tips on bonding with an adopted or foster child

tips on bonding with an adopted or foster child
When our daughter, Payton, came to us, she was young, but she was completely broken. Naive people have said to us, “It’s a good thing she was so young when she came to you, she won’t be affected by what happened.”

 

That’s the generally held consensus isn’t it? If a child is removed from a neglectful or abusive situation soon enough, it won’t affect them. Wrong. Sure it’s better for them, the hope is that it doesn’t take them as long to heal, but they are impacted as much, or possibly more than an older child.

In Bruce Perry’s book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, he says, “The fact that the brain develops sequentially – and also so rapidly in the first years of life – explains why extremely young children are at such great risk of suffering lasting effects of trauma: their brains are still developing. The same miraculous plasticity that allows young brains to quickly learn love and language, unfortunately, also makes them highly susceptible to negative experiences as well.”
myth- young children aren't afffected by abuse and neglect

Payton had emotionally shut herself down because of the neglect and trauma she suffered. She would bang her head on the floor, or on a piece of furniture, but no sound escaped her lips. Never having been around a child with a traumatic past, this shocked me. She had learned early on that no one responded when she cried, so why put forth the effort?

We didn’t have any specific training in how to deal with this or many other issues that came our way, so I did what came naturally. Every time she fell, or bumped against something, I picked her up, held her against me, and said, “It’s okay, Mama’s here.” (At the time she was in foster care. Her bio mom called herself Mommy, so I referred to myself as “Mama.”) After a couple months of consistently showing her that I would rescue her when she was hurt, Payton began following me around the house! It was more of a curiosity thing, she was making a basic connection that someone cared. True bonding would take years to develop, but we had a base to begin from, and I was excited!

During this same time, I was on the floor with her a lot. How did I do this? In my years of parenting a child with attachment issues (actually she was diagnosed with RAD, you can see my opinions on that here) and one with Autism, I have come to see the benefits of a small house. I’m in close proximity to my kids. (If you don’t have a smaller home, you can use baby gates to keep your kids close.) My husband and I also drastically changed our daily routines. Our focus was on our new little girl, who needed as much of us as she could get.

I spent as much time as I could on my daughter’s level.

She hadn’t learned the basics of play, not even as an infant would. It took a long time for her to learn to play, and even longer to use her imagination. But, she had noticed I was there. She moved from following me around to mimicking me (I have a photo of her at eighteen-months loading the washing machine), and eventually moving on to sitting on my lap, etc.

This technique can also be called “Floortime.” I implemented this (in a way) with my daughter before I heard about Stanley Greenspan’s Floortime. We were introduced to Floortime much later when my son was diagnosed with Autism. The approach is not specific to Autism, and can be extremely helpful in the bonding between a child with attachment issues and a parent or caregiver. 

“Floortime meets children where they are and builds upon their strengths and abilities through interacting and creating a warm relationship. It challenges them to go further and to develop who they are rather than what their diagnosis says.” www.stanleygreenspan.com

The Developmental Therapist who works with our son uses a mixture of Floortime and other therapies, which I’ve discovered are a foundational component to bonding. We have to return to this cornerstone of Floortime because many of our children don’t know how to play, no one taught them how. Sometimes their brains can’t calm down enough to engage in free or imaginative play.

One reason I really love Floortime is because, as quoted above, “…it meets children where they are and builds upon their strengths and abilities through interacting and creating a warm relationship.” Why is this so great? Let’s look at key elements in the statement above.

  1. “…it meets children where they are.” – Our hurting children are not at their actual developmental age. We have to meet them where they are so they can climb the ladder of social, emotional, and physical development. There’s no time limit, there is no rush when looking at the developmental age of our hurting children, it will take time. And always remember bonding takes precedence over development in any other area.
  2. “…[it] builds upon their strengths and abilities.” – This is encouragement that our children need. They are constantly bombarded by negative, both from the outside and from within.
  3. “…through interacting and creating a warm relationship.” – What could be better? This is what our ultimate goal is for our children with attachment issues. We want them interacting with us (by the way, that begins with constant effort on our end), and we want to create a warm relationship. Some of you who have a child that struggles day to day may not think a warm relationship is possible, but it is! Your connection with each of your children will look different, but you will be amazed at the gem you find beneath the hurt, anger, and fear your child is holding onto.

Now that we have seen the benefits of Floortime, let’s find out how to do it. There will be a progression of steps. After you feel your child is comfortable with one of the steps, move to the next one. How will you know your child is ready for the next step? They will share smiles, engage you by handing you a toy, open discussions with you, they might make eye contact for the first time, or for longer periods than they have before. If you move on and you notice they are moving away from you or avoiding you, return to the previous step and work through it some more.

At any of the stages you can begin touching your child on the back or arm. See how they respond. If they squirm away, try again the next day. Don’t force it, but don’t avoid it either.

Step 1: PARALLEL PLAY

You will begin by sitting next to your child and engaging in parallel play. (This can also be done with older children, which I will touch on in a moment.) “Parallel play is a form of play where children play adjacent to each other, but do not try to influence one another’s behavior…the children do not play together, but alongside each other.” www.wikipedia.org For our purposes, this will be done between an adult caregiver or parent and a child. We’re going back to those fundamentals they never learned and have difficulty with.
Sit next to your child and engage in a similar activity. Don’t talk, only mimic what your child is doing with your own toy/book/body. It may feel goofy at first, but trust me, it works! If your child is pretending to drive a car, do the same with your own. If your child is looking at a book, sit quietly next to her reading one of her books. This will lay a foundation to build on. Be sure that you are engaging in something they have found interest in. You will do this every day if at all possible. The more you work on it, the faster bonding will come. I would begin with short sessions, around ten to fifteen minutes.

  • Older Children (including teens): It’s the same concept as above, but obviously they will be more advanced. If your child enjoys coloring or drawing, sit next to her and do the same with your own paper. Whatever they enjoy doing, do it sitting next to them. Get involved with them at a basic level, being quiet, and letting yourselves exist in the same space.

Step 2: INTEREST PLAY

Next you will begin talking about what you are doing with your child. If your child has a difficult time looking at your face, bring toys to the bridge of your nose, so your child will look at your eyes. If your child looks at you say, “Thank you for looking at me,” in an excited voice. For a very young child who is beginning to talk, you describe what you are doing: “I’m driving the car. You’re driving the car.” Praise a child of any age when they do well (be real, they’ll know if you’re lying). Don’t say anything negative at this time.
“Play is the work of children. It consists of those activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. It is child-directed, and the rewards come from within the individual child; it is enjoyable and spontaneous.”www.healthofchildren.com

  • Older Children (including teens): Talk about what you are doing with them. You can ask them some questions, but keep those few and brief.

Step 3: INTERACTIVE PLAY

Now you can begin interacting more, andJustin & Jeremiah 2012exchanging in play. You can begin to play with their toy with them. You can read a book to them, invite them to sit in your lap to read a book or sing a song. If you have a girl that’s interested in doing your hair (come on Dad :)), take turns playing salon. This is a great opportunity for your child to practice taking turns, caring for someone, and appropriate gentle touch is always positive.

  • Older Child (including teens): If you have a child that likes sports, you can play ball together. This exchange is a great back and forth play, your child is facing you, and they may also open up more and want to talk. Embrace what your child likes. Involve yourself by interacting and being interested.

These are some pivotal steps that will help your child bond with you. “[By using Floortime and] staying within [their] focus, you are helping [them] practice basic thinking skills: engagement, interaction, symbolic thinking and logical thinking. To master these skills requires using all these senses, emotions, and motor skills…”www.stanleygreenspan.com

When raising children with attachment issues (and for me, having an added child with Autism) it can get quite discouraging. You try something, it doesn’t work, so you try again, and again it fails. Keep trying. I have often put something on that back burner for a long time because I tried dozens of times and failed. Then one day I would try it again, and suddenly it would work! Be persistent and eventually your child will be ready for that hug, or respond to that “thank you,” or whatever you might be wanting your child to do to show connection.

You can bookmark this post to refer back to as you work on bonding. You can also receive each post made to Lovin’ Adoptin’ by subscribing in the upper right corner. If you’re on a mobile device, you can do this on a web version. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

what’s next? a look at life after bonding takes place

What's next? a look at life after bonding takes placeAs a parent of adopted kids I found myself wondering far too much, why? Why did my kids have to endure so much so early in life? Why do they have to overcome so much? I’ve realized these aren’t the questions that will bring about healing and restoration. The question I began asking is, what will my family and I do with the journey that we’re traveling together? What lessons and strengths will we develop together? Throughout this post we will look at the effects of trauma and what we can do about it.

Last fall I wrote a post called, Detecting Attachment Issues, in it I gave examples of what children with attachment issues do and how they act. An adoptive mom I’ve worked with commented on that post, saying she was discouraged, she thought her little guy was doing so much better, but she saw many things on the list that she didn’t realize were attachment issues. I could hear the dejection through her words that were typed, not spoken.

(It might be a good idea for you to read that post I linked to in the above paragraph, as it will help you understand what I’m referring to here.)

Here is my response to the adoptive mom who felt her child was doing so much better:

So sorry this left you discouraged, so not my intentions. First, I want to say that the list is a reference, and you are the deciding factor of whether or not your son is doing well. No list, therapist, or book can tell you anything other than what you see in your child.

Some of these behaviors exist in children [with typical upbringings], whether they have attachment issues or not. Also, remember that your child has ingrained attributes that stem from his biological parents, their personality types, their behaviors. Say, if a child’s biological parent is a law-breaker extraordinaire, a mom or dad may see signs of their child trying to wiggle her way around rules and lying.

Most importantly, our child’s early lives formed their brains to some extent. Some of that can be changed, and I feel you’re seeing that, but they will have some defined attributes that continue with them. For example, although my daughter has bonded very well at this point, she’s still hyper-vigilant and tries to control some situations (more so around her friends), and wants to be in charge.

We take those characteristics and give her opportunities for taking responsibility. We don’t want to crush the abilities that will serve our children well in the future, they can be intelligent leaders, teachers, and do great things with what they learned at the beginning of their lives, but we direct them in positive ways.

I hope this helps some and doesn’t leave you feeling so dispirited. If you think your son is doing well, then he is! 🙂

Adding to the list of negatives that can be looked at differently or turned to positives are a child’s need to manipulate. How can this later develop into an acceptable characteristic? Problem-solving skills. A child who wants to manipulate will do whatever they can to solve or change a situation they don’t like, hence you will later have a problem-solver.

A section of the book, Unbroken, stood out to me as relating to our traumatized children. Unbroken is about the true story of Louie Zamperini. When he was young he caused calamity wherever he went, he had a strong will, strong body, and strong mind. Without giving away too much of the book, he faced hell when he was just out of college, what befell him seems like the horrors that only exist in fiction. One intense struggle after another chased Louie, and the author says,

“The same attributes that had made him the boy terror of Torrance were keeping him alive in the greatest struggle of his life.”

If Louie had been a different person, he likely wouldn’t have made it through a sixteenth of his journey. He would’ve died, that’s how bad it was. He survived because of who he was before catastrophe struck. He was an optimistic, intelligent fighter, and this carried him through years of trials.

This is also so true of our children.

What they faced in their early years will transform them, hopefully making them stronger for what they’ll face in the future. If we can help them shape their tendencies to the positive side, there’s abounding hope for them.
love with our help

I’m not saying parents should celebrate all the negative behaviors in their kids. I’m encouraging you not to get discouraged when you think your child is healing, but then see a negative attitude or behavior spring forward. Sometimes it’s a kid thing, some behaviors are age appropriate like lying, it could be that your child is strong-willed (really good chance), it could be something biological, and it could be how your child’s brain was wired for self-preservation while being neglected or abused. There are so many factors.

Like I told the woman who felt so distraught over my list for detecting attachment issues, if YOU feel YOUR child is doing GOOD, then no worries, you keep plugging along. Your positive attitude is going to take you farther than a negative one that gets overwhelmed at how long you’ve been working on healing. Therapeutic parenting is tiring, and you want there to be a point at which you can sit back and relax. You can, it just might look different than how your neighbor does it.

In the end, it’s going to be okay, because you’re changing a life.

Do you feel your child has bonded? Are their residual behaviors that pop up and make you wonder what’s going on? Can you see how any of them can serve your child well in life?


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emotional age vs. chronological age (adoption/foster)

emotioanl age vs chronological age
Evan lay in his room, screaming and pounding his fists on the floor, his feet slammed against his door. His mom, Talia, looked out the window, sure her neighbors could hear everything and imagined what they were thinking.

She couldn’t believe he was behaving this way, he was eight-years-old and acting worse than a toddler, the rages were catastrophic. Evan joined their family through adoption nine months ago and she’d expected him to grow out of this stage, especially with the constant love they all showed him, the toys, bed, nice room, good food, sport activities, and so much more. Hadn’t he bonded yet?

Why was it all taking so long?

Evan did well in school, he’d caught up so quickly because they’d worked with him. There were battles with that too, but nothing like these setbacks when Evan didn’t feel he was in charge.

Talia was noticing the gap between Evan’s emotional age and his chronological age.

Talia was expecting Evan’s emotional age to be in line with his chronological age, and that won’t happen when a child’s been neglected, abused, and traumatized. This image (courtesy of Dr. Bruce Perry and his studies) shows how significantly smaller the size of the traumatized child’s brain is versus the child who wasn’t traumatized. (If you’re a frequent reader here, you’re tired of hearing this – the size of their brain doesn’t mean it can’t grow, learn, and excel. It doesn’t mean your child can’t hear you, understand how you feel, or that they aren’t aware of the world around them.)

Because of trauma, your child’s age will not determine their abilities in any area. If a child is six-years-old, you can’t expect their emotional state to be equal to their age. You may have behaviors that range from infantile to age appropriate.

Even though there are gaps between your child’s emotional, mental, physical, and chronological age, you can still meet them where they are in each area. Your child may be very smart and able to do seventh grade algebra at age ten, so meet him where he is academically. His emotional state may not be that of a ten-year-old, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give him educational opportunities.

Your ten-year-old may exhibit behaviors of a three-year-old, so emotionally you would meet him where he needs it. You can hold him and rock him to help meet his need at that three-year-old level.
grow your child where they're succeeding

Meeting your child where they are can be done through Floortime, which is explained further at The Greenspan Floortime Approach. “Floortime meets children where they are and builds upon their strengths and abilities through interacting and creating a warm relationship. It challenges them to go further and to develop who they are…” I love every point in this statement about Floortime. In my post, Let’s Bond Already – Creating Attachment with an Adopted Child, I explain each of these points in more detail and give ideas on how to use this technique with older children.

As your child heals and bonds, his chronological and emotional age will become more equal,

you’ll see the gap between the two begin to close. Your child may always be more attuned to their world than a typical child, they may be able to tell you how to get across town to your friend’s house, or surprise you with their ability to recall events. This is because they were forced to protect themselves and possibly siblings when they were with their bio family. Their brain was catapulted into survival mode, and it’s possible part of it will always be there, overly conscious of their world. It’ll subside quite a bit as they move farther from the trauma, and are cared for by loving parents, but you can view this as something that will benefit them in the future.

As your child heals, they will have times of regression. Triggers will send them back to what they experienced before joining your family. Triggers are moments, experiences, memories, or events that remind them of a part of their traumatic experience. Your child will also exhibit negative behaviors and emotional regression when they feel out of control, which reminds them of their past.

In Dr. Bruce Perry’s book he shares the story of Sandy who witnessed her mother’s murder. When Sandy went to her foster home, she would loss it completely at certain times during the day. It took the family a while to figure out what the trigger was, but finally, after paying very close attention, they found Sandy had a meltdown every time she saw milk. The milk was a trigger because when her mother lay on the floor after being stabbed, Sandy tried giving her milk. That wasn’t the only trigger for her, but it gives you an idea of why our hurting children regress and in turn their emotional state deteriorates.

A child who experiences trauma such as Sandy did may be able to communicate well, and function fairly well within the family, but her emotional state will be compromised greatly when a trigger presents itself. She may start blubbering, not be understood, unable to communicate any feelings or thoughts.

In the beginning of this post Talia asked questions pertaining to how much they’d given Evan, how long it was taking him to bond, and how long it would take his behavior to be permanently changed. Here are some posts relating to those issues Talia is struggling with, and maybe the same questions you are asking about your child:

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