Attachment in adoption is something that adoptive parents desire the most – we wish that there could always be an instant connection when we meet our child for the first time, but the reality is that often attachment is something that you have to work towards and grows over time, even if the love is instant. Alexa shares some great advice for those of us on the attachment journey in this short piece. Thanks Alexa!
I remember going for ballroom dancing lessons in my last year of school. It was something that we did in order to be ready for the Matric dances. The group of girls that I was friendly with knew a group of guys and we decided to do ballroom together. Yet, I was still always a little nervous before class. Despite knowing the teacher’s mannerisms, (or maybe because!); despite knowing my potential dance partners and despite knowing that this was supposed to be fun, I was nervous often. In the ‘Prepared, not scared’ post, the analogy of dance was used to describe the relationship flow between a parent and child. Different styles, different teaching strategies and different partners will evoke different dance responses. There were certain guys that I found easier to dance with than others in my dance classes, some I could let lead without issue; others where I led and didn’t realise it until the teacher pointed it out and still others where no one could figure anything out and toes were bruised – sometimes resulting in laughter and other times utter frustration!
Learning to dance the attachment dance with your adopted child might feel like all of the above happens in the space of a day, or a week until you figure out your rhythm. The rhythm changes though as we do which means sometimes what worked for us one day doesn’t work the next.
So practically, what does this mean and what can we do to improve attachment? Here are six ideas to get you started:
1. Consistently showing up to dance: Attachment is about learning that your dance partner is going to keep trying, even if the steps don’t come easily at first. So maybe you are (frustratingly) not sure about what your dance partner needs next, but it’s important that you lead. You leading the dance, allows your child to know that they can trust you in this and the way that you do this is to consistently show up.
Be consistent, be proactive and initially ensure that it is only you (and your partner) leading this dance; don’t let other people cut into your dance while you are getting to know each other in the early days. This is where the fun happens, the frustration happens but practically this is also where the eye gazing and physical touch happens.
2. Eye contact matters: Look at your partner and not at your feet 😉 Smaller children provide more opportunities for this to happen during nappy changes, bath times and feeds, but older children might need you to lead in this by creating opportunities through playing games, singing songs and creating ‘natural’ opportunities for eye to eye contact. Our brains help the attachment process by creating connections during these eye contact opportunities between us and our children. Not all children find eye contact easy – but there are ways to help them with this slowly!
3. Physical Touch: Skin on skin is something that is often recommended, but if you have a wriggly baby or older child, this might not be so easy to implement. Create opportunities for closeness through rough and tumble play and through massaging cream into your child. Story times next to each other or with children on your lap is another way to create physical touch without it feeling too enforced. Put music on and dance and jump around the room together. One of my favourite stories is of a friend calling me to say the following:
“This child is mine. She has been with me for a few months already, but it hasn’t felt like she is mine. Today we danced around the lounge together, acted silly and there was this sudden feeling that SHE IS MINE!”
This didn’t just happen –this took a whole lot of work for this family.
4. Prepare yourself so that if/when the dance gets messy you know who to ask for help or how to change the music:
-Read books (Deborah Gray is highly recommended!) on attachment in adoption, on adoption grief and loss and how this manifests.
-Develop a list of resources for yourself within your community of people who are familiar with child and family development as it relates to adoption. Our adoptees do have different challenges to navigate at times and as adoptive families, so do we. It’s important that we have people to journey with us in this.
5. Speak to other adoptive families about what worked for them, but also what didn’t, in developing attachment with their children.
6. Lastly, but most importantly, when you think you might need help, ask for help sooner rather than later! This was a recurring theme with families who have had some challenges in their adoption space and have asked ‘what would you do differently?’. Asking for help doesn’t mean second guessing your choice to adopt, or make you not good enough as a parent – it simply means that you need extra input and if you are able to ask for help in this then that makes you a fabulous parent.
Alexa Russell Matthews is a Social Worker with a Master’s Degree in Social Work (Play Therapy) from the University of Pretoria. She’s also an adoptive mom and one of her most passionate work spaces has been engaging with children who are still in children’s homes or with children and families post adoption.
If you haven’t read Part 1: Prepared, not scared: About attachment in adoption, you can click on the link here