Attachment 101 – Part 3

In my last two posts in this series I introduced the attachment theory and explained how that affects children who have been adopted.  We discussed how to step into your child’s life and take control of their world confidently so that they can attach to you and trust you as their new caregiver.  I explained that children who have experienced trauma in their lives need a lifestyle that is highly structured and highly nurtured.  Taking control and developing boundaries focuses on the need for structure, so today I want to focus on nurturing.

When most people think about adoption, nurture is the picture that fills their mind.  They imagine holding their child, hugging and kissing their child, laughing, playing together and smiling.  They think about all the things they will do together, the sweet little rituals they’ll establish at bedtime and the millions of ways they will try to help their child forget all the grief, fear and loss of their past.

Before your child comes home, you will not be able to truly imagine that reality will set in.  You will not be able to prepare for those days when all you want is to be left alone.  You will not be able to comprehend the strength it will take some days just to reach out and give those hugs, kisses or gentle pats.

The bottom line is that no family is happy all the time, and children working through difficult feelings rarely display those emotions in cute, loveable ways.  It is not easy to be gentle and kind in the face of defiance.  It is not easy to stay energetic and positive when your children are testing every limit they find.  It is not easy to create a peaceful atmosphere with a screaming child.  You will get tired of being followed all over the place.  You will grow weary of a child’s tears, missing the loved one you can never be.  You will crave just one night of solid sleep.  Then you will feel incredible guilt as you think about all they’ve been through.

You will be a parent, not a revered saviour.

Realizing this is a bit of a let down; we all love to feel like heroes.  But it’s also exciting when you realize you have really become a normal family, complete with all the stresses and chaos.

Nurturing consists of those tangible ways we express to a child that he is adored, important and irreplaceable.  It’s caring, warm gestures that go above and beyond, but include, basic survival needs.  Nurturing is essential for attachment.

Children who have grown up in dysfunctional, chaotic environments are often starved for nurture.  However, they will not always respond the way you’d think.  It can be more difficult than imagined to nurture your child.

Touch is one of the most obvious and powerful communicators of love, and obviously important when nurturing your child.  Hugs, kisses, back rubs, holding hands, wrestling and piggy back rides are all great ways to connect with your child physically.  For those children whose love language is physical touch this will be even more important.  In some types of attachment therapy “holding” is considered it’s own exercise.  Some children will take awhile to feel comfortable enough to relax in your arms or ask for hugs or kisses.  Others will be all over you within hours or days.  It may be more uncomfortable than you think having that child who wants to touch you all the time.  Many children struggle to figure out appropriate social boundaries.  They may hug and hold hands with any adult they meet.  They may want to touch your face or body in ways that would be totally appropriate for a baby or toddler but not quite as cute in an older child.  It can be hard to offer hugs and kisses without limit, retain enough boundaries to keep yourself from feeling claustrophobic and teach your child appropriate social boundaries.  It is especially difficult with a child who has been sexualized by adults in their life.  Beware of any sort of touching that the child is uncomfortable with and follow their lead.  If you see signs of provocative or overly sexualized behaviours, be sure to clearly direct your child away from those behaviours.  The goal is to nurture your child, not to lure them back into unhealthy habits.

I remember the first day I met my daughters.  At 7 and 5, they were anxious little whirlwinds of activity.  I wanted so much to be able to just reach out and hold them…but I was a stranger.  While one of them soon snuggled in close under my arm, the other one circled me warily, staying just out of reach.  Now she falls asleep in my arms, but then she needed me to follow her from room to room, looking at everything she pointed out and then letting her retreat again for a while.  The most I got was to let my fingers slide over her silky hair for a second.  My husband, however, won her over by offering piggy back rides 🙂

Food is another basic way to nurture a child.  We all need food and water to survive, but some children have not always had plenty of food or water.  They may remember times when their tummies ached with hunger, or they may cope with anxiety by grossly overeating.  Be sensitive to this and try to make sure you take advantage of the opportunity to give them that physical satisfaction food brings, while establishing healthy eating patterns.  Simply doing the little things like getting a drink of water for them, pulling something from the fridge, scooping food onto their plate or packing a plentiful and appealing lunch can help children feel nurtured and cared for.  For children who hoard or steal food, packing a special snack basket or stocking a cupboard just for them helps reinforce the message that food is readily available when needed.  This helps them realize they are not in danger of being without enough food as they’ve been in the past.  For children who may have missed early infant nurturing, spoon feeding or even bottle feeding is a bonding activity that will reinforce tons of positive messages.

Like many little children, my littlest A loves to snack!  She adores junk food and candy and begs for food anytime she’s bored or slightly hungry.  While this is very frustrating, I’ve tried to turn it around by getting ahead of her and surprising her.  When she’s busy with something else I’ll suddenly interrupt her and tell her it’s snack time!  She’s always delighted to realize she didn’t even need to ask and it’s way more fun for me!  I also like to let the girls lick off spatula’s, have a few chocolate chips when I’m baking cookies or pick out a special snack to go in their lunch at the store.  My grocery bill has definitely went up since I started packing creative, healthy and appealing lunches but it’s a way to send my nurturing along to school with them.

Even though your child may be an independent 8, 10 or even 16 year old doesn’t mean you should never do anything for them they can do themselves.  While promoting attachment you are not focusing on independence.  We all love to be treated with care.  Go out of your way to care for your child.  Pack their lunch, start the bath water for them, help a younger child dress, brush their hair, trim their nails, put their pajamas in the dryer to warm them up while they’re in the bath tub.

Simply having fun and spending time together is a big part of nurturing your child.  Laugh.  Smile.  Snuggle on the couch and watch a movie.  Make eye contact and pay attention when your child is speaking to you.  Make yourself and your home a “safe haven” your child can come back to no matter how he or she is feeling!  Reinforce the message that we all have feelings and they are not wrong in and of themselves, it is what we do with them that matters.

Most of us know how to nurture, it’s just difficult to do it when we’re feeling tired, worn out or frustrated.

Last week I had a bad week.  One of my daughters was sick and I was just not in the mood!  She is a detail person and struggles with anxiety in the best of times, so feeling a little off turned her into a real bear!  The tiny bump on her lip and the fever she developed had equal significance, along with a possibly occurring rash and itchy spot on her left leg!  She woke up multiple nights in a row and knocked on my door in tears, panicking at the thought of not sleeping which then of course kept her from sleeping for long afterwards.  She was defiant and mean at school, tired and grumpy at home.  I am telling you this to show you that even though I know all about nurturing in my head, I fail miserably on a regular basis!  Last week I had the perfect opportunity to show my daughter that I cared about her and would go out of my way to nurse her poor tired little body.  Instead, I was grumpy, irritable and insensitive.  I knew I was failing miserably and instead of choosing to let this motivate me I let my mind take me on a huge guilt trip instead.  After everything this little girl has been through, how could you treat her with such a lack of compassion?!  What a horrible mother!

See, just because my daughters have not been born to me by birth and have trauma in their past does not mean I always find it easy to be gentle and kind.  I am no superhero!

So I hope all you moms out there are encouraged to nurture your little, middle sized or big kids today.  Go the extra mile to make them feel important.  Remember the golden rule.  Take every opportunity to love.  They’re worth it!

Attachment & Adoption

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?

When?

Where?

How?

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 hurt,

the terror,

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

And brave.

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

Unbreaking

Always and Forever Love

Will go, too.”

AF