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.
Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Find Helpful
- Attachment in Adoption is a Two Way Street
- Blaming the Victim: Legacy of a Disrupted Adoption
- Post Adoption Depression: The Elusive “Happily Ever After”
Image Credit: Pexels
Add Your Comment
My husband and I struggled with infertility for 6 years- 3 ivf , 3 iui’s and 2 miscarriages before our adopted son at age 5 came to us, who’s now 12. A boy who seriously looks like my husband, you wouldn’t have ever guessed he’s adopted. My husband and him of course do have a bond and an attachment that I have never been able to have with him. He has zero affection towards me, I get side hugs and very little emotion. In the 7 years I have done every possible “motherly” thing I can to help any type of attachment but there’s not. He pushes me away, has yelled at me, says he hates me, blames me for his problems, etc. He also has alot of mental health issues, self harm, self seeking tendencies, plays the victim, has called authorities. I feel honestly abused by him and what I’ve been put through in 7 years. I am numb and feel like an awful person for trying but I don’t love him and I only feel like a caregiver, and I now live as a caregiver for him. Is it sad to say that I have learned and have adapted and am okay with being that type of person for him?
I’m so sorry — this sounds painful and challenging. Thank you for being brave enough to reach out.
I want to assure you that you are not alone — many parents struggle with a sense of attachment for many reasons. Some are driven by our own history, some from the child’s trauma, and sometimes it’s just a sense of mismatch. Whatever it is, there is help available and you can do things from this article on your side of the relationship to improve the connection.
I cannot answer if you should be okay with the status quo — only you can answer that. But I recommend you seek therapy or a counselor who can help you find your path forward. Someone to help you work through your feelings and give you actionable tips for making the change you wish to see. We have a page here that can help you find the right therapist for you.
We also have an online community of parents who have struggled with similar attachment issues and they can be very helpful and encouraging.
In the meantime, keep doing all the “motherly” things you can do with him and for him. Be present, steady, and available to him and prove to him that you are in it with him forever.
My husband and I adopted two girls that are biological siblings 5 years ago. They were 2 and 3 at the time. He has a great relationship with them but I can’t bring myself to even want to be around them half the time. I feel like a monster but no one gets it. They both look like us, like you wouldn’t even know they were adopted if we didn’t mention it. But we lost 2 babies before them and one a yr after adopting and I feel like my husband is an amazing dad to them and I love him for it. But I can’t even bring myself to hug them most of the time. I try to force myself and it makes me even more bitter. I don’t want to feel like this for the rest of my life or theirs. Please help me.
I’m so sorry for the many losses you’ve endured before and while trying to parent these two girls you adopted. It must be so hard to feel all the grief and pain you are facing. I strongly recommend that you get yourself into a counseling relationship — somewhere you can feel safe processing the losses you’ve had AND safe processing the struggle you are feeling with attachment. Many of us cannot do all this heavy heart work alone and there are great therapists who can walk with us through it.
Here’s a resource to help you find a therapist familiar with the issues of loss and miscarriage.
Additionally, here is a “starter” resource to help you strengthen the attachment between you and your girls.
Finally, please consider joining our online support group. We have a community of widely experienced adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents who share their stories and we learn much from each other about life!
Thanks for reading and reaching out. We hope you find a path forward that is healing for you all.
My wife and I adopted a young man from a emergency placement. He had no home and was dealing with being taken from parents first. Then the foster care he was in 14 mo the decided not to adopt. Upon arrival he was fine he blended in but the honeymoon stage changed drastically. He became violent and manipulative. It’s been 4 years now and the further we go the worse it gets. At this point I have zero feelings for him I am just numb. He has made everyone in the house his enemy as he has stolen and lied and cheated all of us, even other foster kids. He wants to be an only child and I’m ready to give it to him. I can’t see any good in what he does because the bad over looks it every time. I resent adopting him. I don’t want to give up but this child is tearing my family apart we have him in trauma treatment but it takes a while. I don’t want to stop helping children by fostering but what can I do. HELP!!!!!
Thanks for reaching out Brandon. I am so sorry to hear of your struggle. I hope that you are getting some therapy for yourself and the rest of your family, in addition to seeking help for your son. You need a safe place to download your thoughts and feelings and to learn some coping tools. Here’s a resource that can help you find the right fit for you and your family. It’s our Adoption Therapy resource page and we are regularly updating it with reliable resources that we feel might help families looking for therapeutic support.
I also think you would benefit from joining some type of a support group – your wife, too if you can encourage her to do so. It doesn’t matter much if it’s in-person or online, what matters is that you connect with other parents who are in or have been in a similar boat — it’s always hopeful when you find you are not alone! Our online Facebook group is very active and supportive with advice and experiences shared by adoptees, adoptive parents, and foster families.
I hope you can take some time for you and your wife to listen to this recent podcast, How Trauma Impacts a Child’s Development. The insights there can help you learn more about what your son has experienced and how you can help him. I find when I’m struggling with a child’s behaviors, it’s helpful to remember it is because of trauma and how it impacted their brain, not them being defiantly opposed to me or my family. He’s not a bad kid — he’s had some hard, bad stuff happen to him.
Finally, one practical thing that can help is to start a journal or daily index card stack of one thing a day that you love about your son. A quirky, fun trait. His dry sense of humor. His bear hugs. His smart, fast mind. Pick one thing, write it down and repeat the task every day. Even if you are repeating one or two things over and over — practice looking for today’s “one thing.” If “love” feels too hard today, start with “like” or “admire” and go from there.
Please come on over to our online group. I think you’ll appreciate the support.
Happy Holidays and best to you and yours.
My wife and I adopted from birth and I just can’t love the child, I don’t know why. He’s now 5, we’re just divorced and I don’t see him. It was like having a stranger in the house. Even after bathing him most nights and putting him to bed with a story (all forced) it felt like a chore, a mundane task, and I had to do it. What is wrong with me that I never felt love or attachment? I never felt the desire to play with him or pick him up, nothing. And I don’t miss him now, it’s like a relief that I’m not around him anymore – why? Am I not normal? I feel so guilty, I couldn’t tell anyone otherwise they’d think I’m a beast.
I don’t think I even have ever cuddled or kissed him. It’s so awful. I don’t want a remedy, I just want to know why this happened? And if it’s just me??
Thanks for reaching out. It sounds like you and your family has been through some very stressful experiences. It’s not uncommon to struggle to connect with an adopted child, though admittedly less common when it’s a newborn. However, you need to know you are not alone. It’s definitely not just you.
I cannot answer the “WHY” but I can offer suggestions for how to uncover your “why.” First, I wonder if you have considered therapy? I’d suggest seeking out an attachment-competent therapist to help you work through your questions. Secondly, I think these couple resources might be of value to you:
How a Parent’s History with Attachment and Trauma Impacts Adoption and Fostering
Help! I’m Not Sure I Can Love This Child!
Finally, I would suggest that you find some ways to connect with your son that can be fun for you both — something that he enjoys and can share with you or something that you enjoy and want to try to share with him. Fun and laughter together are bonding activities that can build connections to get you over the hump of the struggle.
I hope you keep trying – I know you know this, but our little guys need parents who will hang in there with them and be a safe, unconditionally loving place to land. And you deserve to know the unconditional love and joy of your little boy!
Please don’t adopt more children, ever
I think I might understand what you may mean, but I also don’t think this response is entirely fair. Nowhere did he suggest he was trying to adopt again. He came seeking advice and counsel for what sounds to be a very painful and stressful experience for all. We exist to support and educate parents to raise their adoptive, foster, and kinship kids well to strengthen the whole family.
As an adopted child (girl) at birth, now an adult. Thank you. This man is exactly how my adoptive father was. He was forced by my mother to interact with me. By 5 or 6 years I could feel his rejection of me! I look back to him doing everything ‘once’ with me. Such as swimming,fishing/camping, Disneyland, car race. Only once. Disneyland doesn’t really count because I was 8 years old and really excited that my mother stayed in the hotel room that first evening, encouraging my dad to take me into the park. This was back when they had ticket books. I guess my excitement overwhelmed the spoiled and hateful man. Because when he looked at the map he planned a specific route. Being 8 I didn’t understand why? So I was wanting to go on rides by my favorite. Not in order, which made more sense. But not to an excited child! Without any explanation. Just a hateful look he returned the ticket books he had just purchased and dragged me out of Disneyland and back to the Disneyland hotel. He made my mother get up and from her comfortable bed and book she was reading. Pack up and drive home in the late night for 6 hours.
Your short 4-5 word comment said it. No this guy would have already damaged the child with his rejection. He’s still doing it. Damage done. And I don’t care what kind of help he gets. He cannot be a parent biological,adoptive or otherwise.
He is beyond help. The funny thing is that I left home at 16 feeling unloved. Only to find out later, as an adult that after I was gone? My dad became the favorite of every kid in my neighborhood. Getting involved in their lives, taking them places and helping them. Ignoring and criticizing my two boys, his grandchildren completely.
Never acknowledged. I know my mother was ashamed and felt guilty but always supported him. There’s no help for these types. IMO they are past help and enjoy, yet feel guilty for their callousness.
Happy New Year 🎈
Feel so proud of your honesty. You could have been a coward and blamed the kid for your hatred. It’s great your wife seems to love the child. Both my ‘parents’ blame me. I am 48 now. A kick dog is very valuable for ignorant people who refuse to look inward. Be SO proud that you openly admitted your truth. You CAN’T help what you feel, but you can choose to take responsibility and be honest. Very good job, I WISH my ‘parents’ had done that. Just be honest. But they are too self-glorified. And I am an object. They did buy me, and (edited to remove professional service provider by name) financially gained while I was being completely tramatized abandoned blamed and hated for decades with zero restoration.
I feel like I am going crazy. My husband and I are recently retired military , we fostered then adopted two children. Our daughter was 4 and our son 6 years old. Everyone has bonded wonderfully with our son. He is bright and thriving. He loves to ask questions, some days we feel that we are in a board room talking to a colleague with some of the questions he asks. Our daughter on the other hand kicks, screams and has lots of attitude. She is consistently trying to hurt her brother, she destroys everything she has struggles in school. I feel like we spend most of our time asking for her to stop, please think things through, and stop hitting your brother and we feel that we have not had enough peaceful time in order to bonded with her. My husband and I tag team getting ready for work because somebody has babysit her at the kitchen table. Every second of the day there is something and its tiring for everyone. Even her brother likes to go in his room to avoid her. What do we do? We have tried various therapist and it seems like nothing is changing. We are losing patience, and have no idea what to do.
That sounds incredibly draining for you all — I’m so sorry!
When a child is acting out in ways that are hard to manage or when we cannot help them regulate, it helps to remember that all behavior is a communication of a need. So, ask yourself, what is the need under that behavior that she is trying to express. When our kids are dysregulated like you are describing, it’s quite often that they cannot hear you in the moment, rather than “won’t” hear you. I personally love this resource for understanding this concept: https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/no-thing-bad-kid-parenting-traumatized-kids/
Have you seen a therapist who is adoption- and trauma-informed? This resource can help you find one in your region: https://creatingafamily.org/adoption/resources/finding-adoption-therapist/
I also wonder if you’ve tried trauma-informed parenting model that would increase her confidence in your care, build felt-safety, and allow her to trust you to co-regulate with her in ways that she CAN hear you. We have quite a few resources to get you started with, like this one: https://www.adoptioned.org/courses/practical-tips-for-disciplining-while-maintaining-attachment-2020
Finally, check out our online support group to hang out with a bunch of other parents who GET IT – myself included! We are all working on these hard issues and others in parenting our precious kids – it’s good to be among friends for these hard days: https://www.facebook.com/groups/creatingafamily
Best to you in finding a new way forward!
My husband and I adopted a 7 year old russian boy when I was 56. It destroyed our marriage. The “boy” is now 22. I am very bitter about the whole experience. It was a mistake. My husband threatened to divorce me if I didn’t go along with the adoption. We got divorced 7 years later anyway. I couldn’t take anymore.
I’m so sorry. That sounds incredibly painful and damaging for you all. I hope you can find peace and healing moving forward.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.