Welcoming a new child into the family is an exciting and overwhelming time for everyone. The new parent(s) are busy imagining how their lives will change, trying to prepare bedrooms, toys, clothes, coordinating plans for their new arrival and lying awake at night full of questions, anxiety and anticipation. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends are often caught up in the whirlwind of preparation too, or may be struggling with their own worries as to how this will impact their growing family.
We found that creating some guidelines was helpful as we looked for some “non-traditional” support from our family and friends.
- Offer household help (running errands, preparing meals that can go right from the freezer to the oven, etc.) so the parents can spend more time holding and bonding with the child. This new addition to the family has created a significant change. Suddenly, the smallest task may take on a life of its own when there is a child demanding much of the parent’s energy and patience. Initially a new adoptive parent may not be sure of their child’s responses in typical daily situations, line ups, grocery stores or even a short walk or drive
- Trust the parent’s instincts. Even a first time parent may notice subtle symptoms that well-meaning family and friends attribute to “normal” behavior. These children are wonderful little individuals, but they have not been through “normal” things and do not simply have “normal” behaviors. Due to the trauma that they have all experienced in their short lives, many behaviors may have a different motivation than that of their peers
- Accept that attachment issues are difficult for anyone outside of the mother and father to see and understand. Each child is different and each situation may look different to the new family. The bonding process requires a great deal of time, commitment and energy. This young child is learning new boundaries, trust processes and starting to figure out the context of new relationships in the world. Initially, their world needs to be kept quite small to allow them to re-establish their place in this new context and to include their forever family. To create a solid foundation of a healthy attachment, the parents must be seen as the “safe” place. This can be difficult to do while setting boundaries and disciplining a toddler who may be presenting some challenging behaviors
- Be supportive even if you think everything looks fine to you. Understand that even for a new toddler that may sleep through the night, each waking moment of the day requires a great deal of energy and thought
- Allow the parents to be the center of the child’s world. One grandfather, when greeting his grandson, immediately turns him back to his mom and says positive statements about his good mommy. This is important to help establish the attachment process. Though many members of the extended family may have been supportive and excited about the new addition to the family, the relationship of the immediate family must always be the focus initially. This means that all others need to take a “backseat” role. There will be a time to create healthy relationships with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Until this little person has had a chance to form a healthy attachment with the parents, pushing the additional relationships may create confusion, anxiety and stress for them
- Tell the child every time you see him what a good/loving/safe mommy and daddy he has. This will help to reinforce the strength in the entire extended family unit. It also supports each parent in their new role through the child’s eyes
- When the parents need someone to care for the child for a night out, offer to babysit in the child’s home. (After the child has been home for a substantial period of time.) Especially if the time will include the child’s bedtime, it may be helpful to do a practice run at the home with the parents. Routines can be important and it may allow the child to become familiar with you during this time and will prepare both you and the child for the upcoming evening
- As hard as it may be for you, abide by the requests of the parents. Even if the child looks like he really wants to be with Grandma, for example, he needs to have a strong attachment to his parents first. Something as simple as passing the child from one person to another or allowing others, even grandparents, to hold a child who is not “attached” can make the attachment process that much longer and harder. Some parents have had to refrain from seeing certain family members or friends because they did not respect the parents’ requests. When the child is comforted and/or having their needs met by someone other than his/her parents it can create confusion as to who will take care of them. It is especially important during the process of attachment that the parents are the “first responders” in meeting and anticipating their child’s needs. If you see something or would like to offer something (like a treat) it is a good idea to discuss this with the parents without the child present. Many adopted children have an incredibly keen sense of hearing and will also gauge a situation to determine who the “boss” is in the room. Without guidance, these children may simply focus on the person they feel is in a position to keep them safe, or the person who they may need to establish dominance over to maintain their own control. When the extended family shows support of the parents, it can help these children learn that they can be safe and secure by relying on their forever mommy and daddy
- Accept that parenting children who are at-risk for or who suffer from attachment issues goes against traditional parenting methods and beliefs. Parenting methods that work for many children can be detrimental to a child with attachment issues. Parents will know what methods do or do not work for their child. They may look different than those you have used or than those you may be familiar with but this new family needs your support and buy-in to support them on this journey. If you have the opportunity to sit down and discuss any questions or concerns you may have with the parents it can be a wonderful time to regroup and create an open and supportive atmosphere for the entire extended family unit
- Keep in mind that the attachment process is cyclical. “Two steps forward, one step back”
- Remember that there is often a honeymoon period after the child arrives. Many children do not show signs of grief, distress, or anxiety until months after they come home. If the parents are taking precautions, they are smart and should be commended and supported!
- Allow the new parents to vent in a safe, non-judgemental environment. It may be difficult to simply listen without providing advice or input, but it can allow adoptive parents to feel supported and united with the important people in their lives. Tackling this adoptive journey can be a challenge. Though rewarding, it can also be filled with heartbreak, guilt, isolation and overcoming many previously held (internal and external) beliefs and values towards adoption and adopted children. Much of the attachment process is geared to supporting the child in attaching to the parents, but an important part of the equation is supporting the parents in attaching to the child as well. Though not often talked about, it can be difficult in bonding with a child that swings from physical aggression towards the parents, to overly affectionate and smothering in an effort to manipulate the situation. Just as each child requires a great deal of love, patience and support on this journey, so do the parents
- Assume any child is too young to suffer from emotional issues related to attachment. Even babies are not immune. This may not always present itself in predictable ways but it will certainly color many interactions for this new family
- Underestimate a new parent’s instincts that something isn’t right. They are spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with this child
- Judge the mother or father’s parenting abilities. What looks like spoiling or coddling may be exactly what the child needs to overcome a serious attachment disorder. Managing controlling behaviors is also a large part of many family’s challenges, especially those adopting toddlers and older children. Parenting methods that work for many children can be detrimental to a child with attachment issues
- Make excuses for the child’s behaviors or try to make the parents feel better by calling certain behaviors “normal”. For example, many children who suffer from attachment issues may be labeled strong-willed by well-meaning family members. While being strong-willed can be seen as a positive personality trait, this type of behavior in an attachment-impaired child may signify problems
- Accuse the parents of being overly sensitive or neurotic. They are in a position to see subtle symptoms as no one else can
- Take it personally if asked to step back so the parents can help their child heal and form a healthy and secure attachment. You may be asked not to hold the child for more than a minute. This is not meant to hurt you. It is meant to help prove to the child who his mommy and daddy are. Up until now the child’s experience has been that parents are replaceable. Allowing people to hold the child before he has accepted his forever mommy and daddy are can be detrimental to the attachment process. These children and their forever parents need your support in redirecting the child back to the parents consistently. If the child falls down, bumps their knee and is crying, you can check in with them as you are bringing/directing them back to their parents for comfort (“Oh my, that was quite a bump! Let’s find your Mommy and Daddy and make sure you’re okay.”). If they are asking for something that an adult can provide, please redirect them back to the parents while providing a neutral response (ie. “Can I have a cookie?” “Let’s find your Mommy and Daddy!” “Can I go downstairs?” “Let’s see where Mommy and Daddy are!”)
- Put your own timeframes on how long attachment should take. One mother was hurt when she was chastised by a relative who couldn’t understand…after all, the child had been home six months. It could take weeks, months, even years. Every child is different
- Offer traditional parenting advice. Some well-meaning family members will tell a new parent not to sweat the small stuff, that it’s a phase or that the poor child has been through so much in their life already. At the beginning, new adoptive parents are getting to know this child so nothing is too small or insignificant. As they develop a sense of this little person, trust the parents to address the things that need addressing. Each “phase” that an adopted child may go through, will likely look a little different. For a baby, new parents may be told not to pick the baby up every time he cries because it will spoil him. A child who is at-risk or who suffers from attachment issues may need to be picked up every single time he cries. He needs consistent reinforcement that this mommy/daddy will always take care of him and always keep him safe. All of these children have gone through experiences in their short lives that may have a lasting impact to some degree. Follow the parent’s lead on the ways to best support their child
- Fall into the appearance trap. Some babies/toddlers with attachment issues can put on a great show to those outside of the mother/father. What you see is not always a true picture of the child. Even babies as young as 6-months-old are capable of “putting on a good face” in public
- Lose hope. With the right kind of parenting and therapy, a child with attachment issues can learn to trust and have healthy relationships. But it does take a lot of work and a good understanding of what these children need