Being Home: Attachment

How was the trip home?

What is it like being home as a family of three?

How is Elliott adjusting?

How are you adjusting?

How is attachment going?

Is there anything you need?

As time allows, I will answer these questions and just post them as they are completed (click links above for previous posts).  Thank you so much for your warm welcome home to our new life!

 

How is attachment going?

You can’t talk about adoption long before talking about attachment, and with good reason.  From the moment you lay eyes on your adopted child, you are embarking on a road to not just legally join him/her to your family, but a life-long journey to solidify, moment by moment, that you will unconditionally love him/her.  It is something that we spent many months researching and studying as we prepared to bring Elliott home, because we knew how important those first days, weeks, and months would be.

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As it applies to adoption, attachment parenting looks a little different (and sometimes downright counter-intuitive) to how one might parent a typical toddler being raised by his/her biological parents.  Not only have adopted children experienced the incredible trauma of being removed from all that is familiar, they have no frame of reference for a “parent”.  They may have experienced caregivers, orphanage workers, foster families, medical professionals, etc., all of whom may have met various needs to some degree, but never have known what it is to be loved by a forever parent.

You know those toddler toys that encourage kids to poke a variety of shaped blocks through their matching holes?  You stick the circle through the circle-shaped hole, the square through the square-shaped hole, and so on.  And no matter how hard you try, each shape will fit through only one hole.  Expecting a young, once-orphaned child to understand this new thing, this “parent”, is like handing them a Volkswagen and asking them to fit it through one of those small holes.  They simply have no category in which to understand “parent”, and the concept is so huge, so life-altering, and so emotionally saturated, they can’t possibly wrap their minds around it.

I have written on here before about my good friend, who gave birth to her son just before we left for Poland.  From the moment her son arrived in this world, he was bombarded with messages of love.  Enamored parents were there to welcome him, snuggle him, kiss him, shower him with love and affection.  This love was also demonstrated to him through the meeting of needs.  When he was hungry, his mother fed him.  When he needed changed, his parents were there.  When he was tired, his father wrapped him blankets and rocked him to sleep.  Day after day, night after night, at the slightest sign of discomfort, he had two loving individuals meeting need after need after need.

This is the development of attachment, in it’s most basic and natural form.  Over thousands of small, seemingly insignificant interactions, my friends are sending a message to their son: “You are loved, you are wanted, and you can trust us to always meet your needs.”  Through the daily repetition of this message, their son has learned the concept of “parents”, and already knows who those people are.  He reflects this attachment back to them by crying for his mother when I hold him, immediately quieting when she takes him in her arms, expecting his needs to be met by expressing them, and preferring to be soothed by them rather than soothing himself.

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Studies have shown the incredible impact of the absence of this positive learning cycle, even in the very youngest of newborns.  One of the books we read on attachment describes it as newborns receiving one of two messages when they first enter the world.  Is it “Welcome, Precious!” or “There’s no place in this world for you!”?  Newborns are keenly aware of the distinction, and the effects of whichever message is taught to them from birth can last a lifetime.

Attaching in adoption to a child who received Message #2 means undoing that impact and instilling Message #1 into their hearts and minds.  Because it happens so naturally with a biological newborn being raised by loving parents, we don’t often think of that daily need-meeting as teaching them attachment, but that is what it is.  And to attach to a child who has never experienced that means first going back to Square One and teaching Elliott what our friends naturally taught their son at his birth: “You are loved, you are wanted, and you can trust us to always meet your needs.”

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After doing a lot of homework on the subject, Alex and I wrote up our “Attachment Plan”, which were basically guidelines for us in bonding with Elliott.  As someone who has spent a lot of time around young children, I knew I would need the remind to approach him differently.  Here is what we wrote:

  • We will practice cocooning.
  • We will make his world as small and predictable as possible.
  • We will stick to a daily schedule and routine.
  • We will rock him to sleep for naps and bedtime.
  • We will be his only caregivers – for everything.
  • We will attempt some form of co-sleeping.
  • We will fuss over him and baby him.
  • We will parent him according to his “family age” rather than his “biological age”.
  • We will attempt a lot of baby-wearing, both at home and out and about.
  • We will engage in lots of play that encourages eye contact, touch, and laughter.
  • We will go to him immediately when he cries.

Basically, our plan was to treat him as if he was our newborn baby, because our relationship with him was just that.  One of the ways that has been proven to be most effective in developing attachment with a young adopted child is to essentially take him back to the basics and allow him to go through the natural stages of attachment and newborn need-meeting to teach him the concept of “parent”.

We also wrote a list of things we will look for as some big-picture signs of attachment in Elliott:

  • He seeks us out (even among other people) for need-meeting (care, touch, food, comfort, etc.).
  • He prefers being soothed by us rather than self-soothing.
  • He displays appropriate stranger danger.
  • His “trauma behaviors” begin to wane.

So, how is attachment going?  Here are some good signs we observe:

  • He does seek us out among others.
  • He expresses his needs to us, because he knows we will meet them.
  • He prefers us to other people.
  • When he is upset, he calms when we comfort him.
  • Most of the time, even just our presence is enough to comfort him.
  • His self-soothing behaviors have virtually vanished.  (For Elliott, this was a sucking motion he did when he was trying to calm himself down.  Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but we were looking for him to seek us out for soothing rather than a preference for being left alone to self-soothe.)
  • His trauma behaviors are waning.  (For Elliott, this was mainly sleep/eating issues, night terrors, being very easily over-stimulated, and extreme clingyness.)
  • He makes excellent eye-contact.
  • He looks to us for reassurance in new situations or environments.
  • He likes to cuddle and snuggle with us.

Here are some things we are still working on:

  • Displaying appropriate stranger danger – right now, this is about 50/50.
  • Catching up on attachment to Alex after our time separated from him while in Poland.
  • His confidence in playing independently if we need to step out momentarily or work on something else nearby – essentially, knowing that we are not leaving permanently even if we are out of eyesight and that we always come right back.
  • Venturing out into new environments and situations.

As of Sunday, Elliott has been home with us for one month (about three months total of being with us).  Overall, we are much further along than we expected we would be.  His prior healthy attachment to his foster family and the time we had to prepare him for the transition instantly put us weeks or months ahead of where we might have been otherwise.  And as challenging as it was, our two months of virtual isolation in Poland was a form of forced cocooning we absolutely needed.

Thanks to these circumstances, we have been able to take some steps away from our initial attachment plan sooner than expected.  We go on short outings, such as story time at the library or on a play date with the cousins.  We allow close friends and family to spend short amounts of time with him.  We’ve transitioned into him sleeping in his own room, and are encouraging small measures of developmentally-appropriate independence.  If something goes well, we try it again or branch out a little further next time.  If it doesn’t, we usually need to follow it up with a day or two of quiet time at home.

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Now that we have been home for a month, we are going to start trying other new environments and slowly return to our normal routine.  Many of you are local friends who have expressed lots of excitement in meeting him, which we love!  If you do bump into us as we venture out, here are some ways you can be a huge help to Elliott:

  • Please allow us to meet all of his needs.  If he drops something, gets an “owie”, is eating, etc., please let us respond to his need.  Why? Consistency of US being the ones to meet his needs (even tiny ones) is very important to reinforcing in his mind that his caregivers are not changing again.
  • Instead of picking him up or hug/kiss/snuggle him, please just pat his back or give his hand a squeeze.  Why? Adopted kiddos often have trouble understanding “stranger danger”, as they are used to trying to impress new people in an attempt to earn their affection/attention.  Even if you are not a “stranger” to us or any threat of “danger”, it would be helpful if you would keep a bit of distance while we work on this concept.
  • If we are somewhere with lots of friends (such as church), please try to avoid forming a crowd around Elliott or getting too close into his space.  Why?  Lots of new people, new environments, or places where the attention is all on Elliott are very over-stimulating for him, though you won’t be able to tell at the time.  He will be charming, engaging, social, friendly, and will probably reach out for you to hold him.  But as soon as we leave the situation and the pressure is off of him to preform (see above bullet point) his little body has a break down from all of the stimulation and it can take days for him to reset.

We are incredibly thankful for how God has brought us together as a family, and for the amazing support we have received from our friends, family, and community!  These past three months have been incredibly important for our family, but we are definitely excited to start venturing out and seeing all of you lovely people again!  Thank you so much for understanding the limitations we have right now, and for praying for our attachment process!

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