It can be difficult for an adopted child to easily adjust themselves to their new adopted parents. Many previous experiences have led an adopted child to develop attachment issues, which can make bonding with the adopted family challenging. To help understand reasons that many adopted children have attachment issues and what adopted parents can do to help their adopted child overcome those attachment issues, I have interviewed therapist Linda Webster, PhD.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I received my Ph.D. from UC, Berkeley and I am a licensed psychologist. I worked for several years for Contra Costa County Adolescent and Child Outpatient services where I became interested in gaining a better understanding of the function of the problematic and disturbing behavior that many foster children presented with. As a result, I obtained additional training and education on attachment theory and measures from such leaders in the field as Carol George, Judith Solomon, Mac West, June and Alan Sroufe, and Elizabeth Carlson. I currently specialize in the assessment of emotional and behavioral disturbances associated with disrupted and dysregulated attachment.”
What are some reasons that many children who are adopted have a difficult time attaching themselves to their adopted family?
“With the exception of some of the children who have experienced extreme deprivation in the Romanian orphanages, most adopted children do form attachments to their adoptive families. Many, however, continue to bear the scars of neglect, abandonment, and abuse. The longitudinal research that is available suggests that when maltreated children are adopted early into caring, sensitive and responsive homes, they can and do develop secure attachments to their caregivers. Security occurs when caregivers are sensitive and responsive to the needs of the infant or child, and the child learns that the world is a safe place where they can communicate freely with caregivers about their needs. Security is considered a “protective” factor in that it helps to protect individuals against the development of behavioral and emotional difficulties. The research suggests however, that early abuse is not “erased” and the psychological scars often remain. What appears to happen with older, “late-adoption” children, is that they have developed expectations about relationships based upon their past experiences of child maltreatment, and they bring these expectations to their new relationships. They then act in ways that recreate earlier patterns of behavior; which serves to confirm their beliefs that adults are not trustworthy and they themselves are not worthy of care and love. They expect to be rejected, and they act in ways that result in their actually being rejected. Well-meaning, but naÃ¯ve adoptive parents can find themselves enmeshed in frustrating battles and power struggles. Adoptive parents need to remind themselves that their child’s behavioral problems are survival skills that she developed as a result of their earlier experiences of neglect and abuse. These behaviors will decrease as a sense of safety increases, and should not be addressed with anger, rejection, withdrawal of love, or shame. The function of attachment is protection, and thus, the attitudes of the adults must be based on acceptance, empathy, and protection, and should never involve coercion, threat, intimidation, or the use of power to force submission. (This is good advice for both adoptive as well as biological children.)”
What type of impact can not attaching to the adopted family has on a child’s overall life?
“It is important for adults to understand that many maltreated children have not developed adequate emotional self-regulation skills, and thus the adult’s emotional self-regulation abilities must serve as a model for the child. The adult is the one that must take “the high road” and not allow themselves to get caught up in the child’s re-enactment. A child’s brain develops as a function of the external regulation that a primary caregiver provides over time. In most homes, when a baby cries, the mother or father responds promptly to the cries, and addresses whatever they determine to be the source of the baby’s discomfort. They do not allow the baby to experience feelings of being upset or frightened for very long. This is what is meant by “external regulation.” Gradually, as the baby’s brain develops, they are increasingly able to take over more and more of their own regulation. They learn to problem-solve, calm themselves, distract themselves, etc. Parents from homes where the child is being maltreated, either through neglect or abuse, are not provided with this “external regulation.” Their brain develops around the lack of care and they don’t learn how to calm themselves, problem-solve, etc. Once the brain develops around a lack of regulation, it becomes resistant to change (not that it cannot change).”
“Children who have been abused, either physically or sexually, learn that adults are hurtful and cannot be trusted. It is extremely difficult for them to allow themselves to become close to caregivers, and they often are quite manipulative in their attempts to maintain control of relationships. To them, being close means that they will be hurt. A large number of studies have found an association between parental harsh treatment and later conduct problems. Harsh, chaotic treatment by caregivers leads to interpersonal alienation and anger, a lack of internalized empathy, and impulse control problems due to early dysregulation. These children engage in disruptive, oppositional, and aggressive behaviors. Such behavior prompts further anger and harsh treatment from parents, and alienates teachers and peers, leading to further rejection and social withdrawal.”
“Children who have experienced neglect often have difficulties with authority as they have frequently been left on their own to do whatever they want. They often haven’t received much in the way of cognitive or emotional stimulation, and thus can exhibit difficulties in learning at school and in peer relationships. Finally, children who have experienced psychological abuse have been shown in longitudinal studies to have the poorest outcomes, with behavioral, emotional, and cognitive difficulties.”
What can the adopted family do to help the child overcome their attachment issues?
“One of the most important things for adults to have is an accurate and contextualized psychological understanding of the child’s mind. It’s easy for parents to take their adopted child’s behaviors personally or to give the behavior malevolent meaning. The adults must constantly strive to have empathy for the child and to never forget that, given her history, she is doing the best that she can. It is also important for adults to realize when their own needs (for example, needs to be loved and appreciated by the child) interfere with their ability to respond appropriately to their adopted child. These children cannot be expected to meet adult’s needs; the adult is there to meet their needs, and should attempt to do this in the most caring and therapeutic way possible. Regular consultation with a mental health professional can help parents develop a more contextualized understanding of their child’s behavior, and can help them develop appropriate strategies to effectively manage their child’s unwanted behavior, while increasing desired behavior.”
What last advice would you like to leave for an adopted family who wants their adopted child to overcome the attachment issues?
“Therapy is often an important component of helping these children get back on a pathway of normal development. Young children often need what is known as “play” therapy, and even some older children who have experienced significant abuse or neglect may respond best to play therapy. They are often resistant to traditional talking therapy, but they will communicate through the medium of play or art. A therapist who is trained in play therapy can then help gently guide the child through the containment, resolution, and integration of their abusive experiences. My research (along with others’) has shown that this process of resolution is crucial for normal functioning.”
Thank you Dr. Webster for doing the interview. For more information about Dr. Linda Webster check out her website on www.psychotherapy-institute-ca.com.
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