How to Foster Strong Attachment in Your Adoption


Identifying Threats to Your Attachment


If you are an adoptive parent, you have probably learned a good deal already about attachment. There are many threats to healthy attachment for adopted children. Here I will list a few: 

  • Early experiences of neglect, inattentive or inconsistent caregiving
  • Early experiences of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse, usually occurring in the context of a caregiving or family relationship
  • Lack of parental protection from emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Institutional, foster or orphanage care, with a rotating cast of caregivers
  • Developmental delays or sensory integration problems, often related to neglect or institutional care
  • The need to develop complex survival skills instead of attachment skills, as a result of abuse, neglect, and institutional care
  • Intense terror, traumatic re-experiencing, dissociation, fears of being unlovable or abandoned when exposed to healthy parenting and caregiving relationships; creating a desire to resist/reject love from adoptive parents

 Lastly, I'm going to make a somewhat controversial statement: I believe adoption itself is a threat to attachment, even if the adoption occurs at birth. The reason I believe this is because many studies demonstrate an intense amount of prenatal learning. The developing fetus is learning about the biological mother's movement, heartbeat, diet, voice, smell, and nervous system. The fetus acclimates to these environmental factors and grows in unique ways to prepare for a specific type of perinatal world. When the baby is born into a completely different world, with different smells, voices, heartbeats, and diets, it is an adjustment to say the least. The baby is completely unprepared and must re-acclimate, often in its very early weeks, when it should be directing all its energy into forging a strong attachment with the caregiver. Often the elements learned prenatally, such as the mother's voice and heartbeat, are meant to help soothe the infant and provide continuity, predictability and feelings of safety outside of the womb. All those elements disappear with adoption. 

Do all adopted kids have attachment issues? Absolutely not! Many adoptive families work very diligently to forge these important connections and come out victorious! Here are a few ways to focus your energies as a family: 


Pre-emptive Steps to Build Connection


1. Touch, cuddle, hug.

In a baby's early weeks and months, the more touch, the better. Touch regulates babies, calms them, soothes them and assures them of your loving presence. The same is true in the early weeks and months of adoption. Cuddling together, holding your child often and regularly, giving them 20 hugs a day- all these things are recommended by attachment experts. If you adopt an infant or baby, I recommend baby-wearing, using a sling to hold your baby close to your heart. An older child can benefit a lot from cuddling together to read at night, gentle massage and hugs. 

2. Eye contact.

In a baby's early weeks, he can only see a few inches from his face- just far enough to see the mother's eyes when she holds him. This is not a mistake. Eye contact is an important way for kids to feel seen, loved, and known. As much as you can, give loving eye contact. 

3. Emotionally attune. Read their mind, meet their need.

In a baby's early years, the parents are completely attuned to her. They listen to her cries and understand if she is hungry, wet, tired, energetic, angry or sad. They help her interpret her own body's cues through meeting her needs over and over again, without being asked. Parents help the baby understand when she needs to eat, sleep, jump, or be held. When a baby doesn't have these early experiences, she often doesn't know what she needs. She experiences discomfort often, but has few ways to interpret why she is uncomfortable or to cope with the discomfort. Or, she has learned to be prematurely self-sufficient, never crying out or asking for help from adults. Instead of saying, "I'm hungry, can I have a snack?" maybe she has learned to steal, hoard and hide food to survive. Enough experiences of you offering food just when she gets hungry will send the message, "I'm here for you. I understand what you need and I want to help you get it." Adopted kids need parents to "read their minds" over and over again and help them meet their needs.

4. Sensory play. 

Explore websites and books about Sensory Processing Disorder. If your child experienced neglect, institutional or orphanage care, sensory integration issues are common. This means that his body is not able to experience sensory information in a typical way. Engage your child in sensory play that builds and expands his comfort with new sensory experiences- such as new sounds, textures, tastes, ways of moving, etc. This is something parents naturally do with young children. As sensory integration becomes less of an issue, your child will have more energy to devote toward attachment with you. 

5. Read.

Here are 2 amazing recommended books: "The Connected Child" by Karyn Purvis, Ph.D. & "Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do if you are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World" by Sharon Heller, Ph.D.


When Therapy is Needed


If you are adopting an older child, a child with a history of abuse or neglect, or especially a child of any age with orphanage experience, I highly recommend an assessment with a Theraplay® therapist and an Occupational Therapy (OT) assessment, right out of the gate.

OT will ensure that your child is on the right path, developmentally and physically, meeting milestones in good time, and integrating sensory information appropriately. If the sensory issues are mild enough to be missed by a pediatrician, they can still cause many problems for your child developmentally, socially, and educationally. These issues may be preventable if you get appropriate care for your child right away. 

A Theraplay assessment will determine if your child could benefit from attachment-based play therapy designed to shore-up your parent-child relationship and boost your child's relational skills. Theraplay works on building the child's capacity to trust and to attach. If there is a history of institutional care, abuse or neglect, these capacities may have been negatively impacted. Theraplay therapists are rigorously trained with regards to common issues faced by adoptive families and will understand your child's needs in a deep way.

If you are an adoptive family who has been doing great until recently, I highly recommend working with a Theraplay therapist or an attachment expert, instead of a general child therapist or play therapist. You can search the Theraplay Institute's worldwide directory here: 

If you can't locate a Theraplay therapist online, call the Institute directly, as many therapists aren't listed online. If you still can't find a Theraplay therapist, consult with a child therapist in your area and ask for referrals for a child therapist who works with attachment disorders, Reactive Attachment Disorder, adoptive families, or Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) in children.


Is this blog feeling too *relatable*? Worried about your adopted child? Looking for Theraplay in the Asheville, NC area? 




*A registered service mark of The Theraplay® Institute, Evanston, IL, USA