Friday, 19 July 2013

Attachment and bonding in adoption

Here is a little something I sent to a friend asking about attachment and bonding and the differences between our experience as adoptive parents and a "typical" (if there even is such a thing) bio-parent. This followed a discussion about adoption disruptions and the challenges of integrating a second adopted child into the family, especially an older child.

When you adopt, you don't usually have the same attachment and bonding options as when you give birth to a child.  The things you, as a bio-mum, did in the first few months with your child (including breastfeeding-if you did- and things like holding your child, smiling at him, picking him up and soothing him when he cries, holding him close to you when he sleeps, etc) all create a feeling of safety for a child.  As adoptive parents to J, we were lucky that she was from a good orphanage and a great foster family, who helped her feel secure and loved.  It was very difficult for us when we received her, as she grieved her Foster family for a long time, but we used modified "attachment parenting" methods, with her and we were successful in securing a good, healthy bond (which is the parental feeling towards the child) and attachment (child’s feeling towards the parent).  

In many situations, especially in second (or subsequent)  adoptions, a child will not “fit in” with the family, which is often a sign of an absence of bonding or attachment.  The older the child, the more likely that is to happen.  When we did the adoption course (in another province), they had an amazing exercise where they told the story of a child (I seem to remember they called her Sally).  As they went along and told her story, they tied a string to Sally's wrist connecting her to all of the people to whom she had formed attachments in her life (bio parents, siblings, grandparents, foster parents 1, foster parents 2, foster parents 3, etc, foster siblings, parents new significant others, etc).  Every time she experienced a return to a situation (i.e. return to mother’s care) a sting was also tied to her wrist. And every time she had to leave these people, the string connecting her to each one was cut.  At the end of the story, Sally had upwards of 250 (the number 277 sticks in my head) strings around her wrists.  Those were the number of attachments that she had created with the 30 or so people who came and went in and out of her life, and which had been broken.  The question at the end of it was: if you had this many broken attachments, would you trust anyone who comes into your life? Would you trust that people adopting you were going to be there for you no matter what and stay in your life? Would you take the emotional risk of attaching to them?

On the other hand, bonding can be challenging in itself.  Some bio-parents feel it difficult to bond at first, but it tends to resolve itself quicker than for adoptive parents.  I remember my “Ah-ha!” bonding moment, and it was about 6 months after we came home from China.  J had attached and adjusted very well,  so we decided to finally let her cry herself to sleep (this was contrary to main stream opinions which advise not to let an adoptive child cry themselves to sleep).  This is always a tough decision, but we felt she was ready.  As I left her bedroom that night, she cried hysterically.  I left the room calmly, but broke down like a blubbering elephant outside her door (as most parents do).  Then I had my ah-ha moment.  The reason I was so upset was not because her crying drove me nuts (as it had for the previous several months).  It was because she needed me and I couldn’t be there for her.  My heart bled, and it took everything I had not to go back in there.  All worked out well, and it was the best thing we ever did, but I still remember that day, for so much more than just the fact that we have no sleep issues even today.

Attachment and bonding can be so scary.  I'm glad things went (extremely) well with J, but nothing says that if we adopt again, we would be as lucky.

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