When a child is separated from his or her birth mother, it creates a deep emotional wound that can last through a lifetime and cause the inability to have a fulfilling relationship with another person. Attachment parenting heals these little broken hearts.
Here to share how is Robert Allan Hafetz, who was adopted himself, and who is now a therapist specializing in adoptive families.
Q: How important is attachment to the adopted child?
Creating a secure attachment is vital in order to restore healthy emotional development. If attachment remains compromised, it will have a harmful effect on future relationships with intimate partners. It will also inspire power struggles, conflict, and chaos in the adoptive family.
Q: How does separation of a child from his or her birth mother affect attachment?
Premature maternal separation will alter the optimum development of the child. It is defined as a traumatic experience that will be held in long-term memory. It will affect responses to emotions one would define as comfortable as well as uncomfortable. Expressions of love may create anxiety, and flawed attempts to attach - if not understood - may cause a severe anger response.
Related: When They Aren't Adopted: How to Help Kids in Foster Care
The child's mind views the present through the filter of the past. The primal mother loved the child and left the child. Expectations will be carried forward and applied to the adoptive family. The mind always seeks a place of safety. From the child's perspective, love means the act of abandonment will repeat itself. In cases of multiple placements in foster care, the response is reinforced and intensified.
Q: What are signs that an adopted child has yet to be healed from the broken attachment with his or her birth mother?
Behaviors that resemble ADHD, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder are common. Erroneous diagnosis by professionals who don't understand adoption will lead families to ineffective interventions and the wrong medications.
What we are actually seeing is hypervigilance, which is a common response to a traumatic event. We must keep in mind that adoption is a trauma process in the context of attachment -- not an attachment dysfunction.
Adoptees will engage in attachment-regulating behaviors, which manifest as pushing away and then pulling back. When they allow themselves to be loved, they feel anxiety and will act out to push parents away. Then, they fear they may actually cause the parents to abandon them again, so they pull them back. Fear of abandonment drives many behaviors, and this can confuse and frustrate parents.
Q: Are infants more protected from the trauma of a broken attachment from the birth mother than an older child who can readily remember the event?
Infants have the ability to record long-term memory at birth. An infant separated from its first mother will record a memory of that event. Memories of this nature are called "preverbal memory representations," and they have a unique quality that must be understood by adoptive parents.
An older adoptee who recalls a emotional memory will experience it the same way it was felt as an infant. Adoptees can have troubling memories that they cannot identify in words. This means that they cannot understand what they are feeling, and without a vocabulary, they cannot even ask for help. This leads to a cognitive-emotional disconnection.
Older children over the age of 4 will create explicit memory and have the ability to identify their emotions in words. Children younger will have implicit memory and be unable to understand their memories. This creates an adoptee who experiences profound emotions and cannot ask for help or understand what is being felt.
Q: How can attachment parenting help a child heal from a broken attachment?
The adoptee must experience a secure attachment in the adoptive family to heal from the inherent trauma created by the loss of the primal mother and placements in foster care.
It is vital to understand that verbal or cognitive interventions will have no effect on preverbal memories. Words are understood by the neocortex, which understands reason, logic, and explicit memory. The trauma memory is held in the limbic system, which cannot understand words.
An adoptee will believe that he is in his forever family, but feel isolated and disconnected. There is a conflict in the mind between what is known and what is understood as emotion. Humans will respond to the emotions before they respond to their beliefs. The limbic mind controls the brain and drives behavior and life choices.
Related: A Story About a Mother Who Placed Her Baby for Adoption
The foundation of attachment parenting in adoption is the expression of love experientially not verbally. Parents must create experiences of secure attachment within hours when the child is acting out or misbehaving. The misbehavior is not the problem -- it's the child's solution to the problem. Attempts to attach are often not understood by parents, because they may take the form of attention-seeking, testing, or some kind of annoying behavior. Parents instinctively discipline or punish when this occurs, resulting in an anger response that can escalate to a power struggle.
In adoption, the response is counterintuitive. The healing response is to create a secure attachment experience by touch, eye contact, a low vocal tone, leading to a hug. Words at this time will have little or no effect and may make matters worse.
Adoptees may not cooperate and tell parents, "Don't touch me!" Remain present in support of them. Express unconditional acceptance and love. The model I teach is:
- Validate feelings,
- Align, and
Q: What are the principles of attachment parenting in adoption?
Preverbal memory is motivating attachment anxiety. Interventions must be based on experiences. The child must feel unconditional love and acceptance. Avoid power struggles at all times.
All behavior is goal-oriented, and children are trying to acquire one or more of these goals:
- To feel connected,
- To have courage,
- To feel capable, and
- To feel they count.
When children misbehave:
- Validate their emotions,
- Tell them it's OK to feel that way,
- Align and join with them to acquire their goal, then
- Collaborate and acquire the goal -- which is to feel attached -- by creating a secure attachment experience.
Q: What about when the child misbehaves and the parent needs to discipline him or her?
Instead of asking the child to change his behavior, I have parents think of what they can change in themselves to help the child. Research shows that attachment-disordered children are most susceptible to heal when they are in the moment experiencing their fears. This is the hardest time for parents to be non-reactive and calm, but it's crucial in creating a secure attachment.
I created a basic model for helping an adopted child when they are misbehaving:
- Bring the fears to the surface by asking: "Are you afraid? Do you feel alone?"
- Validate the child's emotions. Don't judge them.
- Determine the child's Crucial C goals: connection, count, courage, and capable.
- Align with the child, and help him reach that goal.
- Encourage his effort by saying, "I believe in you."
- Connect emotionally with eye contact, touch, and comforting body language.
Q: What can parents do to prepare themselves for raising an adopted child?
Learn as much as you can about the significant differences in parenting an adopted child from a child one has given birth to. Understand that love is not enough, and knowledge not commonly known must be acquired.
The attachment experience of parents plays a major role in the attachments they will create in their adoptive families. Be open to change and see how your side of the attachment relationship is affecting the child.
Related: How Interracial Adoption Changes Your Perspective
Q: Are there any other tips you'd like to pass along to parents of adopted children?
Adoptees often don't display problem behaviors until the age of 5-7 so don't be lulled into a false sense of security during those early years.
Question aggressively a psychological diagnosis that labels these children as abnormal. The responses we see are adaptive.
Robert Allan Hafetz was born Marvin Lee Klein on January 28, 1951, at the Door of Hope Boothe Home in Jersey City, New Jersey. After 6 months in foster care, he was adopted by Dr. and Mrs. Florence Hafetz. Now a therapist, Robert is the founder of Adoption Education & Family Counseling in Warrington, Pennsylvania. He is also a state representative to the American Adoption Congress, is a member and testifying witness of the New Jersey Care Action Committee, and the author of Not Remembered Never Forgotten.