Dear Daughter: Explaining Attachment to My Child

July 9, 2018 Attachment, attachment activities, attachment challenges, Kelly, parent-to-child attachment, Trust Based Parenting 7 Comments

Parents talk about a lot of things with other parents. You know that already. Talking while we drink coffee together, talking over the phone, commenting on each other’s blog posts, commenting back and forth with friends on Facebook —believe it or not, all of that can help us help each other learn how to be better parents. And, that’s a good thing because we really do want to be better parents.

One of those things parents who have kids they have adopted talk a lot about is something called attachment. It’s kind of a big word that refers to big things. And, big words that mean big things are often hard for us parents to explain to our kids.

But, you know what? We should try to explain it anyway because you are the one who makes it important to us.

Try to imagine a baby… what do babies need? There are so many things, right? Milk.
Food.
A blanket to keep them warm.
Some place safe to sleep.
Clothes.
Medicine when they are sick.
Diapers… and diaper changes!

Of all those things, what might they need most of all? A grown up! They can’t get any of those things they need by themselves.
What do babies do when they need something? They cry. Crying is how babies say, “I need something! I need something! Something’s not just right.” And when a baby cries, a good mom or dad saves the day and brings a bottle of milk or a cozy blanket and then the baby is calm again and can sleep peacefully again.



Babies cry for milk when they are hungry or for a blanket when they are cold, but they cry about other things too. They might cry when there are crashes of thunder or when they see something for the first time and don’t know what it is and wonder if they are safe. They might cry when they feel lonely inside and just want to be held. After all, babies shouldn’t be alone. Every time they cry, it’s like they are saying, “Mama! Daddy! I need you! I don’t want to be alone! Make me feel better!” And when a baby cries, a good mom or dad saves the day and holds their baby tight and whispers in her ear, “It’s okay. You’re safe. I will take care of you.”

Crying then fixing.
Crying then helping.
Crying then making everything better.

Do you see that pattern? How many times do you think that pattern may happen every day for a baby? 5 times a day? 10 times a day? Try hundreds of times a day! So, so many times! When that pattern happens over and over again every day, a baby learns some super important things about who she is and how the world works. She learns that she matters and that big people take care of little people.

Not every baby gets a good start like this though. Some babies may cry to say, “I need something! I need something! Something’s not just right,” and no one comes right away to fix it.

Maybe when that little baby cries, sometimes grownups come and fix the problem and sometimes they don’t, making a pattern that is not really a pattern at all. That little baby might be wonder about who he is and if he really matters and feel confused about how the world works.

Some babies may have had a big goodbye with the mommy whose belly they grew in and now other grownups are in charge of taking care of her. When she cries to say, “I need something! Help me!” a grownup comes and fixes the problem, but that grownup is one of a bunch of grownups who do that job. Her problems might get fixed — she gets fed, her diapers are changed, she gets wrapped in a blanket when she’s cold.

But, sometimes she’s helped by a nice lady with glasses who snuggles her a little before putting her back in her crib.
Sometimes she’s helped by an older lady who gets the job done and doesn’t have time to give her anything extra.
Sometimes she’s helped by someone who doesn’t like their job at all and has a mean-sounding voice.
Sometimes she’s helped by someone who believes she’s perfect and checks on her first even if other babies who have needs too are crying.

Even though her problems are getting fixed, this pattern is confusing too… so confusing for a little baby. This baby may have a harder time learning that she matters and that she can trust with a deep-down kind of trust, that this world is a safe place, and that big people take care of little people.

God makes us to need each other. Did you know that God makes babies’ eyes only able to see about 12 inches away at first? When babies are nursing from their mamas or drinking a bottle, the distance between their eyes and their grownups’ eyes is 12 inches. So, a whole lot could be going on all around him, but a new baby is only able to focus on his mama’s or his daddy’s eyes.

It’s like God is saying to babies right from the start, “Psssttt… pay attention to this person. This grownup will be who helps you make sense of everything.” That’s attachment.

When that doesn’t go well for a little one, because the grownup doesn’t give that baby what he or she needs or the pattern is messy and confusing, as that baby grows into a little boy or a little girl, he or she might have a harder time than other kids with some things. It could be hard to let a grownup be in charge. It could be hard to give and receive help and affection. It could be hard to ask for what he or she needs. It could be hard to trust that he or she is safe. It could be hard to know deep down that you matter and that you are wonderful. There could be lots of hards for little kids and even for big kids who didn’t have the best attachment early on.



We’re still learning what your hards are… and what all my hards are too. I’m so glad that I get to be your grownup — not just a grownup who takes care of you but your grownup, here for good, your not-going-anywhere grownup. I wanna help you with all those hards and give you the best attachment I can – despite all those hards – so that you can learn you are the most wonderfulest wonderful. And that you can rest because I want to and am able to take care of you.




7 responses to “Dear Daughter: Explaining Attachment to My Child”

  1. Kim says:

    This is the best description I have ever read about attachment and what the lack of it does to our children. My daughter is 14 and came to us at the tender age of 10 months. I foolishly believed that she would “forget” her life in the orphanage but quickly learned that I was wrong. She didn’t even cry anymore when we adopted her, though she did learn to cry eventually, and we made sure we answered her every. single. time. Thanks for this post!

  2. Tricia Kelly says:

    Kelly, this is wonderful!! Yes, we definitely need to talk about attachment issues with our kids.
    The only thing I would add is that while your scenarios would encompass many adoption stories, there are times when a baby goes straight from the birth mom and delivery into the arms of the adoptive mom, and there are still usually many attachment issues. I don’t understand all the physiology of that (although I’m trying to research it.)
    I just love this though!! You are super at putting big concepts into concise, simple packages. I appreciate that a lot.
    Thank you for sharing!!

    • Tricia, you are right. Perhaps I need to write a follow up post for children like her. And maybe one for teenagers…though it really wouldn’t be much different.

    • Ellen r Wylie says:

      My eyes have soooo been opened by Karyn Purvis- The Connected Child book. Our 14 yr old daughter is from China and our soon to be 9 yr old duughter will also be from China.

    • Marisa says:

      So sad to think about any baby having to feel this way and a great way to explain it. I don’t have any adopted children but I do have a step child that I didn’t come into her life until she was 12. My husband has a hard time understanding the difference between our children and my step daughter. I try to explain to him that I love her just as much but in a different way just as her live for me and her mother differs. I wasn’t there to nurse her or change diapers it kiss boo boos. I wasn’t there for all those things so the attachment is different for us that it is for my own biological children, not less, just different. As for your question about what the difference is between biological parents and adopted parents noatter the point they came into your life, I believe has to do scientifically with pheromones. Babies know their biological or even none biological mother’s smell ( in the case of surrogacy) as well as the sound of their voice. They spent 9 months usually with their mothers. My kids both came out crying and as soon as they were handed to me, who didn’t offer food or anything other than myself they stopped. I believe due to smell. Smell is the longest sense we have tied to our memory. Therefore what u believe to be the difference and possible issues that some may have with attachment. Wonderful mommies for being there for these babies whether biological, or adopted. Hats off to you all. Thanks for the insight.

  3. Amy says:

    Thank you for this beautiful explanation!

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