Once in a while, we get an email that breaks our heart for everyone involved. Attachment is a challenging process for many families, and we know this mother is not alone in her struggle. If you see yourself in her story of struggling to build an attachment, please know that you are not alone. We have many resources to help you and to help you help your child. It’s our honor to support and strengthen struggling families.
This is Much Harder Than I Expected!
Dear Creating a Family,
I am a mother of nine children born to me (ages 20 months to 18 years), all homeschooled. Two months ago, my husband and I adopted his cousin. Before the placement, we did not know this little girl. The adoption moved very quickly once the state determined that her mother could not complete her reunification plan. Our new daughter is almost 4 years old.
Everything that I am reading makes me feel like a complete beast for not loving her. No one else seems to have a problem with loving or sympathizing with their adopted children. I am having such a problem with forming an attachment.
I am civil to her, often affectionate, and try to be fair about her rights in the family. Still, I cannot fake expressions of love and do not like how the integration has to be so sudden and total.
If I was joining a new family, I would be quiet and shy, trying not to make waves. I’d try to let people get used to me. Instead, she acts like she has been here forever. From the very start of all of this, I have been expected to treat this new child as if she is a sister to my children.
I don’t want to bore you with the details, especially how awful I am and how terrible I feel about it. She is a normal little girl, but I am choking on what is required of me. I have listened to your podcasts to prepare for the adoption, especially the ones about attachment. Now that I’m living it, it is a lot harder than I imagined to love and parent her. I think she would have an easier time overcoming her attachment issues if I could overcome mine.
Do you have any resources on how to help adoptive families form a loving attachment?
A Struggling Mom
Attachment is a Two-Way Street
Dear Struggling Mom,
We are so glad you reached out to us for help. You are wise to realize that attachment is a two-way street. Yes, we talk a lot about the child attaching to us, but parents also have to connect with their child. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to understand your own history with attachment and how it impacts your parenting.
You are Not Alone.
You should also know that you are absolutely not alone. Many parents struggle to develop an attachment with their children – it can happen in relationships with biological kids, adopted, foster, and kinship kids.
The good news is that there is help for your struggle! Your daughter’s adoption happened very fast and wasn’t necessarily your choosing. You and your husband found out about the need and you stepped in, but you wouldn’t have gone out to seek this opportunity on your own, right?
We are not mental health professionals, but it sounds like you are struggling with a couple core issues. First, this adoption happened very rapidly, triggering many changes for you and your whole family. Second, you feel as if you lacked any real choice in the matter. Both issues are hard to stomach. Let’s face it, you are also adjusting to life with 10 kids, which is no small feat.
Time is a Blessing.
Our first piece of advice is to give yourself some time. When you were pregnant, you had 9 months to adjust to the idea of a new child and to fall in love with this child. For most folks, the process of learning to love their child continues even after birth. It sounds like you might be putting a lot of pressure on yourself to love this child immediately. Or to love this new daughter like you love your other kids.
Give yourself some grace to allow time for attachment to grow with her. One significant way that you can do that is to identify and change your expectations of the process. For example, think about getting through 9 -12 months together, rather than just these last 2 months.
Growing in Love.
You can also think of it this way: adopting a 3-year-old is more like the process of dating than the process of giving birth. When you give birth, the child is helpless and unformed (more or less). A preschooler is neither helpless nor unformed. This child has certainly experienced trauma and loss – it’s what landed her in your home, right? Recognize that she is grieving and confused. And she is acting accordingly.
How did you work on getting to know your husband when you were dating? Approach your process of building an attachment with her in similar ways. It takes time and effort to know her and then love her.
Growing in love with her will be enhanced if you can spend some one-on-one time with her. Yes, we know that it will be challenging with 9 other kids and running a busy home. But if you can remember how you spent dedicated time with them as infants, you can get creative in the ways you care for and spend time with her.
Practical Tips for Disciplining While Maintaining Attachment, an AdoptionEd.org course
Be Kind to Yourself.
Please remember to take excellent care of yourself during this initial adjustment period! If there is any way you could get extra help for the next 6 -8 months, we strongly recommend it. Also, lower your expectations during this adjustment period for things like housekeeping and even homeschooling. One of the blessings of homeschooling is that you likely have some flexibility to slack off just a bit for now. You can pick up where you left off when things settle down.
Choose Loving Actions, Speak Loving Words.
While you are growing in love with this child, you might need to fake it till you make it. Continue to provide physical care and nurture to this little being. The very act of caring and nurturing will help to create a sense of bonding. You might also add a mental mantra to your actions like, “I am feeding her because she is my daughter, and this is a loving act.” It’s not a matter of convincing yourself. Instead, it’s a matter of identifying and carrying out loving acts. Pairing them with the words that come quickly with your other kids can set your mind and heart on the path toward attachment.
It might also help you to name how you are a loving and nurturing parent. This can be a helpful self-talk tool that defies the negative messages you might have been telling yourself about your “inability” to love this child. You have evidence that opposes those negative messages, so speak that evidence to yourself. It’s nothing short of what you would do for one of your kids who might be struggling with negative self-talk, right? You deserve no less.
Consider Seeking Professional Help
What you are experiencing is not terribly uncommon, and you are not an awful person. We strongly recommend that youget outside support and counseling to help you through this adjustment period. Call your adoption agency or the child’s caseworker. Ask if they can help you or if they can recommend an adoption-competent therapist.
We have resources to help you find a good adoption therapist. If a therapist experienced in treating adoption issues is not available, then go to a good counselor who can support you through this huge life transition.
It’s also worth considering that you might be dealing with post-adoption depression. It’s also not terribly uncommon, and an adoption-competent therapist will be able to support you if this is the case.
We Have Resources to Help with Attachment
We don’t want to overwhelm you with resources. However, we suggest that you find time to listen to a podcast on attachment and how to parent hurting kids at least 3 times a week. Subscribe to the Creating a Family podcast. You can get to it from your phone. Listen while you vacuum, run errands, weed the garden, or cook dinner. Here are a few we think will be encouraging for you:
- Attachment 101
- Healing After Abuse and Neglect
- Fun & Simple Ways to Develop Attachment
- The Connected Parent
- Taking Care of Yourself When Parenting Harder to Parent Kids
You might be tempted to say that you don’t have the time to spend doing all this stuff with 10 kids, homeschooling, and life in general. We get it. And in many ways, you’re right. You don’t have time. However, you and your husband will have to work together to create the time. We cannot stress enough how important it is for you, your family, and this child. The time you spend now will pay off in spades as she ages.
Creating a Family
Originally Published in 2014; Updated in 2016 and 2021