Attachment in Adoption

"Parents have to be gleaners of professional and parenting sources if they have more complex needs in their families." Deborah Gray is the author of Attaching in Adoption.

Interview by Allison Martin

What inspired you to write your book Attaching in Adoption?

I was finding that helpful information got to many parents piecemeal, too late, or only in a theoretical format. Many activities that assist everyone's adjustment in the family could be done without a therapist, if only the information was available. Often parents remarked at conferences or in my practice, "if only I had known that in the first year after she joined our family!" The book was a way to make practical and theoretical information available to parents in a timely fashion.

Another motive for writing the book was my realization that helpful information for parents is not in one place. Parents have to be gleaners of professional and parenting sources to find what they need, particularly if they have more complex needs in their families. The book was a way to organize relevant information into a parenting source book It also gives parents directions to proceed in getting additional help. It also gives advice for a very normal situation-adopting or fostering a child who is entering a family at a later age.

Lastly, as far as inspiration, there is a spiritual side to my writing the book. It was one of the few things that I have ever felt spiritually called to do in my life. I felt that God wanted me to write this book. So, I did.

What are the signs of attachment problems?

The signs of attachment problems are different at different ages, Calling them problems depends on how long the child has been in the home. When a child is in a home for enough time to get to know the parents intimately, and if she also is at an age that children are expected to show exclusive attachments, then we start to assess factors like: Is the child going to his parent for help? Is the child trying to get physical closeness? Is the child calming down with her parent when she is upset or frightened? Is the child saving special experiences for his parent, or showing some exclusivity in their relationship? Is the child having fun with her parent? Is there empathy in the child's relationships with his family members? Does the child need to be in control all of the time, or can she "give in," trusting the judgment of a parent?

Of course, all of these answers vary in degrees from day-to-day, since we all have our ups and downs. However, with children with attachment problems, the answers to the above questions tend to be toward the "no" end of the continuum.

Attachments are lifelong close relationships. When children are growing in attachment, they show an investment in parents and back-and-forth in their relationships. Yet, they do not have a role reversal by playing a parental role in the family.

What advice do you have for parents adopting older children?

I think that it is helpful to find out as much history as possible about their child. It helps to know where trauma might be impacting a child. Or, it helps to find out who their child might be grieving. However, I am aware that often people do not know a child well who has been in foster care a short time or who has been in an institution.

I like to set up a highly nurturing environment that is also highly structured when children enter a home. It is reassuring to them to know just what is happening next. I like to keep the accent on the positive. Keep expectations simple and make goals easily attainable. Look at the beginning time in the home as special time for the parent(s) to get to know their child. Expect that a newly placed child is on "empty" in love and resilience, and that it will take a long time to fill them up. Initially, parents do best to find their reinforcement in knowing that they are doing a good job loving their child, and not in whether their child is appreciating their love.

Have especially good food and relaxed schedules when children are new in the home. Make the family a pleasant place to be. Take time off work to be with the child. Spend time finding things to do that are mutually enjoyable. Make yourself a person of comfort to your child. When you ask for eye contact, make sure that it is almost always to give a smile and hug.

You are relatively optimistic that attachment can increase, even in what seem like fairly severe cases. Could you talk about this a bit?

Some of my optimism comes from research. Even after severe neglect in Romanian orphanages, the majority of children were attempting to attach and succeeded in forming secure attachments after two years in their families. Humans are made to desire close relationships.

Attachment skills are learned. Sometimes children need to learn and then to practice the relationship skills for a safe family, instead of the skills used for a more hostile environment. They also benefit from therapy in helping them to work through fears and trauma. In my practice, which specializes in more severe problems, the vast majority of children do improve in attachment, emotional modulation, and trauma symptoms.. Parents use a home program, which varies according to their child. However, it usually includes a highly nurturing approach with special help and structure around problem issues related to emotionally charged issues. Because children return to see me on recall at critical developmental ages, I get to see them progress over time. It is a source of pride for them and their families. It is exciting to see a 16-year old with a close relationship with both parents and his first job, when at age 6 he used to ask his mother to leave the family. "You know, Deborah." He said. "All of that work paid off!"

Attachments are relationships. When we work on relationships, especially at a young age, all but the most hurt children seem to benefit greatly from the work.

Many children are not attaching because they are numbed and/or emotionally out-of-control due to traumatic stress. I think that the combination of attachment-oriented therapy with a trauma component in the treatment greatly benefits children. It improves the chances for success for children who cannot be reached by attachment-oriented parenting alone. The trauma field has been prolific in describing techniques to help children, and research that supports the efficacy of such efforts.

What did you wish to accomplish with your book?

I wanted a way to communicate directly with parents. The information in the book is actually quite sophisticated in its referencing of the research on attachment, grief, trauma, and emotional intelligence. I thought that parents could benefit most from this information if it were written for them in a practical, but not "dumbed down" format. Some professionals have pulled together and mastered the relevant literature, but have little time to really pass it along to the families with which they work. Other caseworkers are new enough to the field that they have not yet had time to master the literature. They have little to offer their families. I preferred to have the same caliber of information available to parents as is available to professionals.

Deborah Gray is the author of Attaching in Adoption, a comprehensive and knowledgeable overview of the causes, diagnosis and treatment of attachment issues of adopted children.