Dealing With Attachment Disorder in Adoption

It's never too late to become connected in a healthy way. Here, as in almost every area of parenting kids from "hard places," the bad news and the good news are the same: the human brain is plastic, and as a result it can always reorganize itself, whether to deal with danger and trauma or to adapt to a new environment of safety and trust. Broken relationships can heal. It just takes diligence, determination, and hard work on the part of the parent who wants to see it happen. Here are some thoughts and suggestions to get you started:

  1. Learn to recognize the signs of attachment disorder. Does your child avoid eye contact or refuse to be touched? Is she immature in her language and social skills? Does she comply with your wishes only when she wants something? All these behaviors are typical of a disconnected child. If possible, contact your child's former foster parents or the foster care system and see if you can uncover any information about her early life. There are six risk factors that may be influencing her present behavior:
  • Stressful pregnancy
  • Difficult birth
  • Early hospitalization
  • Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Trauma
  1. Understand the importance of taking a holistic approach. A well-known axiom in the field of child development maintains that "recovery of function recapitulates development of function." You can make up for the damage done during a child's early years by starting over at the beginning and "re-doing" the entire developmental process. But remember that this will take time: even under ideal circumstances, the human brain requires three years of mentoring to develop normal sensory processing. Parents of disconnected kids should expect to invest a comparable amount of time in the task of bringing their at-risk children back "online."

  2. Bear in mind that healing comes from deep, intuitive insight into the child's early experiences and a patient, painstaking reversal of their negative effects. Give yourself and your child time to grieve and face up to the pain of the past. Become a good listener. Allow her to tell her own story – don't tell it for her. Find creative ways to help her express her feelings. For example, you can facilitate her narrative skills by encouraging her to draw pictures representing her personal history or to act it out in puppet play.

  3. Seek out the services of a professional therapist. Studies indicate that without effective treatment, children with attachment disorder and complex trauma become more symptomatic with the passage of time. In such cases, family therapy is generally more effective than individual treatment, so choose a therapist who specializes in attachment issues and who makes a point of working with parent and child together.

  4. In between visits with the counselor you can advance the healing process by developing "rituals of attachment." Bedtime and mealtime routines fall into this category, as do simple little verbal exchanges such as, "Okay?" "Okay." "See you later, Alligator." "After 'while, Crocodile." This kind of playful interaction – what Dr. Karyn Purvis calls the "Attachment Dance" – is more an art than a science. It won't work unless you enter into it in an atmosphere of freedom and fun.

  5. Since attachment problems are to a significant extent related to neurochemical imbalances in the brain, it's possible that a nutritional approach that includes a dietary plan or a regimen of appropriate supplements may help regulate your child's mental and emotional state. But be careful not to "shotgun" supplements. Many high-risk children have suffered a form of "brain damage" or "neurological insult" as a result of early trauma, and their atrophied nervous systems are incapable of accommodating a sudden influx of vitamins and chemicals. Vitamins and drug therapies should at most account for only a very small portion of your treatment plan – perhaps 20 percent or less. The rest is a matter of behavioral intervention and personal interaction between parent and child.

  6. Remember that attachment is all about truth and that intimacy is directly connected to the feeling of being understood. Make a concerted effort to be honest and straightforward in all your dealings with your child and encourage her to do the same. Foster trust by cultivating an atmosphere of acceptance and openness. Let your daughter know in every way you can that she is loved with an unconditional love.

If you need help locating a trained Christian counselor who specializes in family attachment therapy, your family pediatrician may be able to recommend a suitable practitioner. If not, Focus on the Family's Counseling department can provide referrals to qualified individuals practicing in your area. Call our counselors for a free 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.


Related Video
Welcoming a Newly Adopted Child : Elisa Morgan talks about welcoming a newly adopted child.

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

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

Attachment and Bonding

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.