Over the past 60 years, we at Holt have observed thousands of adoptive parents and children come together to form families. Each family has had a different experience. Now, as we approach our 60th anniversary this year, we are taking what we have observed through the years to join our families’ experiences with the current research on attachment. Through this combination of experience and research, we aim to help families cultivate strong attachments and healthy lifelong relationships with their adopted children.
The Research Supporting this Approach
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth spent 50 years studying infant attachment. In the two decades following Ainsworth’s groundbreaking study, another psychologist — Mary Main — expanded this work by studying adult attachment. Together, their research informs our attachment-building support for Holt adoptive families.
Mary Ainsworth was interested in the attachment process between infants and their primary caregiver, basically mothers. In the 1970s, she revolutionized our understanding of infant attachment by developing a “test” that measured the style of infant and mother interactions. She filmed this “test” on video — capturing hundreds of infant reactions that she could then categorize into three predictable styles. This test, called “The Strange Situation,” continues to be the gold standard for assessing infant attachment today.
Next came the work of Mary Main. A graduate student of Mary Ainsworth’s, Main identified a fourth infant category she called “disorganized attachment.” Children with a disorganized attachment to their primary caregiver were found to be at high risk for poor scholastic achievement and social problems with peers and adults. Mary focused on understanding the parents of these children to find the basis for this infant category. She and her students devised the “Adult Attachment Interview (AAI),” a one-hour interview they proceeded to deliver to thousands of adults. These interviews revealed distinct patterns of attachment behaviors that directly corresponded to specific attachment styles in infants. Repeated applications of this interview by many independent researchers all came to the same conclusion — that infant attachment behaviors were a response to their caregiver’s attachment style. This discovery completed the picture of a reciprocal relationship of parent–infant attachment — meaning attachment goes both ways, with parents and children reacting and responding to each other. The old nature-versus-nurture debate became extinct in some circles of attachment study as the research pointed to nurture as the dominant influence.
This article will focus on explaining adult attachment styles and their influence on attachment behaviors in children by birth and then how they interface with older adopted children. (In adoption, we now consider a child 18 months and older to be an older child.)
Four Parenting Styles
The four documented styles of adult attachment are what Holt calls: reflective, independent, sensitive and unresolved. Attachment styles are handed down generation to generation almost as predictably as hair or eye color, but without genetic markers. Without knowing any genetic information, the AAI can predict an adult’s attachment style with 85% accuracy if the adult already has children and 75% if they do not yet have children. That is amazing!
Here is how it works. Infants are designed to start learning even before birth. They are absorbing and cataloging information faster than at any other time in the human life span. They are primed to be exquisitely responsive to subtle cues from their parents about what behaviors are expected and/or tolerable for the parent. These subtle cues are nano-seconds in duration. This is so quick that the cue is caught in only a few frames of videotape. It takes a well-trained professional viewing these recordings multiple times, sometimes frame by frame, to isolate the parent’s cue. The infant (we are not talking preschoolers) quickly adapts their behavior to complement their parent’s expectations. Included in the process by which styles are transmitted from one generation to another is a neurological component. It can get pretty complicated, but to keep it simple: humans have special neurons called mirror neurons. In infants, these neurons act like sponges, picking up the parent’s emotional states. Through them, the infant is soaking up the “emotional vibes” of each of their parents. Over time, these sponges get soaked and those feelings become entrenched in the infant’s nervous system. By the time an infant is 1 year old, they have settled into an identifiable relationship pattern corresponding to each of their parents’ patterns.
One style usually prevails and will remain with the infant into adulthood and influences their view and expectations of others. Our styles can be changed through extenuating circumstances that alter the relationship, or an intervention such as counseling. This intimate relationship is often referred to by therapists as the “dance of attachment.” Every participant is doing what they have been taught and in birth families, it works out pretty well.
However, in adoptive families, even if the infant comes home as young as 7 months old, there can be a mismatch between parent and child in these attachment categories. It is this possible mismatch that Holt aims to identify early in the adoption process by incorporating attachment information in the homestudy process. Through this research, we can equip each adoptive parent with knowledge of his or her own attachment tendencies and provide individualized support from child match through post-placement. Let’s take a closer look at each style and see if you can identify yourself, your spouse or even your parents. These categories are on a continuum, meaning you may have characteristics of more than one. For example, if you were given the Adult Attachment Interview in its entirety by a certified interviewer, one main category would be identified probably with a blend of characteristics from different styles.
Let’s start with the most common category: reflective. Just over half of the general population falls into this category. As infants, they had at least one parent that clearly understood their needs and was able to meet their needs in a way that conveyed warmth, understanding and acceptance. Their parent took delight and joy in them. Holt calls this group of adults reflective because they are unique in their ability to put themselves in their infant, child, teen or young adult’s shoes. They understand their child’s feelings, and use words and facial expressions that reflect their understanding of the infant’s experience — all while remaining calm themselves and verbalizing for their infant the names of the feelings she or he is experiencing. Then, through a very complex neurological process involving the mirror neurons, the infant is literally able to absorb the parent’s sense of calm — and they too calm down. For more details on this process, research mirror neurons. After thousands of repeated episodes of their parent remaining calm and soothing their distress, the infant has formulated a view of others and indeed the world as a place that is safe and responsive to their needs. When these infants are in preschool, they are better able to get along with other kids and they perform better at social problem solving. These kids are also believed to be able to reach their highest genetic potential. When these kids become parents, they provide their infants with the same reflective parenting and the process repeats.
This summary sounds like the workings of a fairy godmother, but that is not how it works in real life. Parents are human and cannot be perfect all of the time. It is the majority of the parent’s interactions with their infant/child that determines their style. In the above description, the parents may have times when they respond in a manner that will fit best in one of the other styles that I will describe later. So a parent may be mostly reflective with a bit of independent and/or unresolved characteristics mixed in, or may be reflective with sensitive and independent characteristics. We each have our own fine-tuned mix of characteristics with which we approach relationships.
Adults with a reflective style are flexible in their views, can have relationships with a variety of other attachment styles, keep in contact with friends and family for the long term, and tend to turn to others in times of stress and wellbeing. In other words, they are “people persons.” There is adoption research documenting that infants and toddlers placed with reflective parents start to develop reflective attachment within three months of placement. You could think of this category as having a good balance of structure and nurture. Post-placement tips for parents in this category would focus on self-care so they can continue to be emotionally available and present for their child/ren. Self-care means managing your own stress level so it does not interfere with your well-developed ability to understand your child’s internal experience. Being emotionally present means the parent is able to attune to the child’s emotional needs even if they are being expressed through difficult and challenging behaviors. Whatever helps you manage your stress, be sure to schedule time into your daily or weekly routine to practice self-care. This is true for all attachment categories. When parenting adopted children, we especially need to stay on top of our game.
Another tip is to be compassionate with yourself when you are not able to respond the way you want. This will happen more than once. Have a plan for yourself when this happens. Talk it over with a confidante, take a walk in nature, do a crossword puzzle — whatever will clear your mind and help you get perspective. Then once you have gained some perspective and are calm about what happened, go to your child, apologize and ask if you can have a re-do. As adoptive parents, we are taught to let children start fresh after a lapse in behavior. This concept is equally helpful for parents. Give yourself permission to start fresh too.
Now on to the second most common adult attachment style: independent. About 22% of adults have this as their main category. These are the meat-and-potatoes parents. They are great at meeting their children’s physical needs. Their children are clean, neat, well nourished and always arrive on time. These parents value personal strength, independence, achievement and normalcy. They power through hard stuff and difficult times believing that it will make them stronger.
When adults with this attachment style were infants, their own parents valued self-sufficiency and transmitted this message by immediately training their infants to sleep through the night, and getting their baby on a feeding and wake schedule as soon as possible. They focus on helping their infants and toddlers gain independence as early as possible. Their parents liked family life to be scheduled, with everyone knowing their role. They value achievement in their children, an early expression of which is pushing them to walk or talk. Their parents may have been focused on career advancement or other endeavors outside the family to the exclusion of being present with their infant or child. This may take the form of not being physically present in the home, or if physically present, they are hidden from their kids behind a newspaper, attending to their cell phone, or busy with an activity that excludes the child/ren. As a toddler, they get the message that boys shouldn’t cry, or if hurt they will get a Band-Aid and be sent back to playing.
In essence, the parents of these infants learned when they were infants that emotions were not tolerated, and achievement is what earned them parental attention. Consequently, by the time these infants are 12 months old, they no longer display their emotional needs to their parents. Their parent can leave the room and they don’t protest. This begins a reinforcing belief on the parent’s part that their child is very independent and doesn’t need them. They may brag about how early their toddler learns a new skill. In addition to achievement, these parents may also put a strong emphasis on having fun. What is going on is the parent is uncomfortable with touchy-feely encounters with their offspring so they fill up their time with activities. Sports are an activity that can be fun and also be an arena where achievement is emphasized for the child. As an adult, when stressed, this attachment style will likely choose to be by themselves a lot. They may choose a career that requires individual work, lots of study, continuing education and that conveys status.
As adoptive parents, this attachment style will be strong on structure. This can be an advantage for adoptive children who come home directly from an orphanage where set routines for daily life are closely adhered to. A challenge for parents with this style will be in adopting older children. An independent style’s preference for structure in routines is often reflected in strong adhesion to their values. This may not blend well with an older child’s already-developed routines and values. Especially in international adoption, a clash in values between parent and child is a real possibility. An older child has absorbed cultural and institutional values. They may never want to relinquish these internalized parts of themselves or at least not as as fast as an independent parenting style will expect.
Some common examples are religious preference or keeping their birth name. Additionally, an older child may have heard unrealistic stories about life in America and they may cling to these dreams — resisting any reality checks parents try to provide. At the same time, some parents have dreams of what their child will be like — envisioning a quick learner, star of the soccer team, or taking over the family business. Adoptive parents with an independent style are more prone to such expectations. And following what their parents taught them, they will likely convey these expectations to their adopted child. When their child is unable or unwilling to step up to these expectations, it can be incongruent for the independent style. They tend to hold fast to their beliefs of what their child should be, do, etc. Again, this is not a problem for birth children who are molded from day one by their parents. But the sparks can fly with an older adopted child. In stressful situations, this style will tend to withdraw and shut down from interpersonal interactions. They need to recharge through activities that don’t involve other people. They may take the dog for a hike, go out for a beer, go shopping or work on a project. After they are recharged and someone else initiates revisiting the conflict, they may or may not be willing to re-engage. It all depends on how much flexibility this parent was exposed to growing up.
Parents with an independent attachment style can benefit from the same post-placement advice given to reflective parents. In addition, these parents can increase their parenting success by focusing on developing flexibility in their parenting. A mantra for them could be “pick your battles.” Letting go of what you may think is important for your children and taking the time to get to know your adoptive child can go a long way towards creating an attachment-rich environment. Children may seem unpredictable in their behavior, but really they are reacting to something in their environment. Until adolescence, parents are the most influential thing in a child’s environment. How their parent interacts with them can drastically alter their behavior, achievements and everyone’s overall satisfaction with family life. Parents with this style may do well with approaching the attachment process as an investigative reporter. First, observe your child. This can be hard to do. Restraint will be needed to hold back on your first impulses to tell your child a, b or c. Try to be curious and willing to discover what your child’s preferences are. Try to push aside voices in your head (that probably sound a lot like your parents) about what should be. Second, think about what you have observed in your child. Talk to your spouse about what you have observed. Third, stretch your mind about what you can tolerate. Maybe the touchy-feely stuff is really uncomfortable for you. How can you mitigate this response of yours to be a closer fit to what your child needs?
Remember, each parent does not have to be everything to their child. If you are mindful that your first reaction is to deflect emotional closeness, you are on your way to being able to provide your child what s/he needs to attach to you. Think of a response you can give your child that is also tolerable for you. This may take some practice. Here is a simple response to keep in mind. Match your facial expression to the look on your child’s face. This reflection sends a strong message that you understand. You may want to practice in the mirror to make sure you are indeed making the face that reflects what you want. Then listen to what your child says. If they say they are feeling sad, mad, scared, etc, respond by getting down on their level and saying, “I am sorry you are feeling _______. What can I do to help you?” Then you have to follow through with what your child requests, if humanly possible. If what your child has requested is just intolerable for you, tell her “let’s go get Mommy/Daddy and s/he can hold you, rock you” or whatever it was that you just can’t bear to do. Don’t get pulled into making excuses, such as “I am late for work.” This sends the message to your child that she isn’t as important as this other thing you have to do. If you must say something, use “I’m not good at rocking or holding hurts my back” or some other response that is not value-laden and prioritizing something over your child. If your child’s response is that school, soccer, etc is just too hard, respond by again getting down on her level and saying, “I am sorry that is hard for you.”
Parents with an independent style are prone to want to jump into problem-solving, saying something like, “If you just practice harder, it won’t be so hard.” This will not help the attachment process. Instead respond by just waiting. Your son or daughter may have some sobs to get out. If you find yourself getting impatient, annoyed or frustrated, breathe and keep breathing through your impatience. If you find yourself thinking, “If I can get her through this, she will be a better student or player or whatever,” push those thoughts away. They won’t help you develop an attachment with your child. When your child is able to speak, ask her what she wants. If she says she wants to quit school, of course that cannot happen. But you can say, “School can be hard. How about if mommy/daddy and I figure out ways to make it easier for you?” This is sending a strong message that you are open to what is going on for your child and are a helpful resource for her. Repeated experiences like this sets the stage for her to be able to come to you with hard problems like peer pressure to engage in risky behaviors. Depending on the age of your child, she may need to be involved in the problem-solving when the time is right. During all of this, you may be tempted to say, “If you just buckle down, you can do it” or something similar that you heard while you were growing up. Again, that does not send the message that you are accepting of this child and it will not foster attachment. So hold back all those old messages and work on mindful responses that will help attachment. Responses that convey acceptance and are devoid of judgment are ones that will help the attachment process with your older child.
Another child scenario that can be challenging for parents with an independent style of attachment is when a child comes home with delays not previously identified. Because parents with this style can be so strong on providing structure and relish achievement, a child entering the home with delays can be very challenging. The family’s routine may have to change and established, shared activities may have to change. There can be upheaval as accommodations have to be made for the new child’s therapy appointments, meetings with school personnel, and tensions among family members grow. Again, the independent style’s first reaction to stress is usually to withdraw. This can take the form of starting work late, doing unnecessary projects on the house, or spending more and more time in their study or shop. If you notice you are starting to do this, try to limit how much time you spend away from your family. A certain amount of time can be helpful and if combined with physical activity such as going for a hike or a run, time away can be very beneficial to you in many ways. Physical activity is great for clearing your mind and allows you to consider other more helpful ways of responding to a challenging relationship. You may need to schedule this physical activity into your daily routine. If you find yourself ready to explode, remove yourself from the situation and go exercise. Here is a tip from parenting author Jim Fay: If you are angry and perplexed about how to respond to your child, simply say, “I am going to have to think about this for a while. I will get back to you.” But don’t leave your child just hanging there. Take your child to your spouse for continued support.
All of these recommendations probably seem very foreign and incongruent with how you think a child should be raised. We each have our own beliefs about parenting and how to be in a relationship. As stated earlier, in adoption, kids come to us having been molded by someone else during that critical first year. This is key to why Holt has developed this new parent preparation training. The more insight each parent can develop about the strengths and challenges of their attachment style, the better job they can do parenting an older adopted child. No matter their age, a child cannot single-handedly make the successful transition into family life. Parents are the key to success. They need to be aware of their own “buttons” that their child will push and learn to thoughtfully respond instead of automatically reacting. The more you can develop mindfulness in your parenting, the more successful your child will be transitioning into your home.
None of these suggestions will be easy; it takes time to make changes. Keep at it, do your best to discuss with your spouse, and make a plan to support each other as you strive to become more mindful and deliberate in your parenting. To learn more about mindfulness, please watch these YouTube videos featuring Daniel Siegel, M.D. or read his book, “Parenting from the Inside Out.”
Mindful parenting to foster attachment may be hard, but the rewards gained of a better adjusted child will make your life and your family’s life much more enjoyable. Keep practicing. It will get easier.
Now let’s look at the least common style: the sensitive style. About 18% of adults fall into this category. These infants quickly learn they cannot be sure of the response they will receive from their parent. If they went to their parent crying, at one time she may have responded with anger, or another time she may have gotten more upset than the child, and yet another time she may have been able to be emotionally present and be able to calm the child down. These infants also learn to keep their antennae up, trying hard to figure out what their parent’s reaction will be. Another common trait of the sensitive style is that they are unsure of their ability to take care of their infant/child. For these individuals, their parents usually transmitted anxiety while doing ordinary caregiving tasks as simple as changing a diaper. These babies are constantly exposed to their parent’s anxiety and their mirror neurons are soaking up this anxiety. When distressed and their parent is holding them, they may settle in for a moment and then arch back away from the parent unable to be soothed. It can take a long time to get this infant to quiet down after a distressing experience. Remember, the infant is reacting to their parent’s subtle cues of how to react. These infants may be labeled “difficult,” but often they are only responding to their parent’s attachment style.
Yet another childhood experience common among adults with a sensitive style is that one of their parents may have depended on them for caregiving — either directly to the child or maybe to other children in the home. This can result in a reversal of roles between parent and child, where the child fills the role of the responsible parent. This role reversal and responsibility way too early in life can contribute to another characteristic of this style, which is they tend to take on responsibility for problems in relationships — resulting in numerous occasions of feeling guilty as adults. Perhaps their parent was unable to function in emergencies and they would get more upset than the child. The child may even have had to direct the parent in these situations.
Another possible childhood relationship experience is that the infant/child was excessively important to the parent. This is very different from a new parent being thrilled with parenthood and their newborn. This is a pervasive over-involvement in which the parent draws the child’s attention to themselves by criticizing the child. This is very difficult for the child — having a parent keeping her close and criticizing her at the same time. It sends the mixed message that you are not good enough, but stay here with me — I need you. The child’s needs have been pushed aside by the parent’s overwhelming needs. While growing up, these kids may have excessive involvement in the family to the extent that normative peer relationships can be sacrificed. This focus on the family and the pressure to stay in close proximity to the parents inhibits the developmental stage of separation and individuation during adolescence. This leaves the teen and young adult entangled with the parent — often still trying to please the parent. This can culminate in an adult preoccupation with childhood experiences or relationships expressed in one of the following three subtypes: ongoing strong emotions (usually anger) at a parent, continued passivity in relation to a parent, or continued fear of a parent.
Strong Emotion Subtype
As infants of sensitive parents get older, they may experience their parent as being overprotective — evolving into being intrusive by the time they reach school age. This intrusiveness can engender anger in the child. Their parent is not open to feedback on their impact on the child so this anger festers and stays with the child into adulthood. As an adult, this anger can surface at inopportune times and color their relationships. To others, it seems as if they are overreacting to minor bumps in the relationship road. These reactions are rooted in childhood experiences with their parents that are still bothering them.
These strong feelings and reactions can be off-putting to a newly adopted child. This is especially relevant for many international adoptees, whose birth cultures are likely more low key and reserved in their interpersonal relationships. One tip for this subtype is to work on being aware that they do have strong feelings and can be prone to have angry reactions. It is critical that they become aware of this so they don’t overreact to their newly adopted child’s naïve mistakes that may “push their buttons.” Whether birth or adoptive, this style really needs to be aware of their buttons. To improve their parenting, they should learn to identify when their very first tinges of anger start to well up in them. This will take some observation. Feedback from others could speed development of this awareness. When they first feel their anger starting to well up, they can regulate it by noting that it is happening, breathe deeply and then remind themselves that this child doesn’t understand what is going on.
Like adults with an independent style, it may be necessary to remove yourself from the situation and calm down using breathing and physical exercise. You can always return to the issue later and in a calmer manner convey to your child what the expectations are in their adoptive family. When you are calm, your child will not react with fear and will be in a better emotional state to hear what you are saying. But when a child is scared, they cannot pay attention very well to speech. They can only process about 12 words in these situations.
Another subtype of the sensitive style is as an adult, they could be passive instead of angry. This passivity served them well growing up. It was a survival skill that enabled them to be able to stay in proximity to their parent, a survival need of all humans. However, this subtype often struggles when adopting an older child. Older international adoptees, more often than not, are accustomed to a lot of structure. Structure is not this style’s cup of tea. Another challenge for them with older child adoption is their discomfort with being challenged by others. Many older children survived orphanage life by developing a sixth sense about how to get what they wanted, and they will quickly understand this subtype’s underlying anxiety about relationships. Out of sheer reflex, the adoptee may bulldoze over this parenting subtype — upsetting the harmony in the family.
Tips for individuals with this subtype who are raising adopted children include quickly learning to set limits and then sticking to those limits. This can be as hard for them as it is for adults with an independent style to stay connected during emotional flare-ups. These parents should also employ the self-calming techniques laid out for parents with an independent style. The passive subtype can be flooded with emotions during stressful experiences, such as when their child gets hurt and comes to them crying and bleeding. This flood of emotions can overcome this style to the extent that they may not be able to properly care for their child in these situations. If you have noted this tendency in yourself, it will be extremely important for you to make a plan for how to respond when this situation arises.
A tool that nature gave each of us to use is deep belly breathing. When you hear the first sounds of your child crying, start your belly breathing and remind yourself that you are an adult who can solve problems. Keep breathing deeply and slowly. Don’t hyper-ventilate. Again, remind yourself you are an adult and can solve problems and keep belly breathing. The quality of attachment you create with your newly adopted child depends on your ability to be emotionally present when your child is hurt and for you to ease their pain. They need to experience you staying calm and focused on their needs. Keep breathing, and help your child to start deep belly breathing also. Here’s a tip: If you exaggerate your deep slow breathing so that your child can hear it, it will help them to calm down as well. Keep staying calm as best you can and after attending to the hurt, ask if your child wants to be rocked.
Another tip for this subtype is not to assume that you know what your child wants. You may have loved being rocked after getting an “owie” fixed up, but your child may not be able to tolerate that much affectionate touch yet. Often, children come home with sensory integration issues and those cuddles while rocking could be painful for them. Your good intentions could totally backfire on you. This subtype should also approach attachment on the child’s terms and at the child’s rate. The only way to determine their terms and speed is to ask them. This can be so hard when you have waited and wanted this child for so long. It can seem confusing how providing love, care and protection could be off-putting to your child. Think of it like the “Clash of the Titans.” Your parent/s may have been over-protective, or needed your help or caregiving beyond a typical level, and this may be coloring your parenting approach. For a child coming from an emotionally sterile environment, your natural response could very well be experienced as suffocating and overwhelming.
Another tip is to ask adults you trust for honest, realistic feedback on your interactions with your child/ren. Be prepared to take their feedback calmly and understand it may not be how you see yourself. Remember, each infant was molded by their parents and grow up to parent in the same way — unaware of their strengths and challenges. Until a parent learns about their personal attachment style, they usually are not aware or mindful of their biases in parenting. Think about the parenting feedback you receive as if you are a research scientist. Try not to be reactive and maybe test out a different approach and observe the reaction in your child. It can be really hard to do this; it can feel like you are betraying or criticizing your parents. What is so important to understand in older child adoption is that what we take for granted in our parenting approach and what worked just fine with birth children may not be effective in creating a secure attachment with an adopted child.
The third subtype would also do well with some tips. These subtypes have residual fear stemming from their childhood relationship with their parent/s. As an adult, they may be afraid to tell their parent/spouse/friend something that they are sure will displease. In relationships, these adults will do whatever the other wants just to stay in the relationship. They could procrastinate in many areas of their life, afraid of making the wrong choice. If this sounds like you, it could be difficult for you to adopt a toddler or preschooler from foster care. These children are old enough to physically act out against their adoptive parents who they may feel have kidnapped them from their foster family. They are not cognitively old enough to have adoption explained to them, so in their fear and grief, they may respond with kicking, biting, hitting, spitting and throwing things at their adoptive parents. This can last for possibly six months. For a parent whose own parents created fear in them when they were a child, this onslaught of aggression can be overwhelming. It can activate their old fear and they can feel helpless again. These relationship dynamics continue building upon each other.
Tips for this subtype are similar to those for the passive subtype. The biggest difference, however, is what you would say to yourself to build up your mindfulness. The toddler or preschooler who is fighting against you so strongly is demonstrating their strong attachment to their foster parent. This is actually a good thing; they are capable of a strong attachment. Try to keep that in mind along with understanding that this behavior is not against you personally! They would do this with anyone who was their adoptive mom. They are way too young to understand the complexities of adoption and why this is in their best interest. It is important for parents with this subtype to keep the long-term benefits in mind as well. It is easy to get caught up in feeling guilty about your child’s unhappiness. Those feelings will not help you or your child. Instead, try to focus on your child’s feelings of fear and grief, which are behind all of their challenging behavior. Remember that this behavior will not last forever and things will get better. Remain calm; slow deep belly breathing always helps. Think of your child as being in a lot of emotional pain. They are probably overwhelmed with feelings they have never felt before.
A tip is to keep a photo of their foster parents in plain view. Adoptive parents often are fearful of this because they think that their child will love the foster parents better or more than them. In the beginning, this is very true, but it does not stay that way forever. The next tip is to let your child understand you know how they are feeling by getting down to their level and mirroring back to them with your facial expression what you are seeing on their face. This is done with love and understanding, not mocking or judging. Then label their feelings for them in English: “You look like you are feeling sad or scared. I understand why you are feeling that way. I think you are missing your foster parents (use their first language terms for foster parents if you know them). Shall we go look at their picture?” You may have to go get the picture and sit with your child, looking at it together. If your child will let you hold her, that would be excellent, but remember to let your child set the pace and timing of physical affection. You can offer hugs, but do your best not to be offended if they refuse and comfort yourself with the knowledge that it takes time for a healthy attachment to grow.
This perspective on your child’s behavior and this loving response do many things to help attachment. You are demonstrating to your child that you understand what is going on inside of them, the crazy swirl of confusing emotions. This is giving them voice, as child psychologist Dr. Karyn Purvis is always advocating for on behalf of children. Being heard is a basic need for all humans and the sooner you can provide this for your adopted child, the sooner attachment will begin. Another important attachment component you are demonstrating for them is that humans are capable of loving many people at the same time. Your adopted child does not have to stop loving their foster parents to begin loving you. Some mental health professionals describe a transferring of the loving bond from the foster parent to the adoptive parent. This is not what is happening during attachment development. Your child is demonstrating they have the capacity for love. Their capacity can grow and maintain attachments to many people throughout their life. An analogy might be to think of kids having four grandparents. They love each of them, albeit probably for different reasons, but the love is there. As parents with this subtype are able to stay calm, show understanding of their child’s perspective, and be emotionally available when their child needs them in a way that is acceptable for the child, attachment will grow. Keep breathing. Remember you are an adult. Know you can get help, and that things can get better.
This style or category does not stand alone. It is always in conjunction with one of the above styles. It is called “unresolved” because there is a past grief or trauma that continues to have a strong influence on the person as an adult. It could be the death of a loved one that they have not quit gotten over or it could have been a terrifying and overwhelming experience such as abuse at the hands of a loved one. How these unresolved experiences may manifest in parenting behavior can be very subtle, but they can have a huge impact on the attachment process. A very subtle behavior that was observed in research was a parent staring off into space for as little as 10 seconds at a time. Of course, this was not just a one-time occurrence — it was repeated hundreds of times. It could be that the infant/child made a sound that unconsciously triggered a past loss or abuse experience for the parent. Although the sound that triggered behavior may seem insignificant, to have a parent that disassociates quite often is disconcerting for the child. To an infant, it causes great distress. To an older adopted child, this behavior may communicate to them that they are not very important to their new parent.
Holt has experience with first-time parents who have an unresolved loss or trauma. Some painful experience lying dormant may be triggered by the presence of a helpless infant not yet walking, and it can be so disturbing to the first-time parent that they cannot continue to parent. The parent had no idea that they were harboring feelings so overwhelming and intolerable that they would have to abandon their long-sought dream of parenting. The memory of the experience may stay buried deep in the unconscious, but the feelings associated with the memory rise up — devastating the affected parent. When this happens, it is a tragedy for the parents and child alike. Holt wants to do everything we can to prevent this kind of experience from happening to our adoptive parents.
Anyone who may be experiencing any kind of negative emotions when the reality of parenting hits home should talk to your social worker right away. It may be that you are experiencing what a lot of first-time adoptive mothers experience, which is a feeling like you are parenting someone else’s child 24/7. This may be a feeling of drudgery. Thoughts of “when is this child going to go home?” might run through your mind. This reaction is pretty typical, but warrants talking to your social worker for ideas on how to build those loving feelings toward your older child. If you find yourself reacting out of character, or your spouse wonders what has gotten into you, or you think you are overreacting, call your social worker. Your social worker can give you tools to help you get back to your old self. Whatever help you need, in the long run, it will help you feel more like an integrated, fully functioning adult.
Remember that older children coming home to their adoptive parents have established ways of relating to their caregivers that can trigger their adoptive parents. This is unique to older child adoption and also the reason it is imperative to know your own style and take steps to empower yourself to respond in a way that will be helpful to your newly adopted child. The concept of mindfulness has been introduced in this paper. Cultivating mindfulness in how you tend to interact with others will make your life smoother, will increase you problem-solving skills, will improve your career relationships and, most importantly, will empower you to create the loving, supportive and attachment-rich family environment you want.
Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member