Can You Ever Really Bond With An Older Child?

When it comes to adopting older children there’s often a belief that, because they’ve been through so much, it’s impossible to form a healthy bond with them. We’ve discovered something different.

Mom and daughter embracing
In our 15 years of parenting we have had the honor of participating in the lives of 23 children. Most of them returned home or went on to be adopted by their forever families, eight of them have stayed forever. Before I became a parent of an older child, I didn’t think much about bonding and attachment. I am attached to my own parents, brothers and sisters. I have not personally had reason to question my place or belonging in the world. When we adopted our first daughter at birth, we bonded quite naturally.

My instinct in parenting my first child was something I would later learn is labeled “attachment parenting.” We met her needs immediately, slept beside her, kept her close and limited her care-givers. It wasn’t until two years later when we welcomed one and three-year-old siblings that I began to realize that, in adoption, building strong family ties is something that takes a little more awareness.

I was deep into reading The Connected Child by Karen Purvis, when our 2nd oldest daughter came to live with us. She was a spunky teenager who jumped right into our family. We enjoyed having her around. She was funny, kind and a little sassy. She and our oldest, who was 21 at the time, hit it off too! Three more boys joined our home a year later and I really faced the fact that adoptive parenting was going to take some extra skills. I began reading up on trauma, attachment, bonding and brain development. I practiced many of the things I learned as I developed trust with my newest sons. I read the more radical ideas aloud to my teenager and even jokingly offered to wrap her securely in a blanket while feeding her warm milk and sugar from a baby bottle. She just rolled her eyes.

All the research I was doing for my little ones made me realize the importance of attaching to my older ones as well. But how? Was it even possible? With my babies it was natural to meet their needs (thus building trust which leads to reciprocal love), but another full grown human? How was that really going to work? Would my teenage daughters ever really love me? They had already lost so much. Would they ever want me to be “mom?” I knew I already loved them but would I ever feel the mother/child bond that fills every inch of my heart until it feels like it might burst?

With both of my girls, I found a piece of the attachment puzzle when tragedy struck. They both lost biological parents to death. As I stood by helpless to take away their pain, I noticed something. I felt their pain. Not just sympathy or empathy but a pain that filled my chest and reached to my finger tips and toes. I was witnessing MY children in deep grief and therefore I was grieving. I wanted nothing more than to take their sadness away and that is when I knew. I felt the tie that attaches mother to child. I never wanted to lose sight of them again. I knew that even if adoptions were never finalized, even if they never called me “mom” the tie would continue to exist because they were mine. I would fight fiercely for them, I would cry with them, I would laugh with them. I would be mom.

Can you ever really bond with an older child? Oh yes. It will be a different kind of attachment. It won’t happen over the late-night bottle feedings, swaddling, rocking, tucking them into bed. It will happen over midnight talks, driving lessons, college visits and cups of coffee. It will happen over hard conversations, doctors’ appointments and fights over whose turn it is to do the dishes. It will happen during the milestones we are privileged to witness. It will happen in those moments of sheer pride. It will happen when they call you for advice. It will happen when they trust you enough to call you “mom,” even if it is only once and even if it feels a little foreign. It will happen while planning a wedding or holding your grandchild for the first time. It will happen in that moment when you see your child and immediately have the urge to shout from the rooftops, “That right there, that is MY son, that’s my daughter. Can you believe I get to be their MOM?”

Question: Have you struggled to form a bond to your older child? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Abigail Cappel

    Thank you for this post! As my husband and I venture into the unknown of foster care (we’ll start the classes in a few months) we’ve discussed fostering older children, since there is a huge need to foster older ages. We’ve both worried about how to attach to these children that have already been through so much, and might not trust easily. Thank you again.

    • Abigail, our whole team is cheering for you!!

  • Krystal Berry-Witty

    Being the second oldest, I read every word of this and got to experience this from the complete opposite perspective. I got to feel worried that I wouldn’t fit into the family you were creating, feel excited when I got to spend my afternoons watching Gilmore Girls and having lunch after school with Kristin, I got to feel proud (and embarrassed a lot) to see MY dad up on stage teaching Gods word to all of my friends. I didn’t just magically form a bond, I grew into the family I never knew I was supposed to be a part of. When I was approached by my foster parents about adoption being an option for me in their family… I had mixed emotions. It took me a long time to grasp how that made me feel and eventually was guided through God, to wholeheartedly know I needed this. I needed Kristin as my mom, she WAS already my mom. And Mike, my dad. It was unexplainable, the feeling of sitting on the couch… like I always did when I had something awkward to talk to them about… grabbing a pillow tightly in my arms, and saying “remember when you offered to adopt me…”

    Well, here I am today, seeing my now 3 year old daughter saying “Hi Mimi and Grandpa” every time we pass your house. Asking for HER Sam… I can’t imagine how different my life would have been had this crazy system, and God, not brought me to this family. MY family. To answer the question, yes! You will bond with the older children you adopt. Through just being a parent to them. Not by giving them things or doing what you THINK you have to do to fit into their old life… but by accepting them into your family and allowing them to be a part of your world, like my parents did for me!

    • Thank you so much for this, Krystal! I needed this encouragement.

    • Kristin Berry

      1. I love you kiddo! I abundantly blessed to be your mom and Layla’s grandma.
      2. When are you going to start writing on our blog?
      3. People need to hear the good and the bad from adoptees too. Think about it ok?

      • Tears. An abundance of tears right now. Stinging and salty on my face. That is all. 😉

  • We are about to adopt our 17 year old and she just LOVES when I jokingly hold her like a baby or call her my little baby girl. She craves it because she had to grow up so fast in the system and unfortunately learned about many “adult” things when she was so young. It really is great for our attachment – it felt silly at first, but I love it now.

  • hippocampus

    YES!!!! Our daughter was almost 12 when she came to our home. Sh had had a life where all adults has pretty much abandoned and given up on her. Yet she was brave beyond words and opened her heart one more time to give my husband and I a chance.

    It’s fun because she loves being tucked in, read to at night, and loves being hugged and kissed in front of her middle school friends. When her friends have talked about how embarrassing their parents are, she shoots back that she spent almost 12 years without parents who loved her and they need to be more appreciative of the ones they have. We are her Mom and Dad and the three of us could not be more bonded if she was a biological child.

    I think we are more bonded because we were matched by personality and interests and its Russian Roulette on if a bio child is going to have your same personality or interests. We bonded over our shared love of horseback riding, practically living at the beach June-September last year, and reading Harry Potter and dressing up in our respective house robes to go to Universal Studios.

  • Jeannine

    We are adopting a 17 year old. He came to us at 15 as a foster child. We bonded with him right away. I also have a 17 year old bio child. I have the same feeling for both of them. The love is the same for both. The only difference is that i have more memories with my bio child but the live and bond is the same.

  • Maura Branley

    Thank you for this.

  • MerryHT

    Hmmm .. yes, but will an older child ever bond with you?

    My husband and I adopted a 15-year-old girl four years ago. Her background is full of trauma, neglect, multiple placements and so on. Diagnoses include PTSD, RAD, ODD, bi-polar, ASD (formerly Asperger’s). Our adoption counselor and family therapists (we started family therapy 6 months prior to placement in our home) assured us that Daughter was stable and safe and to expect some bumps in the road but all would be well. We were encouraged to create a short list of “family rules” to keep a safe home; we came up with four (no yelling / cursing, treat home with respect / don’t throw or break things in anger, respect privacy, and ask permission to or tell someone when you’re leaving the house and where you’re going).

    We read “The Connected Child” and “Beyond Consequences” and “The Loving Push” and “The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome” and continued family and individual therapy. Daughter assaulted us numerous times (I broke a thumb during one attack) and she was briefly hospitalized approximately two years after joining our family. We started in-home therapy. Meds were tweaked. Daughter was expelled from her private school after 2.5 years for dropping F-bombs one time too many (staff were wonderful and accommodating and showed so much grace until they just couldn’t any more).

    Highlights included Daughter participating in chorus throughout high school, being in the school play her senior year, and several nice vacations to Maine and Wisconsin and California and New Mexico to visit family (tho’ each vacation usually included at least one meltdown, regardless of how much we attempted to keep things chill. Her social skills are less than 50%, but she’s reasonably bright and could have a decent future.

    Daughter graduated from high school, turned 18, and started community college. And then the wheels really came off. She quit taking her meds (without informing her dad or me or her doctor). She started lying, big time, and began isolating herself from us. Even after she went back on her meds, most of our interactions with her were loaded with disrespect and verbal abuse / aggression. I’ve started to wonder if my name was actually “stupid f’ing b*tch.” She claimed that we annoyed and stressed her out “all of the time” and, since she was 18 and an adult, we couldn’t tell her what to do.

    We encouraged her to find other living arrangements, as she was clearly unhappy staying in our home; she claimed that she had no where else to go. She began stonewalling her therapist, insisting that things at home were fine and refusing to explore touchy issues.

    Things finally came to a head in mid-July after a rugged 10 days of diffusing / redirecting / ignoring four potential meltdowns and having a fifth one explode in our faces. We kicked her out. She’s been couch-surfing with friends and we’re trying to determine the way forward. Daughter says she now recognizes that she has issues and wants to repair our relationship (she’s even opened back up to her therapist). Part of me wants to believe Daughter; another part of me thinks it’s likely she’s in survival mode, saying anything she thinks will get her a bit of security. She lacks many of the skills and knowledge to function, in the world, as even a basic “adult.”

    It seems like the harder we work to try to help Daughter, the harder she fights against all growth opportunities. Husband and I backed off as much as we could – whittled our expectations down to the minimum (tell us the truth, keep your room reasonably tidy, know your schedule – we had Daughter-led calendar meetings on Sunday nights, treat us with respect and kindness, take your meds). Our prompts were few and positive, yet 80% of our interactions were combative .. at some level.

    At what point does one just throw in the towel, shrug, and move forward with the notion that some things and relationships just can’t be repaired, regardless of the amount of effort to do so?