attachment in adoption

How to Understand and Improve Parent-Child Attachment

Cathy adopted sixteen year old, Rachel, from foster care at eight months of age. Cathy shares about a recent event, “Rachel is on the dance team at school. This week, they performed in front of the whole school and Rachel was nervous about it. I saw her come into the gym, and I was worried she wouldn’t find me. I waited while she looked around the room. Finally, our eyes met, and at the same time we pointed at each other. I gave her a thumbs up, and I could see her relax.”

Cathy’s story tells a lot about their secure attachment –Rachel looks to her mom for comfort and safety. In a healthy attachment the child feels safe, emotionally secure and protected; they seek their parent for emotional and physical connection when they are frightened, hurt or if they become separated.

That’s our goal, right? Healthy secure attachment with our children. But how do we build a healthier attachment. First, I’ll tell you the four styles of attachment, then give you examples of each, and most important, specific practical ideas for building secure attachment.

Secure vs. Insecure Attachment: The Four Attachment Styles

Secure or healthy attachments develop from available, consistent, and sensitive caregiving while unavailable, inconsistent or insensitive caregiving promotes insecure attachments. An attachment forms from repeated interactions between the child and caregiver. Let’s look at the four attachment styles along with a story to demonstrate the insecure styles.

Secure attachment: Secure

Secure attachment develops when a caregiver provides consistent caregiving. In a secure relationship, the child seeks comfort from her caregiver and prefers her over strangers.

Insecure Attachment: Ambivalent, Avoidant, Disorganized

  1. Ambivalent attachment develops when a caregiver shifts between adequate and preoccupied caregiving. Children in an ambivalent relationship are clingy, and (directly or indirectly) aggressive toward their caregiver often pushing them away and then immediately wanting closeness again.
  2. Avoidant attachment develops when a caregiver is neglectful and rejects the child. Children in an avoidant relationship avoid their caregiver (i.e.: ignore them, refuse touch) and may show a preference to strangers.
  3. Disorganized attachment develops when an inconsistent caregiver wavers between frightening and comforting the child. In a disorganized relationship, children try to control or attempt to be a caretaker to their parent.

Stories to Demonstrate Insecure Styles

Ambivalent Attachment: The Davis Family

Wade and Kimberly, are concerned about their three year old son, Luis. In a therapy session, Kimberly says, “We brought Luis home from Colombia when he was sixteen months old. We thought he had a good foster home; now, we’re not so sure.”

Wade and Kimberly explain Luis’ behaviors, “If I get upset with Luis he says, ‘Mom, your hair looks nice. I like you very much.’ It makes me wonder if he’s manipulating me.”  Wade adds, “Another thing we’ve worried about is he runs into his room, hides and screams, ‘Don’t touch me!’  Then, he yells for one of us and as soon as we get there, he says, ‘Get out!  Leave me alone!‘

A Child with Avoidant Behaviors: Joe’s Story

Joe is thirteen years old. From birth to age three, he lived with his birth mother, Charlene, who neglected him. Frequently, Charlene left Joe alone in a dirty home and when she was there, she rarely paid attention to him. Joe was removed from her care when Child Protective Services found Joe in the home with a drunken man who was passed-out on the floor.

Joe was placed in foster care until age five when he was adopted by Chris and Mandi. Chris and Mandi want to hear Joe’s thoughts and feelings, but by the time he came to their home he had already lost his voice. Unfortunately, Joe keeps his thoughts and feelings to himself.

A Child With Disorganized Behaviors: Alee’s Story

Alee is four years old. Her birth parents, Brandon and Marcy, were both young and mentally ill. They could not remember how to mix her formula, dress her appropriately or manage her illnesses. Furthermore, Brandon would become aggressive when she cried. Marcy confesses that Brandon spanked Alee when he was irritated with her bouts of crying. Finally, Child Protective Services removed Alee from their home.

After two foster placements, Alee was adopted by her paternal aunt and uncle, Ellen and James, at the age of two and a half. Alee is both punitive and caretaking with her mom and dad. When Alee becomes punitive she hits, kicks, spits at her parents and says, “You’re just a stupid mom” and “Get away from me!”

Sometimes, Ellen is tearful which triggers Alee’s caretaking behavior. She scoots over to mom, gently puts her hand on mom’s shoulder and in a encouraging voice says, “Don’t worry, mom. I’ll do better.”

Practical Strategies to Improve Attachment

As you are resolving your child’s past trauma and loss through therapeutic interventions, practice these new interactions to improve your parent-child attachment.

  1. Re-do the behavior. When your child behaves inappropriately, ask him to try the behavior again but appropriately this time, “Let’s try that again…”.
  2. Identify thoughts and feelings. Find alone time to listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings, especially ones that are hard to acknowledge, “I want to hear how you feel. Your feelings are important to me.”
  3. Repair breaks in your relationship. Anytime a parent causes alarm, fright, or distress to the child (as all parents do), the parent must take responsibility for it and apologize thus repairing the break.
  4. Gently point out distancing behaviors. When your child is distancing, use kind honesty to point it out, “I think you are pushing my love away by ignoring me/pushing me away/being mean to me.”
  5. Write. When your child is reluctant or refuses to talk, encourage him to share his feelings through writing.
  6. Draw the feeling words. Feelings can be overwhelming. Draw the five feeling words (happy, sad, mad, scared, and loving) on paper, and ask your child to circle how he/she feels.

It is helpful for parents to recognize the attachment styles. In addition to therapeutic work that resolves a child’s past hurts, parents can initiate new patterns of attachment through consistent and sensitive caregiving.  Table for Understanding Attachment 


This post is written by Carol Lozier, MSW and clinical social worker who specializes in helping adopted and foster children. Carol’s website, offers a blog, free downloadable tools for families, an excerpt of The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide, and a community of supportive adoptive and foster parents.


Image credit: Daniela Dimitrova