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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