Attachment and Adoption

Adoption may create a situation in which parent-child attachment is a challenge. In this article, parents can learn some principles and strategies for encouraging attachment in an adopted child.

Adoptive parents often see attachment as their responsibility to develop in their child. However, it’s important to understand that while it is your responsibility to provide a safe nurturing environment for your child, you can’t control his decision to attach to you.
Attachment is different than bonding. Bonding is what you do toward your child and it happens automatically. Attachment is what your child will conditionally do toward you if he assesses his environment to be safe enough and if you are consistent enough to be relied upon. Attachment is not an automatic response. Just because you bond with your child doesn’t guarantee he will attach to you. Parenting a child who has attachment issues doesn’t require perfection just understanding, persistence and a lot of patience.

Therapeutic Parenting

Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) was pioneered by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis. The therapeutic parenting process is a specific way to parent a child with attachment issues. Briefly, it’s where you use your child’s behavior to clue you in as to what’s going on in his brain. You address his brain’s needs in order to help him feel safe so he doesn’t have to react in negative ways. In short, you’re parenting his reactive brain rather than simply confronting his behavior.
Because of this, therapeutic parenting techniques take extra time and intentionality. Dealing with your child’s tantrum may take 20 minutes or up to five hours. Depending on your child’s history, using therapeutic parenting will take between six months to two years of continual repetitive intervention.

Key Principles

  1. Errorless learning. It’s important that your child doesn’t have a chance to fail; meaning that whatever choice he makes will be a “right” choice. This is critical in the first three months after adoption. When your child asks for a cookie five minutes before dinner, you say “Yes! Do you want half your cookie now and half as soon as you finish dinner? Or do you want to save the whole cookie for when you finish dinner?” Either way, he only gets one cookie and still has a choice in the matter. If he wants the whole cookie now repeat the two options and wait for him to make his choice.
  2. Increase the challenges gradually. Be sure your child is responding consistently to a behavior change (what’s known) and can successfully manage the choices you give him before introducing a new one (what’s unknown). This generally occurs four to six months after adoption.
    Now, when your child asks for a cookie, you say “Sure! You can have a cookie as soon as you finish your dinner.” You’re stretching his patience level and still saying “yes” to his request for a cookie.
  3. Make good use of “do-overs.” Have your child re-do his negative reaction with the appropriate behavior or words. Neuro-pathways in your child’s brain require lots of repetition to make a solid connection. It will likely take three to six times longer than you wish to calm your child’s brain down enough to where he responds appropriately. Until a secure attachment has been achieved, therapeutic parenting requires you to slow down, go through the steps over and over again.

Connect, Empower and Correct

When a child with a disrupted attachment is misbehaving a fundamental intervention process TBRI teaches is called Connect, Empower and Correct.

  1. Connect with your child in a light-hearted, silly or surprising way; “Whoa Nellie …” or “Oopsy, let’s try that again.” Get down on his eye level. If he’ll let you, place a gentle hand on his shoulder. Talk in a calm up-beat voice. Your child learns best in a playful fun setting where he doesn’t feel threatened. Connecting helps him feel like you’re “with” him rather than “against” him. Be sure you make the connection before proceeding.
  2. Empower your child by giving him a choice between two acceptable options. He’ll feel trapped, scared and defensive if he has no choice or option. When he’s scared, he’s unable to actually hear what you’re trying to teach him. Ask him “Would you like to wear your sneakers or your snow boots?” Options empower by giving him control in the situation. When he feels “in control,” he’ll likely feel safe and more likely to cooperate.
  3. Correct. Correcting your child’s behavior can only take place after he’s calmed down and feels safe. You may say “Stop, you’re not being safe. How about we try that again, this time use your kind voice?” This is the perfect time for a “do-over.” If the first “do-over” attempt doesn’t garnish the desired outcome, have him do another “do-over.” You’re not looking for perfection, just acceptable and appropriate behavior – even if it’s barely acceptable.

Take Care of Yourself, Too

As a parent, grab a few minutes each day to catch your breath, take a time-out and tend to your needs as well. These one to three minute suggestions can make a huge difference in your ability to cope with the stress of therapeutic parenting.

  1. Make time in your day to sit quietly for five minutes.
  2. Before getting out of the shower, turn the water a little hotter for a minute or two to allow your body to relax.
  3. When you go to the bathroom, pause and wash your face with a warm wash cloth and take five deep breaths. You might also look yourself in the mirror and remind yourself to take it one hour at a time.
  4. Every hour or so take five deep breathes and relax your shoulders before doing your next activity.

Get Additional Help

If you’re doing everything you can and your child isn’t making progress, reach out for help. Look specifically for a licensed Christian counselor who’s trained in: Child Led Play Therapy, TheraPlay, TBRI, or trauma informed experiential therapy. With proper training and support, you can create a safe nurturing environment where your child can learn to attach.
Focus on the Family is proud to sponsor an annual simulcast called Empowered to Connect.

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