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.
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 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 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.
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.