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How to bond with your adopted child

By Karen Holford 4 min read

It’s been said that it takes a good person to love their own child well, but a different type of person entirely to love someone else’s child.

When their sons, Jason and Paul, were 10 and 12, Katie and Dan decided to adopt a little girl. Karla’s parents were teenagers with intellectual disabilities who were not able to care for themselves, let alone a baby. So Karla was brought up by her grandparents, who were already struggling with some incredible challenges in their own lives.

Karla spent most of her first 18 months strapped in a pram to keep her safe. Sadly, this limited her ability to play, communicate and explore her world, which had a profound effect on her social, intellectual and physical development.

Katie and Dan could have chosen a perfect newborn daughter. Instead, they chose Karla. They chose Karla because they wanted to give her the best opportunity possible. They knew all about Karla’s background and some of the challenges they could expect.

As soon as she became part of their family, they did everything possible to support her development. They fought for therapy, battled with schools and learned everything they could about the best way to support her.

Karla is adorable, cuddly and chatty. But every now and then, a deep sadness sweeps through her entire being and she becomes incredibly fragile and insecure.

One of the most useful things that Katie and Dan learned from their adoption service was the role of attachment parenting. Because Karla’s birth family had only been able to care for her basic physical needs, they had not formed close emotional bonds with her. The first thing her new family needed to do was to start growing those bonds by meeting her relational and emotional needs.

Adoptions happen for many different reasons and sometimes the child’s bonding process has been disrupted by having lots of different carers, by having carers who didn't respond quickly to their cries and needs, by experiencing neglect or abuse or by being in hospital for long periods of time. Their parents may have been ill, unable to care for them or completely unavailable.

Katie and Dan quickly learned that adoptive parents have to be adaptive parents.

They needed to adjust their parenting and focus on creating a strong and healthy attachment with Karla as soon as possible.

Even though they had bonded in natural and healthy ways with their own sons, they needed to be absolutely intentional about bonding with Karla because her attachment capability had been badly injured.

As they explored some of the best ways to nurture healthy attachment, they made a list of practical things that each person in the family could do to help Karla feel especially loved. Whenever Karla is upset or distressed, Katie runs through this list in her head, wondering what Karla might be thinking and feeling, and what she might need the most.

Whenever she’s overwhelmed by her emotions, Dan holds Karla close and rocks in the chair with her. Sometimes he sings, too—she likes that. Her brothers are great at dreaming up fun things to do with her and giving her loads of attention, and she clearly adores them. She is becoming much calmer.

Being aware of the different ways to strengthen attachment has made it much easier to focus on Karla’s needs and help her to feel loved and valued.

“Developing healthy bonds with Karla has been incredibly rewarding, but it’s also been extremely challenging,” says Katie. “We can’t always guess what she needs and she doesn’t always have the words to tell us what’s going on inside. But we’ve grown closer as a family. As we tuned in to what Karla needed to help her feel loved, happy and safe, we started to think more about what everyone else in the family needed too, so we've all benefited. She’s beginning to flourish and we can see that all the investment in our relationships with her has truly made a difference.”

“Karla has been a gift to our family,” says Dan. “Helping her to feel loved and safe has helped us all to be more aware of each other’s needs and feelings, and we’ve discovered lots of fun and simple ways to grow our relationships with each other.”

Since Katie and Dan noticed that Karla couldn’t always tell them what she wanted, they made her a board covered with pictures of all her favourite things. Now she can just point to whatever she needs if she can’t find the words to express herself.

“Every child’s going to be different,” says Katie. “We’ve worked hard to find out what works best for Karla. The most important thing we can do for her is to build strong and loving bonds that will give her the best possible foundation for her future life and relationships.”

What is attachment parenting?

Attachment parenting is a term coined by William Sears, an American paediatrician and author of many parenting books, including The Attachment Parenting Book.

Babies are born wired to bond and form close attachments. Many mothers fall in love with their babies early in their pregnancy and they’re ready to bond with them as soon as they’re born. Dads bond too, as they hold their new baby close to their chest, look into their tiny eyes and change their nappies.

Breastfeeding, cuddling, eye-contact, playing, chattering, singing, skin-to-skin contact and baby-wearing all help with the bonding process.

Although we're only just beginning to understand the importance of attachment and bonding, the apostle Paul wrote about the important principles of loving and healthy relationships in the Bible. He encouraged people to accept, forgive, appreciate, comfort, help, thank and respect each other, to be kind to each other, and to be quick to repair relationships whenever there are hurts and disappointments. All of these help to create healthy bonds between people of all ages.


Names have been changed for privacy.

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Positive attachment checklist

Karen Holford has masters degrees in child psychology and family therapy, but the best learning about family and relationships has always been from her husband, children and grandchildren. She is the author of "52 Ways to Parent Happy Children".