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Building healthy attachment with adopted children is crucial

Julie Beem Executive Director Therapeutic Parent Attachment & Trauma Network, Inc. (ATN)

Healthy attachment is a crucial component in children’s emotional development. Attaching to a primary caregiver, such as a parent, sets the stage for healthy relationships, including their own self-image and how safe children feel in the world. No wonder adoptive parents are often filled with anxiety about whether or not their child is forming healthy attachment. Infants and young children who have experienced the loss of their original parents--and often other maltreatments--are at risk for struggles with attaching in their forever families. But attachment is an ongoing process, and there is much adoptive parents can do to help build these healthy bonds.


Do intentionally spend time in positive interaction

Healthy attachment occurs when parents spend large amounts of time with their newborns, meeting their needs and focusing on their care. This vast quantity of time not only meets the needs of the all-dependent infant, but gives parents a chance to know the child and to attune to the child’s needs and personality. Bonding occurs during this period.

Adopted children usually do not come into homes as newborns. So spending significant amounts of time in one-on-one interaction with your children, focusing on care, is critical. Take parental leave from work—you have just added a child to the family. Intentionally make time to be with your child and positively focus on him or her. The amount of time you spend with your child will never be wasted.

Do actively focus on connecting

Find ways to connect with your child--especially if your child’s behaviors are not positive and feel rejecting. Concentrate on finding shared interests and remaining playful. Silly songs, daily rituals, playing games and sharing hobbies can be great ways to connect. Remember that behavior is communication. And sometimes, an adopted child’s behaviors communicate a fear of relationships or abandonment, as well as a lack of safety. Attachment is about connection. Building this connection will allow kids to feel safer and share their fears in healthier ways.

Do use touch, facial expressions and movement to communicate safety and acceptance

Parents of infants will hold, rock, cuddle and coo their newborns. This engages all of the child’s senses and helps the child to feel safe and nurtured. Parents can engage the senses of their adopted children of any age through activities, such as dancing, snuggle time, massages or swinging on a porch swing.

There are countless ways to introduce movement and touch into your child’s day through activities that you do together. And remember that your facial expressions are important. Even if you are concerned about your child’s behaviors or worried about attachment, conveying warmth and love through your eye contact, tone of voice and demeanor are vital. Reflecting on your child’s “less than” past and the nurturing he/she did not receive can remind you as to why your child is struggling with attachment and needs you to be warm and loving.

Do meet children’s emotional needs at their level

Not having their needs met as an infant can delay or derail adopted children’s emotional development. As you get to know your children, you may recognize some lags and gaps. Meeting children at their emotional level is critical, despite their chronological age.

Parents often try to push toddlers and young children toward independence--such as staying in the church nursery or walking to class at preschool on their own--while children from at-risk beginnings may need to remain close to parents to feel safe and be able to emotionally regulate. Sometimes, adoptive parents receive advice from other parents or professionals that they need to push the child to do things that other children the same age are doing. Being attuned to your child’s needs and level of emotional development will enable you to decide what he or she is ready for.


Do not underestimate the importance of attachment

Healthy attachment sets the stage for children’s views of the world and of themselves, as well as the pattern for relationships with friends and ultimately, adult relationships. Healthy attachment also helps children self-regulate because they have internalized their parent’s calm, nurturing way of providing safety and regulating their world. Scientists are discovering that healthy attachment builds a child’s resilience to traumatic events and is a huge predictor in how people can overcome tragedies and PTSD.

It is very important to focus on attachment to give your relationship with your adopted children the time, effort and energy they deserve. And to realize that this is a growing and changing process.

Do not assume that you and your child will instantly bond

Some pre-adoptive parents believe they will bond instantly with their child and the child with them. But this is highly unlikely. Parents tend to mistake a child’s behaviors as instant bonding. If a child runs up to you, climbs in your lap and says, “Hi Daddy” when you first meet, this is not an indication of healthy attachment. Children, just like adults, have the human need for relationship, but instant familiarity is not healthy attachment.

Conversely, if you don’t feel “in love” when your adopted child is handed to you, this is not an indication that you have failed or that a healthy attachment can’t be achieved. Loving parents of newborns take part in the actions that build these bonds of attachment--even if they don’t realize they are doing it through their repeated responses to the infant. You can, too. Remember that healthy attachment doesn’t happen spontaneously.

Do not take it personally

Adopted children who have faced abandonment, abuse and neglect can have very rejecting and complex behaviors. These behaviors are often directed at the new adoptive parents, and may even escalate as the parent tries to build attachment. Children can pull away and reject touch, say things such as, “I hate you,” or otherwise exhibit behaviors that send the message that they don’t love you and want to be left alone. It feels very personal, and parents who have waited a long time for a child can feel crushed.

Understanding the impact your child’s early abandonment and mistreatment play on emotional development is crucial. Remember that a child’s rejection of your efforts to attach are based in fear that he/she will again be emotionally wounded. And realize that attachment is a process that takes time, especially when the child is bringing emotional wounds and developmental lags to the relationship. Parents are a major catalyst in helping children form strong attachments and a lifetime of healthy relationships. Don’t despair and don’t take it personally.

Do not hesitate to seek support

If your child’s rejecting behaviors persist, or you feel overwhelmed, it is best to seek therapy and support sooner, rather than later. Adoption–competent, attachment-focused therapists can work with both the child and the parents. They often provide parental coaching and ideas, and point adoptive parents to support groups that can provide even more strategies for working toward healthy attachment.

Jumping cartoon

Healthy attachment sets the stage for healthy emotional development in all of the relationships in a child’s life. Children from adoption can be at risk for attachment challenges. Remember that building a healthy parent-child relationship with your adopted child is a process--and you can do much to help your child. At times, this process may be challenging, and you may need professional help and support. But you are helping your child to build a healthy emotional foundation. A healthy attachment to you may be the most important gift you can give your child.

More expert advice about Adoption and Foster Care

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

Julie BeemExecutive Director Therapeutic Parent

Julie Beem is a mom of four and a parent three ways - biological, step and adoptive. She began her journey of learning to therapeutically parent traumatized children after adopting her youngest from China in 1998. Since 2004, Julie has been an...

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