It’s a buzz word. Outside the adoption world, people probably have heard it paired with the word parenting to refer to a lifestyle of co-sleeping with toddlers and discouraging mothers and fathers from the cry-it-out method to get their infants to sleep through the night. But, attachment at its core is way more than an “organic” parenting doctrine. We know that as adoptive parents. After all, attachment is likely somehow a part of every adoption-related book and every adoption training. We know it’s critical. But, we don’t always know why. Often, our understanding of it doesn’t go beyond knowing something’s broken and wanting strategies to fix it.
Understanding attachment means understanding how we are wired from the very start for connection and how those connections — the good and the not-so-good — impact how we learn to see ourselves and our world.
In the early part of the 20th century, experts saw attachment differently. They observed attachment between an infant and his mother but said that it was founded on food (the-way-to-a-child’s-heart-is-through-his-stomach idea). The child’s biological need for food morphs to a need for the one who meets that need, resulting in an attachment. By the 1950s, John Bowlby turned that theory upside down when he found that children in distress still demonstrated distress after competent, non-primary caregivers fed them. Their attachment wasn’t based on food; it was based on a relationship, a relationship that the child had come to associate with safety and security through his or her needs being met.
Babies are utterly dependent on caregivers for everything and are created in a way that gets caregivers to meet their needs. When babies experience a need, they cry. Caregivers respond and meet that need, and all is well with the world until the next need is felt. Babies and caregivers go through this cycle of felt need, expressing need, need met, felt safety literally hundreds of times a day when a tiny belly feels empty, when little arms he may not even know how to move yet feel cold, when her bottom is wet, when a loud noise scares him. As the child experiences this loop over and over and over again, he learns some very important life lessons that start simply with My caregiver meets my needs and grow to My caregiver is willing and able to help me. I am valuable and worthy of that help. When I get that help, life is good.
When those lessons are learned, that little baby learns to identify his needs and desires and how to express them. His brain develops the way it should as all the hormones related to stress and contentment fluctuate up and down as they should. She learns to self-regulate and wait for what she wants or needs because of the established trust and felt safety. And, she learns how to do relationships (empathy, give and take, vulnerability, forgiveness after mistakes are made) in ways she carries with her as she grows and her world gets bigger.
With all the focus on the child, we can easily see caregivers as static in this process; but, this cycle impacts them too. While the child is learning, his caregiver learns some things too: I am willing and able to help my child. I am valuable and worthy of that job. When I help my child, life is good for all of us.
Kids who came to us through adoption didn’t experience this the way they should have. For children who have lived life in part in an institutional setting, we may recognize those breaks in the relationship clearly. When she felt hungry, she cried and maybe someone came… but not for a while… and when they did, it wasn’t for very long. When his bottom was wet, he cried and he had to wait his turn. When there was scary thunder at night, maybe she was surrounded only by cribs with babies who were also scared. A child doesn’t have to be in an orphanage to experience breaks in this loop —neglect, abandonment, hospitalizations, persistent pain, foster care, unexpected goodbyes, etc. can cause breaks. A baby who experiences these kinds of starts learns a whole different set of lessons — My caregiver doesn’t really meet my needs. She isn’t willing and able to help me. I am not valuable and worthy of help. Life isn’t all that safe for me.
Relationships can look really different for this little one. Giving and receiving love — which is something he or she really needs — may feel too costly and hard. Letting someone else be in charge — also something he or she really needs — may feel too risky. They may live life on edge, expecting the worst and needing to be on the offense, ready for a threat. Noradrenalin and cortisol and serotonin levels (hormones in the brain related to aggression, impulse control, and emotion regulation) aren’t where they should be. It is with these patterns that she learns how to do relationships in ways she carries with her as she grows and her world gets bigger.
It’s in these patterns where we as parents feel that brokenness deeply because we want so badly to be what our children need. Yet, when our parenting seemingly comes up short, we can easily start hearing the messages: I am not able to help my child. I am not valuable and worthy of that job. Nothing is working.
Those messages are hard to hear because maybe we’ve heard something like them before. It’s not only our child’s history that matter; our history matters too. We are coming into this relationship as the caregiver on one side of the cycle having been on the other side ourselves, having received our own messages of value, worth, and the way the world works, having developed our own patterns of doing relationships because of those messages.
This is why we need strategies that help us to be better at building connection — for our children, for ourselves, for our families. Whether our kids are 3 months old, 13 years old or 30 years old, we need them. The attachment loop will look different than it does when we’re talking about infants, but it still applies. Our need for relationship and connection doesn’t magically end at age 3; it’s how we’re made and how we grow. The identified needs and expression of them are different. Our responses as caregivers are different. But the opportunity to send messages of safety and security, of value and hope – and receive the messages we need – remains.
Questions to consider:
• What messages (good and/or not so good) did you receive about yourself and the world around you growing up?
• What messages are you sending and what messages do you think your children are receiving from you as a parent? (note: they don’t always match up.)
• What messages do you want your children to be able to say they received from you?