One of the big themes being discussed in adoption today is attachment and trauma.
At the core, these are the biggest issues facing adoptive parents and kids. It is at the heart of all of our desires for ourselves and our children. It is the biggest difference setting us apart from biologically created families. So what is this thing called attachment?
Let me paint a picture for you.
Think about that sweet little baby you know who is less than six months old, living in a loving, functional family. He has entered this big wide world and yet he is so dependent on another’s care. That voice he heard while in his mother’s womb murmurs in his ear, soothing him when his tiny face scrunches, red and screaming. When he cries, he is quickly picked up and held close to that warm body that feels so familiar. Mother has an intuitive sense of baby’s needs, even when she’s exhausted from lack of sleep. When he’s hungry, he is held close in her arms and fed warm milk from a bottle or breast, often gazing up into his mother’s face as he drinks. Rarely do her hands feel rough, hurried or anxious as she handles his fragile body. He is gently bathed regularly in soothing warm water. Mother is right there beside him washing his little body with a soft cloth and talking to him. She may even set up a tiny heater in the room for when he comes out of the water, wet and cold. He gets wrapped in a warm towel and massaged with lotion from head to toe. Sometimes he is held while he sleeps, his mother simply enjoying the weight of his body, the smell of his skin and his tiny features relaxed in sleep. Everyone delights in cuddling him, examining every little expression and watching his body grow. His first cooing noises are rewarded with smiles and delighted attention from the adults who adore him.
I don’t mean to put a rosy glow on all this. I know there are long days, short nights, hours of screaming and aching breasts for some. But that mother you know, even when she feels overwhelmed and exhausted, will probably be making sure her baby’s needs are met. He will still get all that tender care, protection and physical presence he needs to assure him someone in this big, wide world is taking care of him and thinks he’s the most important little person on the planet.
The very first thing baby will learn is that he can trust his mother to meet his needs; that his cries will be met with response.
When he is hungry, she will rush to get him food. When his bottom is red and sore she will soothe it with cream. If he cries for hours, she will worry, wondering what is wrong. Above all else she will protect him with her very life. She will go to extra measures to make sure the infant seat is properly installed and latched. She will think twice when she gets behind the wheel those first few times. She will always know where he is and what he’s doing, and will take care to be sure he’s safe. As he grows, sits, rolls over, crawls and stands she will make sure his environment is safe. She will feel a flutter of panic in her chest when he bumps his head, falls down the stairs or face plants into the ceramic tile floor. Baby quickly becomes attached to his mother because he knows she is the one he can rely on. Hers are the arms that will soothe in that familiar way. Hers is the face that gazes at him, smiles at him, talks to him and kisses his chubby cheeks. Through that first year of life, mother and baby are almost one. They spend almost every waking minute together or in very near proximity.
This is the way God intended families to be built.
He knew we would need that assurance that the world can be a safe, happy place and that we are precious in someone’s eyes. On that foundation we grow into children that are ready to learn, explore and create. Our need for love and security has been met, and continues to be met. Every event following those first basic patterns of care as an infant develop in us an ability to trust another human. We will need this to survive. We will need this for our brains to function properly.
So what about trauma?
What is trauma and why does it matter?
Do you think it would make a difference if one day baby cried and cried for hours, but nobody ever came? No warm bottle to ease the ache in his empty tummy. No gentle arms to soothe his distressed cries. No gentle voice murmuring words of comfort in reassuring tones. No gentle bath times…instead his skin turns crusty and dry. His bottom soon gets red and sore to the point of blisters that rub open and bleed, while his urine and stool stain his clothing for hours. Maybe someone comes…sometimes…but the arms may or may not be gentle. They may rock and soothe one day but hit and jostle roughly the next. Faces come and go, but no consistent caregiver seems to feel responsible for baby. For days, baby may cry until his throat is sore and his voice raspy…but eventually he will stop. He has learned crying does not get him anything. He will lie silently staring, listening to the sounds of his unpredictable environment. Maybe yelling, maybe the thumping beat of music much too loud for baby’s ears, maybe the drone of the television or radio…and sometimes simply nothing.
Or maybe baby is cared for tenderly for the first 6 months, year or even 2 years…and then one day that person is gone. In a new, strange environment he is alone and fearful. The faces are unfamiliar, the smells and routines are all wrong. Instead of stories and soft blankets at bedtime in his familiar room, with the night light glowing in the corner, it is dark and cool and just so different. The blanket is scratchy instead of soft. The room is large and open instead of small and cozy. There are no stories, only a quick kiss and the door closing while unfamiliar lullabies play. He has fun in the large back yard with the swing set and pool, but he misses the familiarity of that one person who held his world together. This person doesn’t know when he’s hungry, tired or overwhelmed and he has no idea what she is going to do next.
She is a stranger.
Over the next few months, things slowly start to fall into place. He learns new routines, new habits, new ways of getting attention and affection. Just as he’s starting to trust that this person can fill the void…she disappears. Suddenly he is in a new place again. How could she leave him? Once again, he must get used to something different. Everyone seems happy and excited, but he is scared. Who will take care of him now?
Will they leave too?
Is this what life is like?
After 3 or 4 moves, he will learn that there is only one person he can really depend on, and that is himself. He is responsible to meet his own needs. Relying on other people is simply too painful. Eventually, they will leave and he must be able to cope on his own. Though he may not be aware of this thought, his brain is establishing these patterns and they come with a great cost.
We know in our hearts that this does make a difference. God never intended children to fend for themselves. They are vulnerable. They are needy. Parents are commanded in scripture to love, teach and provide for their children’s needs as best they can. God illustrates himself as a loving Father to us, giving us the image of a caring, gentle, strong protector. We struggle as mothers, as fathers, to parent our children the way we know God desires. We talk about unconditional love, sacrifice, wisdom and joy. We desire the best, and we struggle to reach the ultimate.
Yet so many children are growing up without these fundamental needs being met. They do not know who they can trust, and they are constantly on high alert. Their brains operate in panic mode a majority of the time, constantly looking for signals that will warn them of pain, danger or loss. Because they are so busy trying to survive, there is little brain power left to learn, explore or create like normally developing children. There is tons of scientific research that supports this theory.
A child who has not formed healthy attachments starts to lag behind in all aspects of development.
We need love to learn and grow.
The more I learn the more I am in awe of the Creator God I love. He did not create us to function as individuals. We are designed to need each other. In our families, in our churches, in our communities…we thrive on healthy, loving relationships with others. All these relationships are built on trust.
The good news is that these missing connections CAN be formed later in life!
Our brains can learn to make those new connections…but it is so much harder than the original plan. Instead of an infant starting with an empty slate, you are now trying to rewire or reteach the brain to ignore the survival skills it’s relied on for 3, 5, 10 or even 20 years. It takes time, patience and unconditional love. Trial and error. And every child is different.
Does every child who has been adopted struggle with attachment issues?
No, though most do to some degree.
What does this look like?
The struggle, the rewiring and the success?
I’d like to explore this a little bit in the next few posts. I am by no means an expert, but we’ve learned an incredible amount through seminars, workshops, friends, adoption professionals and most of all some very precious little kiddos in the past three years. It’s been an intriguing journey, and has helped us be so much better prepared for the challenges we face today with our two daughters. I am passionate about sharing with others the issues adoptive families face daily because I believe that awareness is the key to success. The more people understand the root of the issues we face and develop skills and empathy, the better the outcome for my children and every other adoptive family.
There are millions of children waiting for families who will dare to love them despite their challenges. Their are also millions of families who feel they are not equipped to care for these children. I firmly believe that education about adoption and adoption issues could change the lives of many of these children and families.
Jesus did not turn away from the messiness of life.
the overwhelming rage,
the grief as deep and dark as ink,
the injustice that leaves us broken.
In the middle of it all, He was there.
I pray for the courage to love even when the cost is unimaginably high.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philipians 4:13
When my daughters were younger we memorized a child-friendly version of the 23rd Psalm. You cannot imagine what it did to my heart when I heard them during their play time reciting these lines of incredible comfort and love about their Heavenly Father. This is taken from the Jesus Storybook Bible.
“God is my Shepherd
And I am his little lamb.
He feeds me
He guides me
He looks after me.
I have everything I need.
Inside, my heart is very quiet.
As quiet as lying still in soft green grass
In a meadow
By a little stream.
Even when I walk through
the dark, scary, lonely places
I won’t be afraid
Because my Shepherd knows where I am.
He is here with me
He keeps me safe
He rescues me
He makes me strong
He is getting wonderful things ready for me
Especially for me
Everything I ever dreamed of!
He fills my heart so full of happiness
I can’t hold it all inside.
Wherever I go I know
God’s Never Stopping
Never Giving Up
Always and Forever Love
Will go, too.”