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The Subtle Signs of Troubled Attachment

angry childNot all children who join a family through adoption experience difficulty with attachment to their new family but the research shows that a majority of children who are adopted through foster care, domestically, or internationally experience some form of attachment strain.

Does that mean that the child is going to grow up to light the house on fire or be a mass murderer? No! There is a continuum of attachment from securely attached to unattached with lots of room in between. So what do we want to look for? What should alarm us? And what can we do about it? That is the six million dollar question and may require professional help but there are things that can be done until help arrives.

What are some subtle signs of troubled attachment?

  1. Precocious independence, a level of independence that is more often seen in older children.
  2. Difficulty discussing hurt feelings, though he or she will seek comfort when physically hurt.
  3. Overvaluing looks, appearances, and clothing. Boys are just as prone to this as girls.
  4. Sleep disturbances, night terrors, fear of sleeping alone.
  5. Difficulty with transitions and changes.
  6. Anxiety when the child does not know what the schedule is.
  7. Picking at scabs and sores, picking nose, plucking eyelashes.

The more changes in primary caregivers the child must experience, the more difficult bonding and attachment can be. Internationally adopted children (as well as those placed in foster care) experience at least two significant changes during their first few vital months of life that will impact later cognitive, social, and emotional development. Children in foster care may experience as many or more changes in caregivers and environments.

So what can help?

As a social worker working with foster families, I often talked with families whose children were hoarders of food or “stuff”. This hoarding most often arises from a feeling that the child’s needs won’t be met, and speaks volumes of neglect. Make snack drawer in the kitchen that belongs to that child and always available. I stocked a fanny pack with food and kept it full until my daughter did not need it anymore, though she does keep a stash of snacks still in her room.

While Super Nanny teaches “time out” or the naughty chair for misbehaving children, that is not the answer for our little ones who did not learn to modulate their emotions well. When your child acts out, scoop them up, bring them in and have them stay with you, draw, color, sing, talk, or just sit and watch TV until the storm has passed. Help them calm down. Don’t expect them to know how to calm themselves down. This is a learned skill.

Take every opportunity to baby your overly independent one. When my child is sick, I go way overboard checking her forehead, feeding her soup and crackers, sitting with her (or him). They both respond better to my love and nurturing at this vulnerable time and it carries over to those healthier moments.

Subtle signs are good reminders that our children have some attachment issues that we must address in a loving and responsive manner. Attachment is a function of reciprocal and responsive communication between the parents and the child. It is vital that the parents recognize and work toward an attuned connection with the child.