Institute for Attachment & Child Development
Many of us idealize the major events and celebrations in our lives. We often create blissful thoughts and images of marriages, childbirths, and holidays. Often overlooked are the possible difficulties, frustrations, and disappointments. Adoption of a child is much the same. While many adoptions go well, many do not.
We may consider adopting a child for many reasons. Hopefully, we find a rational balance between helping a homeless child find a nurturing home and our need to raise a child. However, beyond the desire to give a child a nurturing home, there are many questions to ask. Perhaps, the first question that comes to mind is “Why is the desire not enough?”
There are 650,000 children in out of home placements in the United States of American. About 20% of these children are available for adoption. Many of the children available for adoption are children with special needs. Quite often adopting parents are unaware of the existing or potential problems an adopted child brings with him or her to their new home. Because adopting parents do not ask the questions and caseworkers often do not know the information, many adoptive parents find themselves in tragic situations they are unprepared to handle. Being unprepared to raise a special need or high-risk child unnecessarily drains resources and places great stress on the family. While most adoptions go well, lack of information and preparation are among the reasons why, some people estimate, up to half of all the adoptions in America fail.
Many children up for adoption have been traumatized by their birth families, but foster care families, by multiple moves in foster care, and by physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse. Too often adoptive parents are told, “All this child needs is love and everything will be fine.” This is not true. Whether using a state or private agency, adoptive parents need to be careful and have realistic expectations that you may not get your “fantasy child”.
Many local television shows, newspapers, and newsletters promote the adoption of children by featuring two or three different children regularly. Two five year olds were highlighted with the following comments. “He’s big for five but already knows what he wants”. “He loves basketball and likes to play with toy cars and trucks”. “He prays before he goes to sleep every night”. “Her teachers say she’s bright and well-behaved”. “She enjoys singing and dancing”.
Comments that need special attention about these two five year olds are: “He first came into foster care at the age of 5 months after he and three siblings were abandoned by their mother. He’s been in five foster homes and one relative placement… although his brothers and sisters returned home, he did not because his mother was unwilling to accept his lack of attachment to her”. Further, “His family must be able to work his ADHD and attachment problems”. Another example “She wants a lot of attention and needs to be in control most of the time. …Her therapist is helping her deal with past abuse and she is learning to accept direction and parenting from adults …She still sets herself up as the victim and blames others for things she has done”.
Every parent, biological or adopted, should know as much as possible about the attachment process. Surprising, as it may seem, few parents understand the importance and the life-long impact of the attachment process on children. Excellent books for references and gaining a basic overview of the concept and importance of attachment is John Bowlby & Attachment Theory by Jeromy Holmes (1993) and Give Them Roots, Then Let Them Fly by The Institute for Attachment & Child Development (1995).
Attachment is one of the fundamental biological processes necessary in most animals for survival of the species like reproduction, care giving, care taking, feeding, and environmental awareness. Attachment has been described as operating unnoticed much like the psychological regulators that control our blood pressure and body temperature. The attachment process begins to develop in the first few months of a child’s life. In developing the parent-child bond, the attachment process for the infant is the reciprocal behavior to the adult’s (primarily, but not always, the mother figure) care giving process. Simply stated, it is a process that operates to enhance the safety and security of the infant and to aid the infant in getting his or her needs met in humans: touch, eye contact, smiles, motion, and food.
Currently, many people still believe that babies and children can recover from just about anything and that not much affects or influences them. This fallacy has helped to create many harmful beliefs and behaviors toward babies and children. How well the infant is able to get its needs met in the first year of life has much to do with the child’s development not only physically but also psychologically. The process of meeting the child’s needs influences whether the child develops feeling angry or happy; hopeless, helpless or hopeful’ dissatisfied or satisfied; and distrustful or trustful about his or her care givers. The child begins to understand whether his or her world is a safe place or not. It has been estimated that by the end of the first year of life, the child has learned 50% and by the end of the second year 75% of everything he or she will learn in their life. Among the many things learned are how to have relationships with people, how he or she fits into the world, and methods of controlling external and internal influences over his or her life.
Children begin to develop attachment behaviors that are described as either secure or insecure. Insecure attachment behavior is further described as ambivalent, avoidant, or disoriented-disorganized depending on a behavior pattern. The pattern of attachment behavior can be influenced greatly by what happens in the child’s environment. Children have the ability to attach on any level, even a traumatic one. Traumatic events can damage a secure base or therapeutic intervention can aid in reducing the damage of an insecure base. While the behaviors must be thought of as operating on a continuum, it is clear that many insecurely attached children have behaviors that can be very destructive to themselves and others. These behaviors are not always apparent at first without the proper knowledge. You may want to adopt a special needs child but you need to have enough appropriate information to make your decision and to prepare for the future.
An issue that is not apparent, for example, is called the “fantasy bond”. This can occur when children who have no conscious memory of their birth parents continue to have a longing to find their birth parents with the hope, dream, or fantasy that if their birth mother or father knew where they were, they would come for them. Out of this sense of longing, they develop a belief that they must save their love for their real momma, the mom who gave birth to them. This tendency of children to withhold their love …can increase their chances of continuing to disrupt (fall) in their adoptive or foster placements, exasperating feelings of abandonment and reaffirming their belief that only their birth parents could really love them. Even children who have memories of severe abuse and neglect, when in the care of their birth parents will often, later, deny this experience and fantasize a feeling of close connectedness with their birth parents …they have deeply internalized their experiences of abuse, neglect, and abandonment as being their fault because there was something wrong with them. They fantasize that, if they can go back and act differently, they can then elicit the love from their birth parents that they feel is there for them (Institute For Attachment & Child Development, 1995, p. 56).
To improve your chances for a successful adoption, you need to be as fully informed and prepared as possible. Do not assume people in the adoption business “must know what they are doing.” Read all you can on the subject, ask every question you have, and use every resource available to you. This is a major decision not only for you but also the child you are going to bring home. Below are suggested questions to ask your self and others, checklists, and suggested resources. This is not everything but it is a place to start.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Do we thoroughly understand the process of attachment or parent-child bonding and the consequences of children experiencing insecure attachment or broken attachments?
- Do we have the necessary commitment to make an investment in parenthood that raising a child requires?
- Do we know what kind of child we would consider bringing into our home?
- Do we have sufficient knowledge to ask the right questions about a child?
- Do we know how to establish resources before we adopt that we may need after the adoption?
- Do we have the patience to participate in pre- and post-adoption placement counseling to be prepared for the problems that will arise?
- Do we have the financial resources including adoption subsidies to raise this child?
- Does the adoption subsidy include appropriate psychotherapy and residential treatment if these become necessary?
Questions to ask agencies and caseworkers
- Is the agency willing to provide full disclosure of all records prior to adoption finalization?
- What were the circumstances that placed this child in foster care and for adoption?
- What is the history of this child?
- What kind of abuse (physical, emotional, and/or sexual) has this child endured?
- How long has this child been in foster care and what kinds?
- How many times has this child been moved since birth?
- What are the existing or potential problems for this child?
- What post-adoption intervention resources are available should problems arise?
To get more ideas about what adoptive parents need to know before adopting, read
Keck and Kupecky’s book Adopting The Hurt Child, especially chapter six “Dreams and
Signs of Attachment Difficulties (Birth – 1)
- Failure to respond with recognition to face of primary caretaker in first six months.
- Infrequent vocalizations – babbling, crying.
- Delayed milestones, creeping, crawling, sitting.
- Resistant to physical contact or appears stressed by it â€“ rigid and unyielding.
- Excessive fussiness and irritability.
- Passive or withdrawn.
- Poor muscle tone, flaccid.
Signs of Attachment Difficulties (1-5)
- Excessively clingy and whiny.
- Persistent, frequent tantrums, sometimes escalating apparently beyond the child’s control.
- High threshold of discomfort, seemingly oblivious to temperature discomfort; picks at sores and scabs until bloody without manifesting pain.
- Unable to occupy self in a positive way without involving others.
- Resistant to being held.
- Demands affection in a controlling way on the child’s terms.
- Intolerant of separation from primary caretakers except on the child’s terms.
- Indiscriminate display of affection, sometimes to strangers.
- Problems of speech development and problems of motor coordination, considered accident-prone.
- Hyperactivity evident.
- Feeding problems.
- By five may be manipulative, devious, destructive, hurtful to pets, frequently lying.
Symptoms of Attachment Disorder (Ages 5-14)
- Superficially engaging and “charming”: uses “cuteness” to get others to do what he or she wants.
- Lack of eye contact on parental terms: difficulty making eye contact with others while talking with them.
- Indiscriminate affection with strangers: Goes up to strangers and becomes overly affectionate with them or asks to go home with them.
- Not affectionate on parents’ terms (not cuddly): refuses prone: seems to enjoy hurting others and deliberately breaks or ruins things.
- Cruelty to animals: May include incessant teasing, physical assault, torture, or ritualistic killing.
- Stealing: steals from their home, parents, and siblings and in ways that almost guarantees getting caught.
- Lying about the obvious: Lies for no apparent reason when it would have been just as easy to tell the truth.
- No impulse controls (frequently acts hyperactive): extremely defiant and angry; needs to be in control of events in his or her life; tends to boss others; responds with prolonged arguing when asked to do something.
- Learning lags: often underachieves in school.
- Lack of cause and effect thinking: surprised when others are upset by his or her actions.
- Lack of conscience: Unconcerned about hurting others or destroying things.
- Hoarding or gorging food: hoards or sneaks food or has other unusual eating habits (eats paper, glue, paints, flour, garbage, etc.)
- Poor peer relationships: difficulty making friends or keeping friends more than a week; bossy in his or her play with others.
- Preoccupation with fire or gore: fascinated with or preoccupied by fire, blood, or morbid activities.
- Persistent questions and chatter: asks repeated nonsensical questions or chatters non-stop.
- Inappropriate demanding and clingy: tries to get attention by demanding things instead of asking for them; clingy or affectionate only when wanting something.
- Abnormal speech patterns: along with other more serious symptoms, may develop unusual speech patterns.
- Sexual acting out: may act sexually provocative with peers or adults; masturbates in public.
Factors that contribute to a successful adoption
McKelvey and Stevens, Adoption Crisis (1993, p. xviii)
- Youth (older children have a harder time adjusting to an adoptive home).
- A minimum number of moves and foster placements (frequent moves traumatize children).
- A permanency plan developed immediately after the child enters the system.
- Preplacement services to assess the family strengths and skill, and to ease the transition.
- A correct temperament match between parents and child.
- Full disclosure of the child’s history and a realistic appraisal of the disruption risk.
- Post placement intervention before problems become crises.
- Ongoing training and support for parents, lasting through adolescence in “special-needs” adoptions.
189 Springdale Blvd.
Toronto, ON, Canada M4C126
American Adoption Agency
1228 M St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20005
Association for Treatment & Training in the Attachment of Children (ATTACh)
3900 E. Cambelback Road, Suite 200
Phoenix, AZ 85018
(602) 912-5340 Fax: (602) 957-4828
Attachment Disorder Awareness
8116 187th St.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T5T 1K3
Phone & Fax: (403) 484-9179
Attachment Disorder Parents Network (ADPN)
P.O. Box 18475
Boulder, CO. 80308
List of parent contacts state by state. Please send a self addressed stamped envelope.
Children’s Defense Fund
25 E Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption
P.O. Box 2944
Merrifield, VA 22116
North American Counsel on Adoptable Children
P.O. Box 14953
Columbus, OH 43214
Book Adoption Subsidy: A Guide for Adoptive Parents
Parents Network for the Post Institutionalized Child (PNPIC)
P.O. Box 613
Meadow Land, PA 15347
Information on international adoption. Free newsletter.
Special Needs Adoptive Parents (SNAP!)
Suite 1150 â€“ 409 Granville St.
Vancouver, BC, Canada V6C1T2
(604) 687-3114 1(800) 663-7627 Fax: (604) 687-3364
The Institution For Attachment & Child Development
PO Box 730
Kittredge, CO 80457
Web site: www.instituteforattachment.org
Treatment/newsletter/book: Give Them Roots, Then Let Them Fly
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
701 St. Paul Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
(410) 547-6600 Fax: (410) 547-6624
Adoption Information & Support
Adoption Policy Resource Center
The Institute for Attachment & Child Development
All of the books listed are excellent. We recommend you begin with those marked with an asterik(*).
A Child’s Journey Through Placement, Vera I. Fahlberg, M.D., Perspectives Press, 1991.
*Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids, Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D. and Regina M. Kupecky, LSW, Pinon Press, 1995.
Adoption Crisis, Carole McKelvey & Dr. JoEllen Stevens, Fulcrum Publishing, 1994.
Children Who Shock and Surprise: A Guide to Attachment Disorders, Elizabeth Randolph, RN, Ph.D., RFR Publications, 1994.
Conscienceless Acts, Societal Mayhem, Foster W. Cline, MD, The Love & Logic Press, 1995.
Don’t Touch My Heart, Lydna Glanforte Mansfield & Christopher H. Waldmann, MA, LPC, Pinon Press, 1994.
*Give Them Roots, Then Let Them Fly, The Institute for Attachment & Child Development, and Carole A. McKelvey, Morris Publishing, 1995.
Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children, Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson, First Harper & Row Edition, 1989.
*High Risk: Children Without A Conscience, Dr. Ken Magid & Carole McKelvey, Bantam Books, 1988.
*Hope for High Risk & Rage Filled Children, Dr. Foster Cline, 1992.
The Long Journey Home, Richard J. Delaney & Terry McNerney, Journey Press, 1994.
The Primal Wound â€“ Understanding the Adopted Child, Nancy Newton Verrier, Gateway Press, Inc., 1994.
The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, Thomas Verny, MD, Dell Publishing, 1981.
Troubled Transplants, Richard Delaney, Ph.D. & Frank R. Kunstal, Ed.D., National Child Welfare Resource Center for Management & Administration, 1993.
Updated: April 4, 1997
No duplication or altering without specific permission of the Institute for Attachment & Child Development