is one of the few topics that everyone seems to consider themselves an expert on. People feel free to offer their advice and judgement. If adoption is part of your family, this dynamic can be amplified. Remember to do your research, be as informed as possible and stay present with your child as you build your relationship together. Listen with your heart to yourself and to your child. Be sure to give yourself permission to trust yourself and your parenting choices.

Do not assume that everything will eventually work itself out

When faced with difficult and/or unsettling behaviors, it can be tempting to write them off as a passing phase or a developmental stage that will eventually pass. On rare occasions this could be true but, more often, the behaviors reflect an underlying issue that needs attention. If the root causes are not engaged in some manner, the relational behavior patterns will become more entrenched. Seeking help or professional input does not mean that you have failed in any way as a parent. On the contrary, it means you are paying attention and doing your job.

Do not ignore your own unresolved childhood issues

All parents are offered the opportunity of healing themselves in raising their child. Be aware of your unresolved issues from your own childhood. If you have your own abandonment issues, stemming from emotionally unavailable or absent parents, your fight/flight system can be triggered. And when challenged, you might withdraw emotionally and/or physically from your child, thereby enacting abandonment again, which can become a self-perpetuating dynamic. Healthy parenting requires a healthy adult, so you have an obligation to take care of yourself and seek help if appropriate.

Jumping cartoon

Adoptive parenting is a complex and beautiful journey. Being present to your individual child and building the bonds of healthy attachment as you fall in love with each other is the cornerstone of everything. Identify resources in your community and on the web that can support you on this path, learn as much as possible about the impact of trauma in adoption and listen to your heart. If you feel that something is not right, seek professional help from someone who is versed in the intersection of attachment, trauma and adoption.

More expert advice about Adoption and Foster Care

Photo Credits: © olly -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Maureen Donley, M.A., MFTPsychotherapist

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist my private practice spans all ages and holds a focus in creative professionals, adoption and trauma work. I earned my M.A. in Clinical Psychology with a Child Studies specialization from Antioch Univer...

View Full Profile