Attachment 101 – Part 2

My last post, Attachment 101, was designed to introduce and explain the theory of attachment. As a short recap:

1. Bonding and attachment occurs as an infant’s needs are expressed and met, over and over and over again.

2. When children do not receive consistent, predictable nurturing the internal message becomes “I am responsible to keep myself safe.”

3. Children with interruptions or gaps in their attachment development are essentially brain-damaged. If you could see a picture of the child’s brain that has been nurtured and cared for consistently versus neglected, abused or moved frequently there would be a physical, noticeable difference in the number of connections formed. This is more than just an emotional problem!

4. The good news is that these missing connections CAN be formed later in life! However, it is much more difficult than beginning with an empty slate. There are deeply ingrained survival skills that need to be destroyed before new concepts can be established firmly.


With all that behind us, let’s keep moving forward.  I’d like to talk about the rewiring process and what that can look like for kids and parents hoping to create a secure, loving environment where a child can thrive. There are many different things parents need to remember when parenting a child who has been hurt physically or emotionally.

I won’t be able to cover everything I’d like to share in one post, so I’ve broken it down into several categories to keep it clear and simple. For today, I’d like to focus on the control issue.

Most children who have experienced a past of abuse, neglect or bouncing through the foster care system will enter their adoptive families with their guards set high. They have been let down by many adults in the past and they have learned to rely only on themselves to survive. In the past, this was an essential survival skill for them. Learning how to keep a distance from people, read adult behaviour and predict major changes on the horizon helped them to cope with the incredible amount of losses they’ve had to endure. It made the inevitable goodbyes bearable, kept the fear at bay and taught their brains how to function under major stress.

Now that your child has entered a forever family, it is imperative that they learn how to let go of that control and hand it over to you. The very skill that made it possible for them to survive will now be their greatest obstacle. They cannot bond and attach to you until they are willing to rely on you as their parent and caregiver. Children cannot go through life depending only on themselves. No matter what they may have convinced themselves of, they are not invincible. They are children. They need adults to guide them, lead them, protect them and nurture them. As adoptive parents we desperately want to play that role in our children’s lives and help them overcome the paralyzing fears they grapple with but often times they will not allow us to get that close.

They are afraid of abandonment.

They are afraid of abuse.

They are afraid of feeling weak or powerless or vulnerable.

They are afraid of opening their hearts and then having them broken.

Unfortunately, there is no easy switch to flip. There are brain connections that have never been formed and deeply rooted instincts that will not be easy to change. Basically, it is up to you at this point to take control of your child’s world unapologetically and be the parent!

This will be the beginning of a war.

They will fight you ferociously on this.

They do not realize you are on their team. All they know is that they are in danger of losing the defences that have always kept them safe. They are terrified of losing control but they are even more fearful of someone else taking control.

Interestingly, we all know this feeling. As adults, control becomes a word that raises red flags in everyone’s minds. We do not feel comfortable submitting to authorities we do not trust. We want to remain in charge because we’ve seen or experienced abusive control in relationships around us. However, if we are to form deep, soul level relationships we will have to let down our guard at some point and allow someone to get close enough to potentially break our hearts.

Infants are dependent on their parents for everything. The only way they will feel loved, nurtured, safe; is if someone has complete control over their life. In this environment, they attach and they trust as their needs are consistently met.

This is what needs to be replicated in your adopted child’s life.

It might take months, years or decades but this process cannot begin until you as a parent take control from your child. They will not hand it to you on a silver platter. They do not know what they need. You do.

Hurting children desperately need to be shown that parents are more powerful than they are. They have terrorizing trauma, deep grief, and overwhelming challenges looming before them, and they need to know there is someone strong enough to handle all that. They need to know that they are not too much for you. They need to know that you are big enough to protect them and help them heal. They need to know that with you in control of their lives they will be safe. You will not lead them into chaos and danger as others have.

This does not mean that we march into our children’s lives and take over every little choice they have. This does not mean we abuse our authority over them or become someone they fear. This is what many of them have experienced in the past.

Instead, our primary goal should be to look for every opportunity possible to lovingly send the message,

You do not have to decide that.”

I will take care of you.”

“I will keep you safe.”

You do not have to fight so hard to survive, baby.”

At the beginning, you will need to move into the parent role before you really feel like your child’s parent. Realistically, you are strangers, but this should not stop you from acting like you are in charge.

Set boundaries.

Be active in your child’s life. Know what is going on and show you will handle the big stuff.

Don’t allow another adult to step into the role that is only yours as a parent.

Give choices, but make sure your child is choosing between a few good choices that you have come up with.

Help them with every little thing you possibly can.

Do things for them that they can do themselves.

Make your expectations as clear and simple as possible, with consequences that are logical and simple.

When they cross a line, be matter of fact about consequences but not harsh or angry.

Don’t pick battles you can’t win.

Every time you act or speak in a way that tells your child you are comfortably in charge, you are cementing a feeling of safety in them. This authority establishment is not up for grabs. You are not asking for their permission to be the parent. Instead, you are lifting a huge load off their small shoulders and placing it on your own without a flinch. As they fight to take it back, be firm but gentle. Never forget their fight is really fear.

Many children go through this same stage of testing authority, and much of this will sound familiar. Children who have been hurt, however, have much more at stake in their minds. This is not just testing, this is tearing down the structure by which they have survived so far. Their future depends on you getting this message across to them. It’s not really about eating peas, it’s about being in charge of their life.

The best way for parents to go about taking charge of their children’s lives and sending these safe messages is to parent in a way that is focused on plenty of nurture and plenty of structure.

While children are adjusting to their forever families and attempting to attach, they are under a lot of stress. As most children, they will do best in a home where their days are predictable and structured. This does not mean you need to run your home like a boot camp, but you will need to be prepared to change your lifestyle to accommodate your children’s needs. While they are trying to attach and bond with their new family, children are not going to be able to cope with the flexibility of most children their age. Plan to spend lots of time at home, get lots of sleep and say no to some events or social engagements. As parents, you need to set a pace and rhythm to your home that both you and your children can thrive on. Put up a big calendar that your child can see and let them know what to expect as much as possible. Though you are stepping in to take control of your child’s life, you are not entitled to run it with only yourself in mind. Don’t let your children decide what and how much you do, but make sure you are making the best decision for them. It will take some trial and error at the beginning, but soon you will know how much your child can truly handle.

Making sure your child knows what to expect, is getting enough sleep and is supported by you through each day sets him up for success! It also sets him up to count on you to create an atmosphere he can thrive in. Structure does not mean less fun or less loving. Instead, a structured life for your children will help them to be able to have more fun and it will help your fearful child realize you know what is best for him and will do it!

Explaining decisions you make to your child can be a great way to show them you are dedicated to being a great parent. Let them know that they need to go to bed at the usual time because you know they need sleep to feel good and enjoy the day tomorrow. Let them know that you require them to eat nutritious food because you want them to have healthy bodies and feed good. Let them know they are not allowed to play near the road because it is not safe and you need them to be safe. Let them know that they cannot be left with a babysitter yet because they are still learning how to be a family and they are not ready for that step yet. Though most children tend to roll their eyes or sigh at these parental ‘lectures’, you may be surprised at your adopted child’s reactions. Even though they may not like your decision, they are hearing an important message from you.

I love you. I am taking care of you. I will do what is best for you even if you don’t like it.”

Often children who are starting to feel a shift in their control will try very hard to control all kinds of little details in life. They might ask questions or chatter incessantly. They might follow-up all your decisions for them with comments like, “Yes, that’s what I was going to do.” They will often try to control decision-making, play the parent to a sibling or come up with an idea just a tad different from yours. Though this can be frustrating, try to remember they are feeling nervous and anxious about the feelings of love growing inside of them. I often say things like,

That’s ok, you don’t need to be in charge of that.”

I’ll let you know if you need to know.”

I’ll think about it.”

With a smile and a gentle tone, this clearly conveys the message that you are in control and you will take care of things. It doesn’t have to be a reprimand or lecture, which will most likely throw you onto the battlefield, but your child will get the clear message they do not get to decide or be in charge.

My daughters will often later quote back to me the reasons I have given them for decisions that they didn’t necessarily appreciate in the moment. There is a measure of awe and joy in their voices as they say,

You want us to be safe, right?”

You tell us to eat healthy food ’cause you don’t want us to be sick, right?”

You’re afraid we’ll get hurt if we do that!”

Unfortunately, for an older child parenting in a highly structured manner may cause misunderstanding in other parents. Don’t let this stop you from doing what you know your child needs. While another child may be ready to walk to school on their own, tuck themselves in each night, get a drink or use the bathroom on their own, comb their hair or have a play date at a friend’s house…you need to realize that your child has not come through a chaotic life unscathed. Be sensitive to your child’s feelings, but don’t let what other people are thinking stop you from giving your child the structure they depend on to cope or the boundaries they need to attach to you securely.

While you are pouring in all this structure, however, you need to be spending just as much time giving your child nurturing…but that is a whole new, exciting topic that I will cover next time 🙂

For today, remember:

*Be the parent!

*Hurting children desperately need to be shown that parents are more powerful than they are.

*Take charge of your child’s life confidently and gently.

As I was writing this, I couldn’t help thinking of the many times I struggle and writhe in my Heavenly Father’s loving care. I can look back and see times in my life where I fought against His control, terrified that if I lost control of my life it would result in devastation. But when I finally give up and surrender to those big hands, that strong voice, that enduring love…I feel so safe. To know that He is in control of my life, orchestrating my every move, is such an incredible feeling. There is nowhere I could be safer than in the centre of His will for me.

When I see the especially bright eyes, the relieved tones and the purely joyful words of my daughter after an especially tough battle…I know that it is the same for her. In my love, she will be safe. And someday, she will experience a perfect love that is so much greater than mine. A love that is truly powerful beyond all measure and wider than imagination.

This song by Westlife reaches my soul and makes me weep. To know that this is my Father’s heart cry alongside my own small Mommy desire is breathtaking.


Hard to find a way to get through
It’s a tragedy
Pulling at me like the stars do
You’re like gravity
Even if the wind blows
It makes it hard to believe

How you gonna love?
How you gonna feel?
How you gonna live your life like the dream you have is real?
And if you lost your way
I will keep you safe
We’ll open up all the world inside
I see it come alive tonight
I will keep you safe

Doesn’t even matter to you
To see what I can see
I’m crawling on the floor to reach you
I’m a wreck you see
When you’re far from home now
Makes it hard to believe

So how you gonna love?
How you gonna feel?
How you gonna live your life like the dream you have is real?
And if you’ve lost your way
I will keep you safe
We’ll open up all your world inside
Till you come alive tonight
I will keep you safe

We all fall down
We all feel down
Cause rainy days and summer highs
The more we pray the more we feel alive

How you gonna love?
How you gonna feel?
How you gonna live your life like the dream you have is real?
How you gonna love?
How you gonna feel?
How you gonna live your life like the dream you have is real?

And if you’ve lost your way
I will keep you safe
We’ll open up all your world inside
So you come alive tonight
I will keep you safe

I will keep you safe
I will keep you safe