Attaching to Alex takes all Mom's skills


Carol Bolton
Focus on Adoption magazine

Adoptive mom Carol Bolton describes how she struggled but succeeded in developing an attachment relationship with one of her newly-adopted sons.

Last year, we adopted our two sons. Though siblings, the boys had been placed in different foster homes and barely knew each other.

David, aged two, was placed five days after birth with foster parents who were very experienced and knew how to transition a child to a new family. David moved in with us first and the process went very smoothly.

When Alex, aged four, joined us about a month later, it wasn’t half as easy. He was very insecurely attached to his foster parents and this manifested itself in constantly demanding to be lifted and carried, demanding attention from any new adult, and an inability to share the stage with other children.

Some of the behaviour that we saw in Alex--hitting, throwing, ripping sheets off his bed, and pulling clothing out of his drawers--had already been evident in his foster home. He also had huge tantrums at naps and bedtime.

Alex’s expressive language was delayed, and his attention span was so poor that his foster mother said that he couldn’t sit still long enough to read even one short book.

It took everything I had learned over the years, and more, to help Alex. I also met with a counsellor who has focused specifically on parenting and attachment.

In young children, healthy attachment is fostered through the following things: the senses (smell, sight, hearing and touch); sameness (appearance, gestures, viewpoints); belonging (expressed through loyalty) and significance. We used this knowledge to help Alex attach to us, and us to him.

Expressing belonging and significance to a child without initially focusing on the senses or sameness can result in either resistance to attachment, or an insecure attachment in a child.

We focused on sameness by pointing out when we liked the same food, were both wearing jeans, or were doing the same activity. We found as many ways as possible to declare, “We’re the same!”

Hugs, kisses, and comfort offered in response to a specific situation won’t satisfy the overall attachment needs of a child, only of the moment. So, I started giving Alex hugs at unexpected moments, and played games where I became a kiss monster and would catch both boys and cover them with kisses, and repeatedly tell them how lucky I was to have two such wonderful boys.

In his first weeks, Alex’s tantrums at naptime became increasingly volatile as his grief and anger began to show. To calm him down, I would sit down and sing or pray with him. Sometimes it took every ounce of energy I had, but I would start off like this, “Thank you, Jesus, for Alex. He is a wonderful boy, and I love him very much. Thank you for making us his Mommy and Daddy. Bless Alex and watch over him while he sleeps, and take care of him.” As soon as I’d say “Amen,” I’d hear a little voice, “Do it again, Mom.” We still do this. Sometimes, if it has been a particularly difficult day, Alex will request the prayer several times. The great thing about this is that it helps to remind me of how blessed I really am. If you don’t pray, you could do a “thank you” routine. This is especially important at bedtimes, when children face fears of separation. I also sing songs for the boys to their favourite tunes. At first, Alex rejected my vocal efforts with screams of anger. Now he requests them every night.

Another big problem we faced was that Alex’s foster parents had never explained that they weren’t his birth parents. To help with this difficult process, I made an adoption story with construction paper cutouts and printed script for him. When we first read it, Alex would either demand it several times, or refuse to listen.

Eight months after placement, Alex has torn sheets off the bed only once in the last three months, and he moves furniture and empties drawers only about once a month now. When he first came home, Alex could clear the table of any dishes and cutlery in three seconds flat. This, too has become a rare occurrence. He will now sit still for up to ten minutes--enough to read about four of his favourite books. His expressive language has grown dramatically, and he delights in using new words (“actually” was a favourite for two weeks).

Reaching this point was not easy; we had some huge setbacks, and Alex still needs a great deal of structure, guidance, and consistency. Still, the progress we have made has been remarkable.

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