Why do we want our kids to form attachments? Why is this issue so pivotal for adoptive families? Why are we even discussing attachment? Shouldn’t it be all about the trauma when you are fostering or adopting kids from hard places?
In my opinion the answer is yes and no. Yes, attachment is a key issue for our kids. No, it is not the only issue they face when coming into a new family. Trauma is huge for our kids. Not the kind of single-incident traumas such as car accidents or getting mugged. Our kids have faced traumatic experiences at the hands of the very people who were supposed to care for them and keep them safe.
Suffering abuse and neglect from a caregiver during the early years of life will affect other relationships. It doesn’t matter how you look at this kind of trauma. It understandably makes it hard to trust others. So often our kids get stuck in survival mode. They are used to looking out for themselves and that’s all they have space for. It makes it hard to empathize with others, because these kids are trying to ensure their very existence. At least, that’s what it feels like to them.
I was asked recently to explain why attachment is so important to adoptive families. Is it because we, as adults, demand affection from our children? Is it because we are seeking love on our own terms? I don’t really think so. Do we need proof that our children are “fixed?” Although it’s perfectly normal to hope our children will heal, or love us back, I don’t really believe this is the crux of the issue.
Building healthy relationships is key to having a fulfilling life. I believe we want to teach our children how to love, how to experience rewarding, reciprocal human connections. We want to enable them to feel love and safety in ways we sometimes take for granted. Does trauma need to be addressed? Of course. But it needs to be in the context of healthy connection with trustworthy loved ones.
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological and safety are the base of the pyramid. These needs must be met before the human can go on to meet other, higher level needs. The next one is relationships. It is a psychological need. According to Maslow it’s actually a step on the journey to self-fulfillment. And wouldn’t we want this for our children?
During our children’s time in foster care, they lived in separate homes. When they came together again, in their forever home, they had to repair their bond. It wasn’t easy. It took time to turn a survival-based relationship into one of mutual feeling. It took time for them to stop seeing others as a threat to survival. It took time to stop seeing family relationships as simply the means to an end in survival. It took time for them to learn to trust. (See “She Let Me Clean the Puke!” and Other Trauma Triumphs)
Last week we went to the fair. Mary and Carl rode on an elaborate ride that twirled them about in the air to the beat of loud music. She was terrified. As we watched the spinning forms of our children in the air, we saw something remarkable. Carl had his arm wrapped tightly around Mary. She leaned into him with her eyes shut. Later, when they got off of the ride Mary told us that she had been scared but Calr had helped her. He remarked, “I told her she was safe. I told her to just think about her happy place.”
Carl didn’t gain anything at all from helping Mary. He just loves her. He is just showing that his ability to love and care for others has grown. His sense of empathy astounds me. Mary trusted him to keep her safe and help her with coping skills. She is learning that human connection is safe and good.
So, why are we focusing on connection? Why should we care about attachment? I think the real question is: why wouldn’t we? I know that more than anything, we have given this to our children. We have given them the safety and love they need to form meaningful human connections. And that is worth everything.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
**Credit for picture of Maslow’s hierarchy: By FireflySixtySeven – Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36551248