parents not attaching to their new adopted child
What to do when you don’t love or even like your newly adopted child?

Please share your thoughts and advice for this new adoptive mom who is struggling to attach to her new child. If you have experienced anything similar, please let her know.

Dear Dawn, I am a mother of nine children born to me (ages 20 months to 18 years), all homeschooled, and have adopted my husband’s cousin as of 2 months ago. We did not know her prior to this and the adoption moved very quickly once the state determined that her mother would not get her act together. She is 3.5 years old.

I think she would have an easier time overcoming her attachment issues if I could overcome mine. Everywhere I read, no one has a problem with loving and sympathizing with their adopted child, but I do. I feel like a complete beast. I am civil to her, often affectionate, and try to be fair about her rights in the family, but I am unable to fake expressions of love and do not like how the integration has to be so sudden and total.

I feel like if I was joining a family I would be quiet and shy and try not to make waves and let people get used to me. Instead I have to treat her like the sister to my children from minute #1 and everyone has to act like she has always been here.

I don’t want to bore you with the details, especially of how awful I am. She is a normal little girl, but I am choking on what is required of me. I listened to about 24 of your podcasts preparing for the adoption, especially anything about attachment and parenting, but now that I’m living it, it is a lot harder than I imagined. Do you have any resources on how to help adoptive families form the bond.

Attachment is a Two Way Street

I am 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 attach to their child.

You are Not Alone

The first thing you should know is that you are absolutely not alone. The second thing you should know is that there is help. This whole adoption happened very fast and wasn’t necessarily your choosing. It sounds like there was a need and you stepped in, but you wouldn’t have gone out to seek this opportunity.

I’m not a mental health professional, but it sounds like you struggling with two issues: the rapidity of change and the lack of a real choice. Both are hard to stomach. And let’s face it, you are also adjusting to life with 10 kids, which is no small feat.

Time is a Blessing

My first piece of advice is to give yourself time. With a pregnancy, you have 9 months to adjust to the idea of a new child and to fall in love with this child. Even after the birth for many people the process is more growing in love rather than falling in love. It sounds like you are putting a lot of pressure on yourself to love this child immediately. Change your expectations to allowing time for you to grow in love with her. Think in terms of 9 -12 months rather than 2 months.

Growing in Love

Adopting a 3.5 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 toddler is neither helpless nor unformed. This child has almost certainly experienced trauma and loss. She is grieving and confused and acting accordingly.

You need to get to know this person just like you got to know your husband when you were first dating. That takes time and effort.

Growing in love would be enhanced if you can spend some one on one time with her. And yes, I do know how hard this will be with your schedule.You probably don’t have much one on one time with your other kids, but you did have this time when they were infants and you were involved with the day to day feeding and caring for them.

Be Kind to Yourself

You need to take very good care of yourself during this initial adjustment period. If there is any way you could get extra help for the next 6 -8 months, I would strongly recommend it. Also, lower your expectations during this adjustment period for your house-keeping and even your homeschooling. One of the blessings of homeschooling is that you have the flexibility to slack off just a bit and then pick up when things settle down.

Fake It Till You Make It

While you are growing in love, fake it till you make it. Continue to care and nurture this little being. The very act of caring and nurturing helps with bonding.

Although what you are experiencing is not terribly uncommon and you are not a beast, I strongly recommend that you get outside support and counseling help you through this adjustment period. Call your adoption agency and ask if they can help you or can recommend an adoption competent therapist. Also, Creating a Family has resources that can help you find a good adoption therapist.  If a therapist knowledgeable about adoption issues is not available, then just go to a good counselor who can support you through this huge life transition.

Resources to Help with Attachment

I don’t want to overwhelm you with resources, but I would suggest finding time to listening to one of our Creating a Family Radio shows on attachment at least 3 times a week. Subscribe on your phone and listen while you vacuum, garden, or cook. Start with these:

“I Don’t Have Time for All This Education”

You may 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. You’re right, you don’t have time, but you and your husband have to work together to create the time. I can’t stress enough how important it is for you, your family, and this child. The time spent now will pay off in spades as she ages.


First published in 2014. 
Image credit: teriyakidonut