Forming an Attachment is Hard with Adopted Children
As a foster and/or adoptive parent, you will use this word endlessly. Attachment. I remember in college viewing black and white videos on Margaret Mahler. She was a psychiatrist who originated the two year process of separation-individuation between mothers and babies. This is significant to forming one’s sense of identity. There are two things that have stuck in my memory. One is that when you heard her voice in the voice over, in her East European accent, she repeatedly made a little whistle sound. I remember thinking that’s an unusual speech impediment. The other key recollection is how young the subjects were in this classic study. Babies.
“The attachment needs to come first and be strongly established,” our therapist Beth informed us. Until then, there is anxiety around the following: will I be accepted, will I be loved always? will this last? is there a trust? She told us that working on the problematic behaviors now is ok, but most changes will occur once the attachment is strong.
Our adopted daughter is tight with my husband. I see the beginning of an attachment to him. I hear it in her requests to have him make her lunch, to take her to school, and in her sobbing when she watches out the window as he backs out of the driveway to run an errand. I know it’s hard on him that she is this way, it’s actually not as gratifying as it should be. He feels badly and a little guilty that I don’t have IT yet. Our therapist explained it is more complicated with me, the female parent, the primary caregiver. Our daughter has formed relationships with not one, not two, but now a third mother figure in her short lifetime. She knows that I am the keeper of the household. Beth tells us that more is at stake in investing feelings with me. I’m a strong person. I’ve worked in mental health. On a logical level, I get it. But it does hurt. And sometimes I let out a sarcastic remark: You really want to wait for Daddy to get home to make your lunch…? Ok! Whatever!
With Elliot Smith’s XO album in the cd player and a glass a red wine by my side, I thought about my afternoon.
Mrs. M asked me if I have a moment to talk after she dismisses all the children from her class. “Yes,” I reply. I know what this means.
“She had a really rough day. A really rough one.” This came from a teacher with years of experience and experience dealing with foster care children in her previous classes. I doubt that she makes a point of talking to parents just for the hell of it.
I had to fight the urge to wince. I tried to maintain a neutral facial expression as Mrs. M went through her day of dealing with my child’s behaviors. She started with a few examples of how my kid was disruptive, then defiant. She then moved on to behaviors towards classmates — the usual surly, snarly stuff. I apologized and thanked her for informing me. In that thank you is the implied gratitude of handling my child the entire school day while I took my dog to the park, wrote, went grocery shopping and sweated through a boot camp class at the gym. I really enjoyed my day.
“Anything that you do at home that works, please let me know!” She said to me with a smile and a shrug. With that I know I am now dismissed.
I wish there was something. I wish I knew the magic remedy– the therapeutic play activity or the words for a good heartfelt talk. I have tried. I have tried many things. But she doesn’t get it. And I feel like she won’t get it for a while; she is stubborn and she is immature for her age. I can picture her in a few years, when she’s nine years old and she’ll turn to me and ask: why don’t I get invited for playdates? why don’t I go to anyone’s birthday party? I feel sad and disappointed and frustrated. I want to protect her from being rejected and ridiculed. Where will she be in ten years? What will she be like as a teenager? My husband is genuinely worried. I am not there. I can’t think that far out. I don’t want to, the negative outcomes are numerous.
I embraced my new position of soon-to-be adoptive parent. I was educated on her early trauma by professional mental health workers. My kid was removed from her biological parents as an infant. She was placed with a few different relatives, all of whom could not be long-term resources. She was transferred early on in her first year of life to a foster home, where she lived for over three years. We welcomed her into our home when she was 3 years 8 months. I anticipated several months of adjusting to our home. Three years later the storm has still not calmed down.
Peeling off the layers
Understandably, she has emotional issues because of being removed from her biological parents. She may not remember her first year and what that entailed. But I am sure that somewhere in her psyche is this primitive response to not getting her meals on time and not being soothed when in distress. She is still aching for that satisfaction. She is like a bottomless well with us. It does not matter if we just spent two hours interacting — playing, cuddling, singing, reading, eating– she will turn to me and ask frantically what are we going to do now? and often with tears, she will ask: will you play with me now? While leaving the children’s museum, she whined when are we going to the zoo? we haven’t gone! I let her pick out a decoration for an upcoming holiday, her response was why can’t I have three? The give me, give me, gimme syndrome. If you ask her thirty minutes after a huge feast if she is hungry, she will nod emphatically and say yes. It is never enough, she does not feel satisfaction or a state of content. Continue reading →
We adopted from the state foster care system a few years ago. She was just under four years of age. Several months later, our therapist informed us that she has special needs. The concept of special needs is broad. And for most of us, we need professional help to really understand these kids. Children who have experienced disruptions to their home environment will likely have emotional and behavioral problems. Some will present with temporary difficulties, others with long-standing. A number of children in foster care have significant psychiatric conditions. I highly recommend finding a therapist who specializes in foster and adoptive families.
I have visited several blogs by parents who write about having kids with special needs. My heart goes out to them. I truly appreciate these amazing people who have taken on children with severe problems. The bloggers identify the medical conditions and/or psychiatric disorders that they have, that they live with all day long. Their days are long. The spectrum is vast and long. I am not sure exactly where my daughter falls on the scale. Some days her placement is higher, other days low. I wonder if it is fair to other families to even consider my kid as having special needs. I don’t want to be in any way disrespectful. Is it ok for me to gripe about my difficult days? Is there a catch phrase that I can use for my life with a kid who has maladaptive behaviors, but is smart and who does not require a teacher’s aide? What group are we in…?
In any case, parenting a child with developmental issues off the usual course is challenging. Adopting a kid that was raised by others for a period of time is challenging. Adding a child to a home which has biological children of the parents can be challenging. My intention is not to compare difficulties or challenges, but rather to reach out to anyone who struggles with parenting. I never know what kind of day we’re going to have, ever. I just know that I am not alone. I remind myself each day, or at least I try to, of how far we’ve come and I give myself a lot of credit. Somebody has to.