Attachment Disorder: What Do You Do When A Child Attaches Too Quickly?

We often talk about attachment disorder from the perspective of the long awaited real hug, or genuine “I love you.” But what do you do when your child attaches too quickly?

Mother and child hugging

February in the Midwest is guaranteed to be bitter cold and filled with snow… well at least until this year. For the last three weeks we have had temperatures in the 70s and sunshine almost every day. Consequently, the grass is turning green and bulbs which should be dormant for another month are pushing through the soft earth and blooming just a bit too early. I have enjoyed these last few weeks of stolen Spring. My children hauled their bikes out of storage, we grilled out and even had a campfire. As I was driving to work the other day the sight of crocuses in bloom made my heart skip a beat. I felt myself begin to grin, then quickly remembered the weekend forecast. Snow. The beautiful crocuses had bloomed too early. I found myself wondering if they would survive the weekend.

Attachment in adoption and foster care is much like waiting for the first blooms of Spring. Connecting with a child takes time. As each petal of bonding unfolds, the beauty of the relationship grows.

Children develop healthy attachment when trust is built over the course of time. Some children do not develop healthy attachment due to trauma. Attachment disorder can manifest itself in many different ways. Some children will resist relationships by pushing caregivers away. Others will seem to bypass all the steps of attachment and go straight to connectedness. The child who immediately gives hugs and kisses may seem endearing. Many foster and adoptive families feel overjoyed that their new child is attaching so quickly. This hasty bonding is actually unhealthy for the child in the long run.

A few years ago we had one such child in our home. She was a lovely little girl. She was joyful and funny. Her mom was ill and the little girl bounced between family and friends. She smiled brightly as she entered each new home and immediately hugged her new caregivers. She used the words, “I love you,” freely. It was easy to like her but there was something that nagged just beneath the surface. Her easy adaptability was a coping mechanism she had developed to survive. Not only was she missing out on real connectedness, she was also putting herself into unnecessarily dangerous situations. Upon noticing this, I began to ask around to other foster and adoptive families to find advice they had on protecting this little girl and helping her develop real bonds while forgoing the simulated attachments.

Here are three practices for foster and adoptive families who want to encourage healthy bonding:

  1. Communicate with the child– When a child first arrives in your home, explain who you are to them: foster mom, adoptive dad, safe family etc. Let them know what they may call you. If you are an adoptive parent verbalize that this is a forever home and they may take as much time as they like before calling you mom or dad. Give a few options you find acceptable for names and allow the child to choose. For instance, “You may call me Miss Kristin, Mrs. Berry, or Mommy Kristin, you do not have to call me mom, I want you to choose a name you feel comfortable with.” Set boundaries with affection. You may need to encourage your child to have a list of safe people to hug, or you may need to explain safe forms of affection and stick to modeling that behavior.
  2. Limit caregivers– Many people will be excited to meet your new child even if the child is only in your home temporarily. Your child may encounter day care providers, babysitters, a Sunday school teacher, classroom teachers, coaches and family friends all in one week. Make a list of who your child will have contact with and be intentional about communicating healthy boundaries with those people. Limit those who will be in direct care of your child. It is ok to attend activities with your child. You do not have to hover but your visible presence is important. As you child learns to build healthy attachment, it is important that they begin to become confident that good things come from mom and dad, mom and dad are safe, mom and dad always take care of their children.
  3. Communicate with Others– Explain to your friends and family that you are so happy to have their support. Help them to understand healthy boundaries when it comes to physical affection, nick names and provision of care. A person who creates healthy support for a child who is working on attachment, will always direct the child back to his or her parents to receive care. For instance, in our group of adoptive families, we do not give one another’s children treats. If a child asks for a treat we will say, “Let’s ask mom if it’s ok to have a cookie.” It is often fun to be the cool aunt or fun grandma but when a child is learning healthy attachment it is vital that parents create a plan and surround the family with people who support the goal of a healthy lifelong relationships.

These are just a few ideas to create a space for healthy attachment. What are some of your ideas?

Question: We’d love to hear some of your practical tips on healthy attachment and bonding. You can leave those in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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