Attachment and Bonding with Adopted Toddlers and Preschoolers

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:

– 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.

Adoption, luck and gratitude

woman with baby comforting a toddler girl

“Your children are so lucky!” “They must be so grateful.” These are comments adoptive parents often hear in regard to their children, but they reflect an adult perspective on a life event that is experienced completely differently by a child.

One thing non-adoptive parents often fail to understand is that adoption is a joy born from grief and loss. So when we are talking about luck and gratitude in the context of adoption, we need to clearly define what those terms really mean from the child’s perspective.

“Luck” is something many adopted children believe they do not have. Is it really “lucky” to be born into a situation where, for whatever reason, you cannot be raised with your birth family? Is it “lucky” to be taken, through no fault of your own, from the mother whose voice you heard and whose food you ate for months before you were born and perhaps for months or years after? Is it “lucky” when every family event features a comparison between your cousins’ and grandfather’s big ears, highlighting the physical traits you don’t have in common with your adopted family?

“Gratitude,” as any of us who parent teenagers know, is often in short supply with our children. To expect an adopted child to be any more grateful than a biological child is unrealistic and unfair. The adoptive parents presumably wanted to be parents and persisted in that quest until they were able to bring children into their family through adoption. Most adoptive parents believe that we are the grateful ones – grateful to our children for allowing us to love and parent them after a very difficult and painful separation that they didn’t ask for and were likely too young to understand.

It’s also important to remember that adoptive parents have often (not always, but often) come to adoption after losing their dream of having a biological child. They are also grieving the loss of the “idealized” family they had in their mind – the loss of the experience of pregnancy, perhaps multiple losses of children through miscarriage, the loss of that little kid with grandpa’s ears. The notions of “luck” and “gratitude” are often very different for adoptive parents as well as for their children.

In an ideal world, every child born is wanted and every birth mother is able and willing to raise a child born to her until that child is an adult. But we don’t live in an ideal world. And adoptive families don’t live in a morose and grief-filled world, but we do have to acknowledge the loss is there, to give our children the ability to express it when they need to, to understand that their grief is not a comment on our parenting but is simply a reality, a faint backdrop that becomes more pronounced from time to time.

Are we all lucky and grateful that somehow the universe brought us together and allowed us to become a family? Yes, of course, but it’s a very different kind of luck and gratitude, the kind that defies loss and grief and brings us together in joy.

– Kathy Henry is an adoptive parent to two teenage boys, makes a living as a marketing consultant and copywriter, and is a “professional” volunteer for several organizations, including the Beaumont Parenting Program. The pay is lousy but the rewards are great!

First in our hearts, then in our arms

Mom, dad and young girl closeup

Our adoption journey started the way many do. After a couple failed IVF attempts, my husband Greg and I began researching adoption. We knew a few people who adopted internationally and decided to explore Russia as an option. It was a well-established program and we could select an agency with a physical presence in the country, which would aid us when we traveled.

In February 2010, we met with our agency consultant and began filling out our initial application. We knew there was a possibility of a long wait—a year and a half to two years—to get a young child. Our families and friends were very supportive and excited, but also cautioned us not to get too far ahead of ourselves with preparations.

After a few months completing our initial paperwork, home studies and parenting classes, we submitted our dossier (the packet that details every part of your life from birth to present) to Russia. Time flew from February to May, but once those documents went into the FedEx envelope, it felt like the clock stopped. We busied ourselves with prepping the baby’s room and purchasing things we knew we would need when he or she came home, but there were many days where that wait took its toll.

In a matter of a mere two months, our lives forever changed on July 23, 2010.

The phone rang as I was getting ready for work, but I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t answer. Within a minute, our landline rang. Caller ID showed our agency’s number, and I started thinking, “Oh no, what document did we not have stamped correctly?” or “Maybe we’ve been registered in a region, making us one step closer to receiving a placement.” When I answered, I could hear the excitement in our consultant’s voice. She was calling with wonderful news and was forwarding me an email regarding a 9-and-a-half-month-old baby girl in the Kaliningrad region. No words can describe how I felt at that moment! After hanging up, I immediately called Greg to share the news. He was in disbelief as well, as neither of us expected this to happen so quickly. I had waited to open the email until I was on the phone with him; we looked at the words on our screens, then finally saw the two beautiful pictures of the little girl who was already ours in our hearts. With our emotions in overdrive, we reviewed her medical information and social history, then made the decision to travel to meet her.

Just two-and-a-half weeks later, we took our first of two trips to Russia. Our nerves were high; we were traveling to a nation where we didn’t speak the language (we planned to learn more, but due to the short wait time we had, we only got through basic pleasantries). We were comforted knowing our agency had a strong presence in Russia, and that we would have a guide to travel with and an interpreter when meeting with orphanage personnel and government officials.

The first time we saw our daughter, we held back our desire to scoop her up, hug her and tell her how long we had waited for her because as much as we wanted to do those things, we didn’t want to overwhelm her. As we had learned from adoption professionals, while we were feeling the excitement and anticipation of creating our beautiful family, this child—regardless of how young—had experienced great loss through her life, and didn’t have continuity of care during time spent in an orphanage. We approached her with nothing but love in our hearts, and patience unlike we had ever known. We had a week in Russia on our first trip; only a few of those days included visits with our little girl, but we spent quality time bonding with her and were very grateful for every second. My husband and I instantly connected to her and it was painful to say goodbye when our trip ended. We felt blessed knowing that the caregivers in her orphanage seemed to take incredible care of her, and although there were a number of them, she responded very well to their love and affection.

Many families wait months after coming home the first time before receiving their next travel date, but we were given the return date for our second trip (and court date) before we even left Russia. We had to wait only six weeks before returning to go to court and bring our baby girl home.

Dad, mom and infant girl

A family photo after picking Anna up from the orphanage.

We were awarded custody on October 1, 2010, three days before our girl’s first birthday. The judge who presided over our case allowed us to have our daughter stay with us almost immediately after we were given custody. Russian law usually mandates a 10-day wait from custody being awarded to the day when parents were allowed to pick up their child, but in our case, we could bring her back to our hotel and begin our lives together from Day 3.

For those unfamiliar with the Russian adoption process, imagine having a child in your care for less than 24 hours, then boarding a plane from the child’s birth region, to fly to Moscow and spend 48 hours (including a long meeting at the Consulate’s office), only to board a plane and fly many hours to get to your home. In many cases, those first few days are the only time families have spent together, and children have no bonding time before they head to their new homes. Those extra days together allowed us to bond in a way that my husband and I will be forever grateful.

Our homecoming was very low-key. Our immediate families met us at the airport and helped us to reacclimate. Everyone was excited to meet our new addition, but because the three of us were so incredibly exhausted—physically and emotionally—we kept things pretty quiet. In the weeks that followed, family members hosted baby showers and welcome-home parties, and everyone was able to meet our beautiful daughter.

Over the last six years, we’ve watched our daughter grow and become an amazing little girl. Her heart is bigger than we could ever dream, and the love she shows to her family and friends is incredible. We’ve always talked very openly about her adoption, and have made it clear that she can ask anything she feels comfortable asking. We know that all adoptions are rooted in loss, and while we are incredibly blessed to have each other, there will be days when the questions may become more difficult, and that is something we prepare for. Each night, we pray a special prayer for her “tummy mommy in Kaliningrad” and do what we can to foster the knowledge that our family is blessed by adoption.

We are thankful for the path that we walked, because without our struggles many years ago, we would have never known this amazing gift of adoption.

– Brooke Schemers is the proud mom of Anna

Adoption: Giving the gift of forever families

Family adopting twins with their judge on the case

Our family on Adoption Day, June 29, 2012. I was very grateful to have gotten through the whole legal proceedings (we were the last case called, of course) without spit-up on my suit. It was a miracle.


It took only three weeks to go from “waiting to be chosen” to “Holy crap, I’m a mom!”

Our birthmom was decisive. She saw our profile, asked to meet us, and made the most agonizingly wonderful decision of her life. And mine.

The kids were due in mid-January. We met birthmom at a local mall for our first interview with her. About a week later, we got word through our agency that she chose us and would like to meet with us more. So we went to her house, which was about 3 miles from ours.

A week after that meeting, on Dec. 13, my cell rang. It was birthmom and it was baby time.

Just like that — with one phone call — I became the mom to two tiny babies.

My husband and I were in the delivery room for the birth, so we were there for their first breath. We were the emergency contact for the kids should something happen in the middle of the night. We were at the hospital from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day for a week just holding, changing and feeding those two.

We also spent time with birthmom. Just me and her. She told me about her family and her life. She shared motherly advice with me, which I absorbed. She never said it outright, but she wanted us to know every possible thing about her, so we could answer as many questions as we could when the twins started asking. I was very grateful.

There are no words that describe what it’s like to be an adoptive parent. If you’re lucky like we were, you try and please the birthmom to no end, while staying within the rules. You walk on eggshells because you don’t want her to take those babies from you, but you know full well that in giving them to you she’s giving her heart to strangers. The thought of that is more than anyone should have to bear.

You’re terrified of letting this wonderful birthmom down. She chose you for a reason, several in fact, so you better not drop the ball.

You’re excited that you not only got one baby to love, but you also got another. A bonus baby. More love, less sleep. Totally worth it.

It’s all those things and so many more that I can’t put into words.

One of the hardest, most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed was watching our birthmom drive away. Three days after the kids were born, she was discharged. We walked her down to her caseworker’s car. She was so confident in us. She kept telling us how great we were going to be and how proud of us she was.

Can you imagine that? She was proud of us.

We stayed in touch with our birthmom for the first year or so. We had her over a few times and even had a barbecue with our caseworker. That’s typical. Many birthmoms follow the family closely for the first year, then when they’re comfortable in their decision, they begin to let go. But they never forget.

Neither will I.

– Rebecca Calappi is a Publications Coordinator at Beaumont Health and adoptive parent of multiples.

How we became adoptive parents

Words of love in "LOVE"Some people call it a “journey” but I call it a “process” because when you’re adopting you never feel like you’re going anywhere.

November is National Adoption Month. In recognition, I’ll share with you our adoption story in a series of blogs from the humble beginnings to the triumphant ending and beyond.

Yes, there is a “beyond.”

The whole adoption idea hatched about four years into our marriage. My husband and I were sitting on the couch with tears in our eyes, enraged at what we were watching on TV. I don’t remember all the details, but it was a 60 Minutes-style story on boy soldiers in Africa. I remember how we talked about it after. How horrible we felt for those kids and if they only had parents to protect them. Then and there the seed was planted.

After that, whenever the subject of starting a family came up — rarely — it was pretty much in the context of adoption. But life happened, we got the travel bug and spent the next several years working for our vacations to Europe and my husband focused on completing his Ph.D.

In 2010, we started getting serious about adoption and began researching agencies — after all, we weren’t getting any younger and if we decided to go international, age plays a role.

Many adoption agencies have open houses so families looking to adopt can hear about the programs offered and talk firsthand to adoptive parents. It was always an emotional experience for me. We’d walk in to a room full of mostly empty chairs. Inevitably, there would be a video with dramatic/uplifting music playing on a loop with photos of kids who need a home. The kids always had huge, sad eyes and runny noses. I wanted to help them all.

We sat through several “big production” open houses like this, but the agencies didn’t feel right for us. One was so big, we felt like we’d just be a case number. Another told us that since we don’t belong to a church, they wouldn’t take us as clients. Eventually, we found our agency. It was small, homey and understaffed. They got to know their birthmoms and adoptive families closely. In fact, our case worker is an adoptee and the case worker for our birthmom is an adoptive mother.

And that’s when the paperwork began.

– Rebecca Calappi is a Publications Coordinator at Beaumont Health and adoptive parent of multiples.