When Parents Fail to Attach to Their Adopted Child

Dawn Davenport


No parent ever imagines that they will fail to attach to their adopted child. We all go into adoption with such high expectations for the type of parent we will be– patient, understanding, and most of all loving! But what happens if this is not how we feel? What happens if we struggle to even like our child on most days and do not feel that sense of overwhelming attachment.

When Parents Fail to Attach to their adopted child: causes and cures

One of the most popular and poignant blogs we’ve done at Creating a Family is titled “I Feel Like a Beast, but I Don’t Love My Adopted Child”, and it was our answer to a woman who struggled to attach to a child she adopted at age 3.5.  We have had 92 responses to date, most from other parents who are also struggling with attachment.

The issue of failure of parental attachment lives in the shadows. Parents are ashamed and most often feel intense guilt. No one ever goes into an adoption thinking that they won’t love or feel attached to their child. When this happens they feel like an uncaring freak. Or they blame the child. Seldom do they reach out to their agency to ask for help.

What Causes Parents to Fail to Attach to their Adopted Child

Attachment is a two-way street. Not only does the child need to attach to the parent, but the parent must also attach to the child. Unfortunately, parental attachment does not always happen for a myriad of reasons.


Sometimes parents simply haven’t given it enough time. They expected attachment to happen automatically and quickly, but they are left feeling like a babysitter at best, or having been invaded by someone else’s child at worst. Some people need to grow in love rather than fall in love. Adoption of a child past infancy can sometimes feels like an arranged marriage at first, and it is not unusual for attachment to take up to 2 years.

Unrealistic Expectations

Unrealistic expectations can hinder parental attachment. It is important when adopting an older child to not spend too much energy ahead of time making assumptions of how this child will be and how she will act. As Abbie Smith, an adoption social worker at Holt International says, regardless of what you have been told by the child’s caseworker, foster parent, or orphanage caretaker, enter older child adoption with a sense of wonder—I wonder what this child will like, I wonder what his strengths will be…. Be prepared for the unexpected.

It also helps to control your expectations of gratefulness. No child should be expected to be grateful to her parents, but it is tempting to subtly expect this when you are trying so hard to help this child and have worked so hard (and spent so much money?) to get her. My experience is that kids are not inherently grateful beings until they are in their mid to late 20s—if you are lucky.

In addition to the unrealistic expectations we may have about our child, it is also common to have unrealistic expectations of how we will be as new parents. Most parents expect to automatically love and feel attached to their child. After all, that is what normal parents feel! Right? They don’t expect to feel like they are simply going through the motions of parenting.

The contrast between how they thought they would be and how they actually are can send them into a tailspin.

Post-Adoption Depression

Post-adoption depression is real and can interfere with a parent being able to attach to their adopted child. Adding a child to the family, regardless whether by birth or adoption, is stressful. Adopting an older child, even a relatively young “older child” multiplies this stress exponentially. Combine this stress with lack of sleep and having your entire world turned topsy-turvy and you have the makings for depression.

In addition to feeling depressed, parents also often feel exhausted because parenting a child that has experienced abuse and neglect (including institutionalization and prenatal alcohol or drug exposure) is hard work! Exhaustion can fuel depression.

Infertility Grief

Grief can play havoc with attachment, and infertility gives us a lot to grieve. There are so many losses bundled up with infertility: loss of genetic continuity, loss of creating the perfect mash-up between yours and your partner’s genes, loss of control over how and when you will create your family, and loss of the ability to parent. Adoption only helps to resolve one of those losses—the ability to parent.

One of the comments we received on the blog “I Feel Like a Beast, but I Don’t Love My Adopted Child” sums it up well.

My husband and I adopted a 7 year old from Asia. The child was adopted and returned once from domestic family. He has been rejected by his biological parents and the second couple. Despite all the trauma, he is a healthy, super active, very well adjusted and happy kid. Everyone who meets him falls in love with him immediately. My husband and him have developed a bond already that I can see from miles away. In my case, I can’t seem to feel that joy, love or bond that I am supposed to feel as a mom. I went through 5 ivf treatments with no success. After almost 3 years I am still grieving my losses. I am not sure if that is preventing me from bonding with this kid. I look at him and I see no physical resemblance or anything that makes me want to hold him. At times I have though about just separating from my spouse to let him enjoy being a father. That was always his dream, perhaps my failure of not giving him a biological child makes it harder for me to accept this kid. …I feel like a failure and many times regret going trough process and allowing myself to be in this situation but I wanted my husband to have his boy and to become a father. It is extremely difficult to fake my love around others as “he is a lovely, happy, adorable kid”.

Resolution of grief does not mean that it goes away completely, but it becomes more manageable and does not interfere with your life. The good news is that with therapy and hard work, most people get this grief under control.

Mismatch of Temperament

We all come into this world with basic temperamental characteristics: introversion/extroversion, sensitivity, flexibility, etc. While humans are very much a result of nature and nurture (genes and environment), research has found that our basic temperament is greatly influenced by genes. And some combinations of temperament/personalities inherently work better than others. Adopting a child increases your chances of having temperamental differences. (Although I maintain that just as many clashes can occur between parents of similar temperaments—imagine two strong-willed extroverts.)

Differing temperaments do not have to be a problem with building attachment, but can be if the parent is unaware of what is happening. As the adult in this relationship, the responsibility is ours to understand that part of the problem is a personality clash and we are part of the problem.

Impact of Trauma

Children adopted past infancy have all experienced some type of abuse or neglect. Even infants may have experienced “trauma” in utero due to prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol. Trauma leaves scars that often come out in behaviors that can make attaching difficult. These children did not deserve what happened to them and their behavior may just be a symptom of their abuse, but it takes a lot of work to parent through these behaviors. And the behaviors as a result of trauma can make it harder for a parent to attach.

The Good News

If you are having trouble bonding to your adopted child, you are not alone, especially if you have adopted an older child. There may be lots of possible reasons why you haven’t been able to attach, but there are also things you can do to help yourself and your child.

Your first step needs to be getting yourself into therapy—preferably with a therapist that specializes in adoption. Your adoption agency may have a therapist on staff that can help or can recommend someone. Don’t, however, let the lack of adoption training or specialization stop you from getting therapy. A family therapist can also help.

Your second step is to start talking about your feelings. There is power in talking! In-person support is great, but also check out online groups, such as the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group. It’s a closed Facebook group so that only those in the group can see the posts. You can also ask me or one of the other moderators to post your questions anonymously.

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Find Helpful

31/01/2018 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 6 Comments

6 Responses to When Parents Fail to Attach to Their Adopted Child

  1. Avatar Tammy williams says:

    My wife and I adopted our son from my wife’s sister, we’ve had him since birth. We already had a daughter which I carried, she is biologically mine and I hate to admit it but I can feel the difference in love I have for them. Let me give a little background as to what lead up to how I feel. I feel completely unattached from him and I feel like it was difficult to form an attachment with him because my wife instead of sharing her love between our kids(like I was trying to do)completely took it away from our daughter and gave it all to him. It was as if she only had one kid and she left our daughter beyond her and it was just all about our son in her eyes and I did not like that so I ended up withdrawing from my son and gave my daughter more attention to make up from what she was lacking from her other parent and I know it’s not his fault but it made me regret even adopting him because my daughter was suffering for it. I have since talked to my wife about it and it has changed a lot, but now I find myself completely unattached to him and I know I love him but it doesn’t feel like the love I should have for my own child and I feel horrible about it and he isn’t the easiest child to deal with either he just straight up doesn’t listen and he is quite mean sometimes and that just doesn’t help with trying to reattach to him. I just need help because I want a relationship with my son. I want to feel bonded with him like how I do with my daughter.

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      Tammy, Thank you for sharing your story and for being vulnerable about your struggle. It IS painful and I’m sorry for that, for all of you.

      Have you guys considered counseling – for your marriage, to address the concerns you have about your wife lavishing one child and not the other with her attention? And have you considered family therapy for all of you to work on ways to build connection and relationship between you as individuals but also as a family unit? I think there are indications in your backstory that would merit an experienced therapist’s viewpoint. If you need help finding a therapist, we have resources here to help you: Adoption Therapy

      We also offer an online support group through Facebook and I think you’ll find, if you choose to join us there, that many of us have had similar thoughts and feelings of struggle to attach. The members share candid experiences and offer helpful ideas and resources there.

      Thank you again for reaching out. We hope that you find a healthy path forward for you all.

  2. Avatar Sandra says:

    I am an adopted mom for 2 biological siblings. I have completely attached to my daughter who is 6 and I am struggling with my son. He was 6 years old when we bought them home from India. Constantly lying and stealing. I have been through counseling and a psychologist. Read so many books, articles ect. In 2 years I have tried so many techniques nothing is working. Please help!

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      Sandra, I’m sorry you are struggling. It is a scary place to be. I am not a mental health professional, but I think you need help on a couple of different levels. First, you need help in truly understanding that your son’s behaviors are adaptive skills he learned to survive. He is not doing them to drive you crazy, he is doing them to stay alive. Can you imagine what his life was like that these behaviors were how he coped?!? A good place to start is by reading The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis and also be taking a our online course with Dr. Purvis, Healing After Abuse and Neglect (https://www.adoptioned.org/pages/adoption-courses). There are also closed Facebook groups that specialize in applying Dr. Purvis’s principles. Join one or two and read and post there for inspiration and support.
      I also think you need help assessing your own attachment style and history. What we parents bring to the situation from our past absolutely impacts how we attach and which kids are easier for us to attach with. A good adoption competent therapist can help you with that but you need to go in with the idea of learning about yourself and why you respond the way you do rather than go in with the idea of changing your son. And third, I think you could likely use some very practical help on what to do in your everyday actions with your son that will help improve his behavior and your enjoyment of parenting. There is in-home counseling where the therapist comes into your home and works with you and your family. It can be very very helpful. I wish you courage to tackle this issue for your son, your daughter, and for yourself.

  3. Avatar Alan Ayars says:

    How can I access the Parental Attachment Failure blog your article mentions? My wife desperately needs counseling and a support group after 10 years of failure to attach to our daughter adopted from China at age 4. She currently refuses counseling so I need some way to find her some hope that it’s worth the pain.

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      I’m so sorry your family is struggling. The blog referenced can be found here: http://ow.ly/zyOY30noxLz

      You are right, counseling might really be of help to your wife. To you all, I’m guessing. We have resources to help you find an adoption-competent therapist here: http://ow.ly/QNeX30noycp

      Creating a Family has a great support group on Facebook. You can find it here: http://ow.ly/oLBW30noxVU

      There are also several China-specific groups that might be of help to you. Please feel free to send a message to my attention if you are so inclined. I’ve got a soft spot for China-adoption families. I’m a mom to two daughters from China myself.

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