Attachment in Adoption: Practical Ways to Spend Meaningful Time
by Becky Smith, PLMHP
The very beginning of my life involved a lot of life changing people, I think. As a kid I sometimes imagined ninjas and princesses involved in my adoption…who knows? Maybe I was an heir to some Korean throne?
There were a lot of “someone’s” involved in the first six months of my life in South Korea: Someone maybe helped to convince my biological mother not to get an abortion. She then did decide to abandon me somewhere, but someone had to have either taken me from her arms, or picked me up from the police station where I was found and taken me to an orphanage. Someone must have taken care of me in that orphanage. Then someone had to have picked me, for some reason, to go to foster care. Did I raise my baby arm in the crib? Who knows. Then somehow, someone picked me to become adopted. My adoptive mom and dad picked me to come home from Korea to Wisconsin. There were lots of hands in getting me home; I believe there was one giant, gentle, sovereign hand especially, the hand of my Father, my Savior. As for the other hands of “someones,” I will probably never know who they were, but I have a heart of thanks for them. After coming home, I grew up in Wisconsin, with parents who loved me and love me unconditionally, my older brother, dogs, music, teenage drama, ups, downs, and everything else in between.
When asked to write this blog about adoption and foster care, I excitedly sat down at my computer and started to think about from which perspective to write. I soon found myself staring at the blinking cursor as my mind wandered in so many different directions; so many choices of what to write about and from what angle to give voice. There is the birth mom perspective, foster parent perspective, adopting older kids, adopting internationally, adopting kids from places of abuse and neglect, the adoptive parents’ perspective, the kid adoptee perspective, the adult adoptee perspective, the list goes on.
I decided to go with the perspective of the role I have tried to take since getting my Master’s in Clinical and Mental Health: the “mom and a counseling professional who wants to support adoptive families” perspective.
First, I will say that as a mom of four biological kids who are all in their teen years, I think momhood can be one of the most difficult and isolating times of life. Or not. As new biological moms, we quickly realize that we have never “given of ourselves” like we have when babies come out of us and then literally use our bodies to stay alive. We can start to feel like a cow very easily. I know I did. It becomes our responsibility to find the support we need, and receive that support as best we can. As adoptive moms know very well, there is a similar yet different type of “giving” when your child first gets home to you; one that may not be through breast feeding, but that is just as loving, just as intimate. It often looks like compassion shown when tantrums are thrown because a small child does not know whom he or she can trust. You constantly work to show compassion, working your empathy skills, working to show love, working to understand a completely new person. Now do not get me wrong, sometimes there are no tantrums and connections are made easily. But sometimes that is not the case, and if that is not the case, the adjustment is a difficult road that requires support.
In my experience as a counselor, I have noticed the importance of time for connection. When committing to counseling, we commit ourselves to time. In the area of adoption, I think one of the biggest difficulties is also TIME. It takes time to create attachment opportunities, to show compassion through eye contact, to show support through words, to get to know one another. This time of parents building connection with their children, this is the place where I want to encourage something I have come to believe both as a professional and as a fellow mom: No parent was ever meant to be alone while navigating through the area of attachment. Get connected. Ask a professional therapist for help in finding resources, ask your local church, ask me. Connection to supports and educational groups is the best choice you can make while processing everything you are going through as an adoptive family. Connection for you as the mom or dad is vital, so that you can feel like you have capacity to connect with your child.
As an important side note to successful connection, is so important to get educated about brain development when talking about adoption and foster care. Instead of me trying to summarize, please do yourself a favor and click this link! The book that this link mentions, The Whole Brain Child, is also worth the read, especially for those of you who have adopted children from a background of abuse or neglect. I also love the easy way that the author explains the complexity of the brain.
I want to finish with some good ol’ bullet points of great ways to spend your time with each other. One of the easiest and best ways to build connection is through play. They say that it takes about 300-400 repetitions to teach something, it takes about 20 repetitions to teach within the context of play. If you have a child who came to you later in life, after years in a different family or in an institution, there are certain building blocks of connection such as eye contact, healthy touch, soothing and comfort that were likely not present in their lives. Showing, modeling, and practicing these important building blocks through play can now help connection. The following games include ones I found online and ones I made up myself, which highlight healthy touch, eye contact, asking instead of telling, and accepting decisions:
- Face paint with your kids. You face paint them, they face paint you. This is a great example of something that involves eye contact and healthy touch.
- Play Hedbanz; let this game encourage eye contact.
- Draw letters on each other’s backs and guess what letters they are; let this game highlight healthy touch, soothing voice. Maybe something to put into the bedtime routine to help calm them at night.
- Get a “yes” jar. Everything about this jar is a “yes”. This helps to build trust. Here is a link to where I found this game: The Yes Jar.
- Nerf-Shoot-Ask game: Write down a bunch of questions, some silly, some fun, some serious. Put the questions on slips of paper and fold them into a grab jar or container. The child gets to pick a question out of the jar and read it to one of the parents. The other parent is standing somewhere with a cup or basket, waiting for the child to try to shoot the nerf gun dart at them and the parent will try to catch the dart. The child reads the question, then accepts the answer that the parent gives by saying, “ok.” Then the child asks. “May I shoot the gun, please?” And they try to make it in the basket. This game highlights ‘asking and accepting decisions.’
- Brush hair while watching a movie, gently and with touch. This encourages healthy touch and feeling physically soothed.
- Do each other’s nails.
- The Progressive Picture: Each family member is allowed to draw on the same piece of paper for 1 minute (or whatever time fits your family). Go around the family twice, or an agreed upon number of times. This is a not a pre-planned picture, which can encourage creativity and laughter together. It is also something to display on a fridge that represents your family. Art is an amazing tool that helps externalize feelings.
- Purposefully leave the dishes, leave the laundry. Snuggle on the couch under a soft blanket together and take turns reading a book together or read the book to your child.
- Practicing re-do’s in life: have a family night that is sort of like charades, practice what it looks like to NOT show respect, then practice the opposite. Example: “I’m staying up later! I want to finish this game!” versus “Mom, can I stay up for 10 more minutes please? I would love to finish this level of this game!” Talk about the bravery and courage it takes to ask for something that you do not know you will receive.
Author’s note: Once a month, there is a group that meets at Waypoint Church at 1313 N 48th Ave, Omaha, NE 68132. We meet the THIRD FRIDAY of each month from 9:30am – 11am. This group is open to all. Please know that we share our stories with one another and pray for each other in this meeting. We are a small group at this point, usually about 5-10 moms. Our hope is that we would deeply know one another, our adoption and foster care struggles, and deeply love one another. Everything shared is expected to stay within the group, confidentiality is highlighted. The comments I have heard from this group are things like, “I felt so alone; it was so good to just hear others’ struggles in adoption.” “It is so nice to share with those who ‘get it.’” “I feel better. Nothing has changed in my circumstances, but I feel much better. I’m glad I came.”
Photo Credit: Daniela Rey on Unsplash
Becky Smith lives in the Omaha area with her husband Eric and their four beautiful children. She is a graduate of Grace University with a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health, and now practices therapy at CityCare Counseling with a focus in adoption issues. We are thrilled to share her perspectives as an adoptee and a professional who specializes in adoption issues with you in this guest post on the intersection between adoption and mental health.