How a Parent’s History with Attachment and Trauma Impacts Adoption and Fostering

Have you ever wondered why a specific behavior by your child drives you crazy? What do we as parents bring to the relationship that could be part of the problem? We talk about how a parent’s history with attachment and trauma impacts our parenting with Dr. Patrice Berry, a licensed clinical psychologist with specialized training in adoption and foster care and over 15 years of clinical experience.

In this episode, we cover:

In the world of adoption and fostering we tend to focus on the child’s attachment and the child’s trauma, but the reality is that as my grandmother would say—it takes two to tango. In any relationship, including the parent/child relationship, if there are problems or issues or rough patches, we need to look at all parties. The attachment and trauma history of the parents are equally as important as the attachment and trauma history of the child. And This can sometimes be uncomfortable because it’s easier to look outside of ourselves when looking for solutions. It’s much easier to take the “fix the child and everything will be okay” approach. But it makes sense that all of who we are as parents comes to bear on how we parent, and that would logically include any past traumas and how we were parented

At the outset we need to say that you should not use the information here to diagnose the attachment status of either you or your child. Rather, use it to empower you to learn more about your own history of trauma and your own attachment style and how that might be influencing how you respond to your child, or why you find your child’s behavior particularly frustrating or triggering.

As most adoptive parents are aware, a secure attachment is key to a child’s healthy development. One way to look at attachment is a child’s bond to a caregiver based on the parent or caregiver’s sensitivity and attunement to the child. So today we’re going to be focusing on what influences the parent’s sensitivity and attunement to this child.

  • Research has shown that our attachment style with our own parents is the biggest predictor of the attachment style we’ll have with our child.
  • What do we mean by attachment style? Attachment style refers to the internal “working models” we develop of how relationships function. They influence the way we relate to important people in our lives. The attachments we form in our early relationships with parents or caretakers can have an impact on our feelings of insecurity, anxiety, fear, avoidance, and satisfaction in our closest relationships throughout our lives.
  • A detailed tool has been developed to determine our attachment styles. Adult-Attachment Inventory (AAI). In the inventory, done by a professional with specific training, adults are asked to describe their childhoods, and it is in the telling of their stories that attachment styles are assessed.
  • What are the types of attachment styles that have been identified in adults?
    • Secure/Autonomous-Our parents were able to make us feel safe, soothed, seen and secure. Touch, praise, encouragement, hope, and commitment are characteristics of secure adult attachment styles. Our parents need not have been perfect.
    • Preoccupied/Entangled/Anxious – A parent who is sometimes there for them but sometimes isn’t. These parents tend to be intermittently available or rewarding, then inexplicably unavailable and mis-attuned, leaving the child confused and frustrated. Sometimes it can result from a parent looking to their kids to meet their needs instead of vice versa.
    • Avoidant/Dismissing- In an avoidant/dismissive attachment, the parent may meet the child’s basic needs, but he or she will have trouble responding to the child on an emotional level. Children in this situation may learn that the best way to get their needs met by their parent is to act like they don’t have any. They adapt by becoming removed from their own emotions and developing an attitude of “I can take care of myself”. 
    • Disorganized/Unresolved- A disorganized attachment can form when a parent is frightening to their child or when they are frightened by the child. In this scenario, the parent reacts unpredictably. The child wants to go to their parent for safety, but the closer they get, the more fear they feel. 
  • Are our attachment styles fixed in childhood by how we were parented or can they change through growth and work on our part?
  • It is beyond our scope to diagnose anyone’s attachment style; however, we can explore how our past and how our relationship with our parents and our past trauma can impact our parenting, our motivations to adopt or foster, and perhaps most important, our expectations of what the experience will be like?
  • To further complicate the parenting picture, it’s important to remember that foster and adopted children come to us having experienced some degree of trauma and a set of experiences from their own family of origin or previous care settings that did not develop in the family system of their adoptive family and may contrast sharply.
  • All parents are susceptible to being “triggered” by things in their past and, consciously or unconsciously, having this shape their behavior. A child’s behavior can certainly be such a trigger.
  • Examples of situations where a parent’s past trauma and attachment style may interfere with their being the best parent to their child.
  • How can we move toward a more secure attachment style?

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Music Credit: Michael Ashworth