Strengthening Attachment Bonds in Adoptions — The Family
When 39-year-old Denise and her daughter, Kelsee, first met *Laura at a Fun Fest activity, Denise never dreamed her volunteer activities would change her family's lives. Laura, a six year-old child who had been in numerous foster placements over the past three years, was instantly drawn to Denise's pretty brunette teen-ager.
She followed Kelsee around most of the day, enjoying playful conversations and one-on-one attention. As Denise watched the interactions between the two, she wondered what her husband would say when she voiced the idea that kept popping into her mind. She wanted to adopt this child!
Denise and her family had been welcoming foster children into their home for the past three and a half years. With their oldest son set to leave for college, Kelsee in high school, and the "baby" of the family well into his 10th year, John and Denise were nearing most parents' dream, successfully launching the last child from the family nest.
They enjoyed their role as foster parents, but their commitment to their three biological children left little room for permanent arrangements. But that was about to change. Laura needed an emergency foster home, something both of them could commit to providing. John's initial doubts about adopting melted, one by one when Laura walked into their home one week before Christmas.
"At first she called John 'that man', Denise said. "A month later it was 'your husband', then 'John', and finally 'Dad.' Because of events in her past, Laura took a while to warm up to John, but he was patient and willing to wait for her to accept him on her own terms. That was almost a year ago. Now as they approach finalization of their adoption, local social workers consider this family to be a model pre-adoptive family.
This is a distinction that makes Denise and John uncomfortable. "I don't like being on that pedestal. We aren't perfect, and that's not what it takes to be a foster parent or an adoptive parent. I would rather that other families see what we do and know that they can do it, too."
Denise helps train other families in strengthening the bonds of attachment, an important ability needed by every child. She shares principles that have enriched the lives of the foster children who have shared their home over the years. Several characteristics of successful foster families have played a big part in Laura's secure bond to her soon-to-be adopted family:
1. Tolerance for ambivalence, negative feelings, and rejection.
Laura still struggles with the loyalty and growing love she feels for Denise and John, a fact they understand and accept. On the day they announced they had been chosen by the adoption committee, Laura laughed, hugged, and insisted that they all toast repeatedly with juice. She still had a big grin on her face when Denise tucked her into bed. John watched from the hallway. Laura scrutinized her foster mother's face and said, "You're not very pretty." Denise responded calmly, "Well, you didn't tell me you wanted a pretty mom."
"I don't want a pretty mom. I already had one. I want a NICE mom." Denise could hear John's stifled laughter from the hallway. Laura continued her pointed comments. "You should marry somebody else. John's too OLD." "Well, old dads are more fun, Laura." The hallway got suddenly quiet. It was Denise's turn to laugh as she walked past John. "I'm ugly and you're old. What do you think of that?"
Denise and John interpreted these comments as Laura's feelings of guilt over feeling happy about the adoption. More importantly, Laura was developing a new insight into her own ambivalence and loyalties to two mothers. And more was to come.
Although Laura often asked when she could be adopted by her family, on the day John and Denise announced the date for finalization, Laura said, "Can I tell you tomorrow if I want you to adopt me?" Instead of registering the shock she felt, Denise responded, "Yes, Laura, it would be a good idea for you to tell us your decision tomorrow." The next day at breakfast, and with a great deal of fanfare, Laura announced that she had chosen to be adopted.
2. Family rules are clearly explained and reinforced.
On Laura's first day with the family, Denise and John introduced her to the horses and small donkey in the corral. They showed her how to latch the gate and cautioned her about not letting the animals out. When she left the gate open a few days later, Denise showed her the consequences of the infraction and involved her in the remedy. Laura struggled to maintain complete control in the first weeks. She cried miserably for her "real mother" whenever a boundary was restated. Denise told her it was O.K. to miss her mom, but she also needed to learn the rules, just like other family members.
3. Flexible expectations.
Denise and John anticipated problems and designed solutions. After acquainting themselves with her social history, they changed room assignments to give Laura a place close to a bathroom. Denise took Laura aside the first night and said, "Honey, I know that sometimes you may not get to the bathroom in time, and that's O.K. Don't worry about it. Here's an extra pair of pajamas.
Let's practice saying my name so you can call me if you need any help." Although bedwetting had been a source of tension and bid for control in previous placements, Laura has never needed that extra pair of pajamas. All of her nights are dry.
4. Ability to delay parental gratification.
Successful families do not let their expectations interfere with careful emotional adjustments. Denise and John put their desire to be loved by Laura on the back burner. Her need to resolve feelings of grief and loss was greater. Gratification came much later in unexpected ways. Recently, Laura told Denise that she likes living in a home "where there are no monsters."
Denise said, "I'm gratified by the little things like her excitement over our preparations for Thanksgiving. She told me that she'd never had a turkey at Thanksgiving." It was an innocent confession, but one that Denise treasures like gold. It represents a carefully-built trust, that Denise won't criticize her birth mom. It frees Laura to enjoy Denise's love and Thanksgiving pleasures without guilt.
5. Sense of humor.
John uses humor to cope with Laura's anxieties. He also uses it to emphasize her secure place in their family. When he noticed that Laura pays particular attention to who goes first, he began a juice-pouring ritual at breakfast, complete with silly explanations of his serving order: "Baby little boy first, girls go next, and now the boy."
These affectionate labels are not lost on Laura. She said, "Dad is funny. He calls me 'Little Sweet One and Baby Girl'." He also delights his children with humorous surprises that emphasize togetherness and family fun. John rushes into the room shouting, "Get in the truck — we're goin' places!" His latest surprise — a trip to Lagoon!
6. Flexible family roles.
Part of the success of this family comes from the way they freely share the responsibility of caring for each other. They are not restricted by traditional male/female or adult/child roles. Laura idolizes her big sister, and Kelsee openly nurtures Laura. "My hair is softer when Kelsee washes it," Laura announces.
"She puts cream rinse in my hair, but she doesn't wash it out at the bottom." John also recognizes the moments when a one-hour change of hats breathes new life into Denise's day. It's not unusual for him to take a fussy foster baby to his office for an hour or to let a few of the children ride along in the van as he runs errands.
7. Understand underlying emotional issues.
Denise and John respect Laura's loyalty to her birth mother. They are aware that others in Laura's life have criticized her biological mother, producing defensiveness and acting-out behaviors. Denise knows the value of encouraging positive memories. She also helps Laura understand why her mother could not give her the safety she needed as a child. She talks of a time in the future when Laura can have contact with her mother.
Less tangible barriers to bonding are not so easily remedied with positives. Laura's family history and traditions are different than her adoptive family's. From the beginning, she noticed and felt left out because her picture was not on the wall. Even though Laura sits in the middle of a new family portrait, she continues to notice her absence in older photos.
When she looks through family vacation albums, she asks, "When are you going to take me there? I want to go to all the places you've been." Denise understands this is less about travel and fun. It is Laura's expression of loss and grief related to her personal history. It may also be a sign of her longing to own her adoptive family's happier history. Denise creatively responds with plans to see new places, to build shared memories and put together new photo albums.
Denise ends her foster parent training with a reminder that the most important quality of a successful resource family is patience. "If you have that, you can remain calm in most situations rather than reacting with hurt feelings or anger. If you don't have patience, you probably should rethink your decision to parent a child with special needs. It's not for everyone, but we think it's definitely worth it."
(*This article revolves around an Idaho foster parent family in the process of adopting "Laura." The names have been changed at the family's request.)
Article prepared by: Marti Wiser, CSW, Division of Family and Community Services, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Additional Internet Resources
Attachment Disorder Support Group — Support group for attachment disorders.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Consultation, Education and Training Services — Oregon resource.