9.18.2006

Attachment Myths

Myth: Infants, especially those adopted out of foster care, do not have attachment problems.

Every adopted child, regardless of the age at adoption, has suffered trauma: that of being separated from the birth mother. Many times, that single trauma is enough to produce attachment problems. Attachment therapists treat children whose adoptive parents were present at the birth.

Q: When newborns are placed with a foster family at birth, how can they miss their birth mother?

A baby's first attachment is to the biological mother. Research indicates that attachment develops throughout pregnancy. At birth, the child knows his mother's voice and her smell. His emotions, heartbeat, and respiration are regulated by hers. He believes that he and his mother are one. If this attachment or bond is broken, trust becomes an issue and the child may have difficulty forming a secure and healthy attachment to the foster/adoptive mother.

Myth: Babies don't remember.

Early memories are remembered by the body. Although a child may not consciously remember early trauma (including separation from the birth mother), the experience is difficult to erase because it is stored as a nonverbal/emotional memory in the body. Neurons in the heart, stomach, and other parts of the body can fire messages, effectively hijacking the thinking parts of the brain…especially if these memories took place before the child developed cognition skills. We have also experienced many moments that indicate that our children remember more than we give them credit for:

About 4 months after she came home, I was holding her and she was fussing sort of half-heartedly with her eyes closed. She did not like me to hold her in the cradle position, but I was gently insisting. After a while, I whispered to her, "Do you miss your omma?" She stopped fussing immediately. Her eyes snapped open. She looked at me for 2 or 3 seconds. I said it again. "Do you miss your omma?" She leaned her head back, opened her mouth and wailed. She screamed a bloodcurdling, heart-wrenching scream. She went on to weep for quite some time. It sent chills down my spine. I realized at that moment that babies DO remember. (a.7mo, FC)

My son, age 21 months, was having a pretty normal day and then suddenly became disobedient and challenging so I sent him to his thinking spot...that didn't go well. Once again, he wouldn't sit so I figured holding him was the way to go. He still doesn't talk much. I mean, he says lots of words, but certainly doesn't carry on a conversation. I was talking to him and trying to figure out what changed in his day -- then it hit me! I asked, "Did you get scared when Daddy mentioned taking away your bed?""Yeah." "What do you think would happen if we took down your crib?" "I go bye-bye." "Do you think that if your old bed goes away that you have to go too?" "Yeah." He'd overheard my husband suggesting that we take down his crib. He hasn't slept there for about six weeks. I'm glad we were able to talk it through, but it just makes my heart ache to know that's still his first thought--that he'll have to go. Poor kid. (a. 6mo, FC)

Myth: All They Need is Love!

Although love is inarguably what attachment disordered children need, the challenge is getting them to accept 100% of their parents' love. They are like tiny banks, desperately in need of deposits, that have put up signs saying, "Closed for business." Adoptive parents with attachment impaired children find it helpful to consider where their children are in the attachment process by asking, "Is my child willing to accept ALL my love?" When the answer is no, the task then becomes figuring out how to get the love in when the child shows resistance.

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