I recently spoke at an information session for prospective foster parents, and was struck by the parents’ thoughtful and heartfelt concerns about possible problems associated with attachment amongst adoptive children.
Children who have experienced institutionalized care, or early history of neglect and/or abuse, may be at greater risk for attachment problems. However, attachment issues can also occur among infants and children with special needs, those who have been cared for by depressed parents, or where there has simply been a miss-match between parent and child.
In the most difficult of cases, attachment problems are diagnosed by a Child Psychiatrist as a disorder “within” the child (Reactive Attachment Disorder of Infancy or Early Childhood), using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV).
I have worked with many children with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Some of them were physically or sexually abused in childhood, and experienced their caregivers as terrifying. Other children experienced their caregivers/parents as confusing, chaotic, or absent.
Whatever the conditions were for developing attachment problems, the core issue is one of trust between the child and their primary caregiver. Inner security and interpersonal trust develop when the child’s needs are met by their primary caregiver.
When an infant cries because he is hungry, the parent meets this need by providing a bottle. When a child cries because she is hurt, or afraid, the parent meets this need by providing protection, a cuddle, and some reassuring words.
The child communicates their needs, with cries, facial expressions, words, or behaviour. When their needs are met, the child feels secure, worthwhile, and able.
Children who have not experienced core, healthy, attachments in infancy, can develop them later in childhood. However, it takes an extreme amount of patience and dedication on behalf of their caregiver(s).
Whether your child has an actual diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, is at risk for having an attachment problem, or whether you just wish to promote positive attachment with your child, there are things you can do to help.
Make sure your child’s basic needs are met: food, shelter, warmth, love.
Provide structure and routine on a daily basis; this will encourage feelings of safety.
Keep in mind that your child’s emotional needs may be extreme at times.
If your child is acting out, think to yourself, what does my child need right now?
Listen to your child’s messages, be they verbal or non-verbal.
Let your child have some control in their life, by giving them age appropriate choices.
Play with your child every day.
Let your child decide what to play, and have them direct your play for a change.
Be liberal with affection-but respect your child if they don’t want a hug or a tickle.
Take a break for yourself, parenting can be exhausting.
Talk to someone about your concerns, thoughts and feelings about parenting.
If you need support, get it sooner rather than later.