Adoption and Attachment Issues

First, a word of commendation. James 1:27 says that genuine godliness – or "pure and faultless religion," as some translations have it – means looking after orphans and widows in their distress. You deserve a great deal of credit for your willingness to put this principle into action, and we want to encourage you to move ahead with your plans. But we also think you're wise to raise questions and proceed with your eyes wide open.

About Reactive Attachment Disorder: This term refers to a condition characterized by an inability to bond with others – even with adoptive parents who are extremely loving and nurturing. Here at Focus on the Family we think it's good to be aware of the potential for problems in this area, but we also hesitate to label children with RAD too quickly. Every situation is unique, and a great deal depends on the individual circumstances of the child you're planning to adopt. There is no one-size-fits-all pattern here.

Naturally, attachment is extremely important in every parent-child relationship. This is especially true with kids who are adopted or in foster care. When emotional, psychological, behavioral, or learning difficulties arise with children in these situations – especially children with a history of neglect or abuse – they are nearly always rooted in or related to attachment issues. That's because kids from "hard places" tend to be disconnected kids. The following principles of attachment theory should provide you with some helpful insights into this process and equip you with a deeper understanding of the challenges your child is likely to be facing:

  1. How Attachment Develops. Under ideal conditions, attachment springs up and grows within the context of nurturing experiences with a loving caregiver. If these positive experiences are lacking, or if a child's interactions with a primary caregiver are frightening or traumatic, chronically elevated levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, can cause significant damage to the limbic system of the brain and impair a child's capacity for secure and meaningful human relationships.

  2. Stages of Infant Attachment. Since you're adopting a 4-year-old, you should be aware that your child is already past the age at which the foundations of attachment are laid down. Generally speaking, the process by which babies form these emotional bonds with caregivers unfolds in three stages:
  • Indiscriminate social responsiveness (0 to 2 months). At this stage, a child will focus with pleasure on any human face.

  • Discriminate social responsiveness (2 to 7 months). During this phase, babies begin to show a preference for familiar faces.

  • Specific attachment relationships (7 to 30 months). In particular, the period from six to twelve months represents a delicate window within which a child's ability to form healthy connections may be curtailed if conditions for its growth are less than ideal.
  1. Abilities Required for Attachment. No one, whether child or adult, can form deep and meaningful attachments with others unless they possess the following four capacities:
  • The ability to seek care. A person cannot learn to be intimate with anyone unless he or she is willing and able to turn to others in times of trouble.

  • The ability to give care. An individual's sense of security is largely associated with his or her ability to care for others.

  • The ability to feel comfortable with an autonomous self. Ironic as it sounds, independence is a prerequisite for healthy intimacy.

  • The ability to negotiate. In a parent-child relationship, productive negotiation occurs when the child knows that his wishes and preferences will be heard, understood, and acknowledged.
  1. Four Attachment Styles. Research has revealed four categories of infant attachment styles. By a slight shift of nomenclature, we can also apply these categories to adult behavior:
  • Secure (adult: Free/Autonomous). A secure infant seeks to be near the parent and is easily consoled by the presence of a loving, affectionate, and sensitive caregiver. Individuals who carry this attachment style into adulthood are comfortable with their own autonomy and find it easy to free themselves from the need to "manage" past disappointments and hurts.

  • Insecure/Ambivalent (adult: Entangled). An ambivalent child is clingy and hypervigilant. His "push-pull" method of relating to caregivers is the result of inconsistent early parental care. Ambivalent babies grow up to be entangled adults – people who can never let go of the abuses and betrayals of past relationships.

  • Insecure/Avoidant (adult: Dismissing). The avoidant infant shows little or no desire to be held or comforted by his mother. This behavior is a defense mechanism designed to protect him against the pain of rejection from a cold, non-nurturing, or abusive parent. In adulthood, avoidance expresses itself as dismissal or denial – an unwillingness to deal with or even acknowledge past or present relational difficulties.

  • Insecure/Disorganized or Disoriented (adult: Unresolved or Disorganized). A child with a disorganized attachment style displays a variety of unusual and even bizarre behaviors, including hypervigilance, "zoning out," or strange repetitive actions such as rocking back and forth or pawing the air. Such reactions to the mother's presence are expressions of confusion and pure terror and are generally regarded as evidence of parental abuse. In later life, disorganized children grow into disorganized adults – candidates for addiction, dissociative behaviors, and borderline personality disorders.

It's important to add that these attachment styles tend to be transmitted wholesale from one generation to the next. In other words, avoidant parents tend to raise avoidant children. Of even greater concern is the fact that, according to several reputable studies, percentages of entangled, dismissing, or unresolved adults tend to be much higher among parents of difficult adoptions than we would expect to find in the population at large. In some cases 25 percent of these moms and dads have tested out as unresolved as opposed to a mere 2 percent in the general population. These statistics indicate that parents of kids from "hard places" need to be careful and diligent about working on their own attachment issues before attempting to solve the problems they're facing with their children.

If you'd like to talk over these ideas at greater length, call our Counseling department. Our counselors would be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you in a free over-the-phone consultation.

And for more information about parenting adopted children, you might consider a therapeutic parenting model developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis called TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention). We recommend you visit the webpage of TCU's Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, which has a free one-hour “Introduction to TBRI” online video designed to help parents understand their child's brain development. You can find other resources through their online store.


The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family

Handbook on Thriving As an Adoptive Family: Real-Life Solutions to Common Challenges

The Whole Life Adoption Book

Empowered to Connect: Created to Connect Study Guide

Attachment in Adoption

Fostering or Adopting Children From Difficult Backgrounds (resource list)

TCU's Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development

Empowered to Connect

Preparing for Adoption

Adjusting to Life After an Adoption

Derived or reproduced from Trust-Based Relational Intervention® resources (Purvis & Cross, 1999-2011) and used with permission of TCU's Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development.