When I was ten, I went on a cub scout camping trip. During the trip I didn’t really feel myself and didn’t sleep properly. When my mother picked me up, it took me less than five minutes to fall asleep in her car – something I have not been able to repeat since.
This is my example of what attachment is. Sort of…The anxiety I felt during the trip all but disappeared when my mum turned up, and I became relaxed enough to sleep for a good forty minutes.
My own attachment was perfectly healthy, and this simply demonstrates that when I see my own mother after a short period of anxiety, I am able to relax. It is this that is missing for most looked after children.
What is adoption attachment disorder?
Attachment, in terms of the parent-child relationship is the feeling of permanence a child has with their parents or carer. It is something that most of us will have, but not really know about it.
Attachment disorder is when this permanence is missing. The child is unable to rationally look upon someone as their carer, and when this happens, attachment disorder can develop.
Why is attachment so important?
As with many things in life, those who have it, won’t fully appreciate it, but those without certainly know about it.
A healthy attachment is absolutely paramount to all children. It is something that shapes their emotional self, and their entire psyche. Without a secure attachment growing up, a child will miss out on developing very basic emotional and personal skills like forming relationships, and controlling their emotions.
Adoptive children perhaps get a bad press because of behavioural problems. Behaviour is not the cause; it is the result of poor attachments.
For example, a ten-year old child at school may have a history of punching, biting and kicking. Lets say that child is in his fifth foster placement.
His aggression is the result of not having a secure attachment to someone who is able to help him regulate his emotion. He has never had that opportunity, or that attachment.
How does it affect children in care?
This leads on to the effects of attachment. Quite simply, there are hundreds of ways that attachment disorder can manifest itself. Each child is different, has different experiences, and different coping mechanisms.
Some of the more common effects are:
Fear of abandonment
In “Twenty Things Adoptive Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew“, Sherrie Eldridge talks about fear of abandonment.
“For most adult adoptees, I know, the fear of abandonment has been a battle all their lives.”
Sherrie goes on to explain how children can feel this way, but for some kids it may simply be a way of life. Take my fictional child for example – he may well be on his fifth or sixth set of carers, he may feel that moving on to a new family is how life is – abandonment is his way of life. The fact that he is being moved rather than abandoned is of no comfort to him.
Similarly, children with adoption attachment disorder have trouble trusting adults – and why shouldn’t they? Most adults in their life could have let them down in one way or another, so they develop a coping mechanism of not trusting adult figures.
This in itself can veer off in many different directions, including adoptive children intentionally sabotaging a link with an adult figure in their life simply because they cannot trust them.
This goes back to what I said above. Children without a secure attachment are often unable to develop emotionally because they don’t know how. Sue Gerhardt explains in “Why Love Matters“:
“Perhaps one of the most common difficulties in relationships, which is particularly acute in the parent-child relationship is a problem with regulating the more ‘negative’ states like anger and hostility.”
She continues to explain that if care providers cannot cope with the child’s emotions, the child cannot fully develop their own ability to regulate.
Feelings of self-reliance/control and worth
Children with adoption attachment disorder can feel negatively about themselves. Being ‘abandoned’ by their birth parents often leads to children feeling like they are not good enough; they are not worth the effort.
We all know this is not the case, but why would they feel any different? No-one has stuck by them long enough to prove them wrong.
I wanted to use this section to help advise what adoptive parents should do. I am nowhere near qualified for that yet, so I will let the experts help.
These books are my favourite, and come highly recommended, not just by me, but by adopters, adoptees, and professionals throughout the UK.
Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain – Sue Gerhardt
Twenty Things Adoptive Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew – Sherrie Eldridge
About the Author: Andrew McDougallAndrew is an adoptive father, and stay at home dad. Having adopted his son in January 2013, he is a new adoptive parent, but well versed in the adoption process. He is a married, coffee drinker, Xbox addict, and a Marketing graduate. Andrew McDougall is an alias he uses to protect the identity of his adopted son.
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