When many people think of adoption, the story that comes to mind is that of a waiting hopeful adoptive couple who get “the call” from their agency that an expectant mother has chosen them to parent her newborn child. The couple rushes to the hospital to pick up their brand-new-to-the-world infant son or daughter. The baby is placed in their arms and the family is bonded almost instantaneously.
While this stereotypical scenario does happen for some adoptive families, other adoptive families might instead experience “the call” from a social worker about a foster child needing placement, an international adoption agency letting a family know they will be flying to another country soon to pick up their child, or a domestic agency letting a family know there is a toddler or preschooler (or older child) available for adoption. When the child arrives—whether they are 16 months, 2 years old, or 3 ½ years old—they are old enough to have memories of other families or other living circumstances. The adults they lived with may not have been safe or may have behaved unpredictably. Multiple changes in where they have known “home” to be and who their caregiver has been can cause a fair amount of stress and confusion when they come home to the adoptive family.
Given these possibilities, attachment and bonding strategies (particularly early on) are essential for supporting kids in helping them feel safe and connected to their new parents, and in turn the parents connected to their new child. When kids feel safe and have certainty that their needs are important and will be met, their feelings of connection to their parent(s) grows.
Here are some ideas to get started with bonding and attachment:
- Establish a family routine. The more predictable the environment, the more likely your child will feel comfortable in it. Some families will use calendars or laminated flip cards with pictures showing what is coming up each day (e.g., preschool, pediatrician visit, play date, spending time with other family members, holidays, etc.) to guide conversations about what will be happening as they get ready in the morning. As adults, we appreciate knowing what is happening for the day; kids are no different.
- Touch and smell are important first steps to bonding. Find a lightly scented lotion (e.g., vanilla, citrus, lavender, etc.). While kiddo is sitting on your lap or next to you, gently massage the lotion into both your hands and allow them to rub it on your hands, too, as they feel comfortable. Comment about how good the lotion smells, and how you both smell the same. This activity gives the opportunity for close proximity, eye-to-eye and skin-to-skin contact, and gentle loving touch.
- Soft blankets or loveys. Find the softest blanket or lovey possible then buy at least two that are exactly alike. These soft special items can be part of snuggling as kiddo and parent get ready for nap or bedtime, can provide comfort when little one is upset, and can also be a familiar security item when the child is away from Mom and Dad for short periods of time. Buying at least two that are identical is both a parental sanity saver and gives you a backup in case one gets lost, wet, left at Grandma’s house, or otherwise. Rotate and wash them both with similar regularity so they both look and feel the same.
- Put up family pictures around your home. Many children who come to their families through adoption were where there were not pictures of the child displayed. Pictures of your family together is another visible sign that we belong together.
- Baby wearing. Even with toddlers and preschoolers, you ask? Yes! There are a few companies that make baby carriers designed to carry kids up to 45 lbs. if you are so inclined. The ergonomic styling makes it comfortable to wear with your little one, and allows for lots of face-to-face time. It can also make it much easier for airline travel: kiddo in the carrier in the front, carry-on backpack on the back, and away you go.
- Play! It doesn’t always come naturally to adults to get down on the floor to play with toys, but wow does it do a lot for connection! Our kids love knowing their parents see what they are interested in is important, too. If it’s a difficult transition for you (you won’t be the first grown up to feel this way), try doing it for a few minutes at a time, increasing the amount of time with each interaction. Before you know it, you might just find that you love building Thomas the Train tracks, too (or at least loving being a part of the process with your child).
- Include your child in family activities. Kids in the toddler and preschool years are often very enthusiastic about being helpers. It’s great training for them continuing the habit as they grow and provides an excellent opportunity for saving video of your child demanding to do thing like washing the dishes. 😊
- Provide front-loading for transitions. In the history of our children who were adopted as toddlers or preschoolers, change often came without warning and, in many cases, wasn’t positive. This can make sudden transitions between activities or locations very fear producing for you kiddo, even months or years after they have come to live in the safety of your family. One way to reduce this response is by doing what I call “front-loading”: giving kids advance notice before the change happens. For instance, if you are getting ready to leave in the morning and your little one is happily playing with their toys, you might let them know at 20 minutes prior that they have some time to keep playing but that you will be leaving for preschool in a little while. Another reminder comes at 10 minutes, and at 5 minutes you help them start picking up their things. The more they can feel a part of and understanding what is happening, the more their perceived safety increases and the more they can feel connected to you.
Further information on bonding and attachment, check out these resources:
- The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis and David Cross
- I Love You Rituals by Becky Bailey
- The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
– Gretchyn Edwards is a student intern with the Parenting Program while she is completing her master’s in social work at Michigan State University. She and her husband are proud parents by way of adoption to their son, Julian.