Our Family's Attachment Dance

I first want to introduce myself:  I am an adoptive parent of a child from a hard place (a child from a hard place is a child who starts life in a place without consistent caregivers, with one caregiver but not consistent care, for some it can be called neglect, for some it is abuse, for some it is multiple moves between caregivers in early life). I am also an adult who was fortunate to have seen some of the ways the US foster care system works from a teen's standpoint.  What I share here is based on my experiences, feelings and what other adoptive parents have shared with me. I feel honored to have been asked to share here and hope it bring hope or peace to others reading it.

I know when we (my husband and I) started our adoption journey with the hope to adopt an "older" child, one of the many concerns people had for us was the attachment difficulties and whether or not our child will attach to us.  Honestly, it was also a concern of ours. Over the years on our journey, we learned a lot and redefined how we would look at attachment. For us, we made our choices of what we would do and not do to set boundaries to help facilitate attachment. Yet setting boundaries does not facilitate attachment, as it is so much more.

Attachment is a process that happens between two people and it is ongoing throughout life.  A key to attachment, one that I feel is sometimes overlooked in adoption, is that it is a two way street.  It is the interactions between two people that help to create the attachment between them.  Yes early attachments with caregivers can help predict future attachments a child may have later in life.

However true attachment is a dance between two people and it can happen, as well as improve, at any point in life.  Sure it may be easier with an infant or a child with a less difficult history (less moves, less caregivers, more consistent care in early life). But it is not as simple as "if I adopt a baby they will attach and if I adopt an older child it will be hard work to get them to attach."  It is also not as simple as are the parent and child attached?, because there are different attachment styles.  The healthy desired attachment style would be a secure attachment.  However there is also avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment and disorganized attachment.

In our family, we try often to remember attachment is truly relationship building. To help facilitate attachment we will often try to look at ourselves and our interactions with our child.  It takes a lot of self-awareness, self-reflection, and diligence to honestly do this. It is not easy and it is not always pretty.  That being said not every behavior of our child can be changed solely by change in us or our actions.  However for me just being able to take a step back and look at my attitudes about where our child is coming from can change the way we look at how and why our child is acting a certain way. It can make it more tolerable and easier to continue to try to do the attachment dance depending on my attitude towards her behaviors (sometimes unpleasant).  As parents, we have to be able to truly listen to our child (and not just her words), as well as to be able to truly see our actions and attitudes, as well as the effects it has on our relationship.

It would be very easy to say our child is being oppositional, not listening, is not acting her age, etc. during times of struggle. It would be easy to say her behaviors are her resisting or not wanting to attach, but it is not that simple. The moments when she "intentionally" does wrong are obstacles in our attachment process, in our relationship development. Sometimes such behaviors could be fear and worry from a child wondering if this person too will leave.  In the minds of children from hard places, often they think "this person probably will leave me too or let me be taken away too, so let me push them away before then can do that." And often what is happening with behaviors is testing of trust by the child.  Truth is our girl has every right not to trust us.

For many children who are adopted, even the ones who want to be adopted, it is not the desired path to having a family in life.... it comes from loss and it can be hard to trust after loss.  These children experience a loss that is if any of us had as adults.  So to facilitate attachment, we try to be our best at being consistent and honest through the easy and hard moments.  We try to meet our girl where she is and not expect her to meet us where we are at or do as we say (as trust must happen first).  We do not expect she will do the work to attach to us, but rather we will do the dance to attach with her. This is not always easy and we do not always do it perfectly, so at the same time it is important we step back and take the breaths and breaks needed so when we are present, we can be fully present to do the dance.

It is also not the answer of what one should do to attach to their child, as it is different for everyone and every relationship, as attachment is a dance between two people. I think the struggle I have with books and advice is no one can say how two people can best connect or build trust or attach, other than the two people in the relationship. However I will give my best advice I can give for attachment and that is to be present and aware in the moment, enjoy, laugh, step back and take breaks when needed, look in the mirror (and not only at the child when it gets hard), and remember it is an ongoing relationship, not an event that needs to occur, so there are not going to always be perfect moments but forward and backwards steps on the way.


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