The Surprising World of Attachment Issues in My Adoption

Like a punch in the stomach was the excruciatingly hard reality of fostering. The journey was just beginning. How his past trauma and lack of attachment impacted his brain functioning took us by surprise. The child was dangerously impulsive, respected no boundaries, and did what he pleased to the point of manipulation—at three! Yet at the same time he was very infantile in his mannerisms.

I desired stability for this child who had already experienced too much instability in his young life. But a house fire broke out reinforcing the expected pattern he was already use to. Trauma, homelessness, and moving. He had no reaction to it, like it was a normal rhythm to life.

This poor little guy was relocated again to a new location to live, along with us. We moved into a nice hotel for two weeks. It had a pool and free breakfast that made it easy to interact with the other guests.

This new setting was a blessing because I saw his attachment issues freely exposed. These kids, who lack security and attachment, are in survival mode meaning they will go to whoever will provide their felt needs at any given moment. They learn that they can only trust themselves to take care of themselves. I was seeing this clearly and it broke my heart that a kid could be so broken. A new fear rose up in me that I could lose him because he was just as happy to walk off with someone else who had more snacks or better toys or any random thing he desired.

A Change Needed to Happen. Creating Attachment.

This started the long and gut-wrenching process of creating attachment. We had established short periods of time where I would hold him close like a baby and say kind things to him. This was received like a baby with colic. Arched back, indicating pain, and refusal of eye contact. Yet, I knew I was not hurting this child.  I was creating something that was foreign—a loving, reliable, attachment. Establishing trust. Yet it’s hard to trust others when you learn you can only trust yourself.

After months of this holding and retraining he started to mature and become a three-year-old who was starting the process of trusting. It is not easy on either side to make this happen but it can. This does not mean there will not be future problems—it is all a process.

Establishing this safe environment that includes attachment is important for his future faith and relationship with God. The command for children to obey their parents is the forerunner to learning to trust the ultimate authority—God as Father. Of course, God must do this by His grace and work in the child’s heart but we get to be a part of it by establishing the ability to trust authority. We get to give this child glimpses, through imperfect, of the truly good Father and His love.

Moving Forward

About a year and a half in we were asked to adopt this child. We happily accepted the task. We could already see him as a son. Yet, the process of adoption is confusing and accompanied by much brokenness for everyone involved. There is much grief and abandonment to work through though each child is different. This part of the process will probably last a lifetime. Believing you are in a forever home, once for all can be difficult. Again, trust building is needed and children will test this security.

We are now six years in this journey. It has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. Yet, it is also a privilege to watch miracles happen right before my face. I am amazed at God and how He works and moves hearts.

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I hope to use our experience to encourage others, especially those who surround families like mine. So here are five ways others can support foster and adoptive families:

  1. Don’t look at adoption as a “Little Orphan Annie” experience. Not every experience is the same but they all involve grief. When the meals stop and the baby showers are over, take time to talk and ask questions of foster or adoptive parents. We still need your encouragement and listening ear. I still wish someone would ask questions and care enough to listen without judgment or a solution. This is helpful ministry. Ask me how I am spiritually? Ask me how I am handling it all? Ask me what is the biggest challenge in this stage of the journey? Ask me how you can really pray? I can honestly say that only a couple of people know this journey is still challenging. If only they would take the time to ask. This would help with loneliness in my life. I suspect it would help in others as well.
  2. Please don’t differentiate this child from my others. Honestly, it’s good to forget he is adopted. He needs to feel like a valid family member just like the others. There is no difference. Adoption is final and permanent. My name is on the birth certificate as if I did birth this child. Just ask about my son. For foster, the dynamic is different here. Just use wisdom and discernment. Remember, the child is living in brokenness. Be sensitive when you talk.
  3. After the child comes home and life seems to settle, know that it probably has not. Keep talking and asking questions. Behaviors that these kids exhibit can become isolating to the family. Keep checking in, praying for, and providing needs.
  4. Don’t tell me these behaviors I am exasperated over are normal. They are not! Don’t diminish my grief. Listen. Pray. Intentionally help where you can.
  5. Pursue. Don’t let these families stay isolated. Go get trained so you can understand what they are going through. Talk through it with them. They will appreciate someone cares enough to get involved. It is a loving and encouraging act.

We won’t always do things right, but as we learn to become better listeners and enter someone else’s life, we will become more like Christ. This is the ministry that the Bible calls true religion, caring for the orphans. We participate in that by fostering/adopting or coming alongside others who have.

This was just a simple list to start the conversation. What would you add to this list?

Angela Parsley is a certified biblical counselor who lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband, Tony, and their three children. They are members of Concord Baptist Church. Angela writes and reviews books at her blog, Refresh My Soul. You can follow her on Twitter.