Benjamin had experienced more trauma by age two than many adults go through in their whole lifetime. He had survived incredible, life-threatening starvation. His mother, who was born in India, had abandoned him, and he had lived in multiple orphanages. His life was immersed in filth and poverty—not only environmental poverty, but emotional and psychological impoverishment.

At two-and-a-half, Benjamin was handed to his American adoptive parents at the Detroit airport by a stranger whose only contact with him was caring for him on a long-distance flight.

Upon arrival, Benje exhibited behaviors typical of children with attachment distress or disorder. He became rigid when his parents attempted to cuddle him. He would not make eye contact with them.

Just like Benje, hundreds of children (from U.S. adoptions as well as overseas) enter their adoptive homes exhibiting behaviors that are foreign to their new families. For parents who adopt infants, it is important to understand the process of attachment in those early crucial months. For parents adopting children who have experienced more than one significant caregiver in their early life, it is critical to understand how the dynamics of attachment can affect their relationship with the child in the initial stages of adjustment and beyond.

As parents understand the significance of attachment and recognize symptoms of attachment distress or disorders, they can create a positive, accepting environment for their newest family member.

Building attachments in the adoptive home

Jennifer slumped onto the couch, exhausted. It was her husband’s turn to walk the baby. Their new son, two-month-old Jonathan, had been in their home for only one week. Arriving from Honduras, he had not adjusted to any schedule. His days and nights were confused and all he would do was cry.

“I really don’t think I am cut out to be a mother, “Jennifer remarked to Jodie, another adoptive mom who had stopped in for a visit. “I feel so frustrated and angry with this child.”

Jodie got up, walked over to the couch, and sat down next to Jennifer.

“I know it’s difficult,” Jodie empathized. “I’ve been there. He is still a stranger who won’t let you rest, isn’t he? You haven’t fallen in love with him yet.”

Jennifer looked at Jodie with an incredible sense of relief. Torn with guilt, frazzled by exhaustion, Ted and Jennifer felt anything but love for this child. Worst of all, they felt like complete failures. They didn’t realize that a very important process was taking place, but it was only in its infancy. That process was attachment—the deep sense of belonging to each other.

Why is attachment so important?

Attachment has been defined as the psychological connection between people that permits them to have significance to one another.

Attachment, according to psychologist Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, is a learned behavior that begins shortly after birth and continues during the first three years of life.

Attachment occurs over time and involves a consistent activity on the part of the parent to meet the physical and emotional needs of the child. The capacity to form new attachments after the age of three is quite possible, but is affected by three factors: the child’s own genetic disposition, the conditions and circumstances under which the child is taught, and the child’s teachers. Attachment is the foundational core of any intimate relationship. Secure, early attachments create a rich treasury of important life functions. Attachment enables the child to develop a sense of safety and security. Eventually, it gives rise to other crucial functions such as socialization, stimulation of intellectual development, and identity formation, according to Vera Falhberg, pediatrician and specialist in the field of adoption attachments. Dr. Falhberg also cites other long-range effects of attachments:

  1. Helps a child to sort out perceptions of the world in which he lives
  2. Encourages the development of logical thinking
  3. Develops social emotions in a child
  4. Cultivates the formation of a conscience
  5. Helps an individual cope with stress, frustration, worries, and fears
  6. Fashions an appropriate balance between dependence and independence
  7. Sets the stage for the unfolding of healthy future relationships

How does attachment occur?

Attachment is reciprocal in nature as the relationship between parent and child grows. It develops as the infant initiates a need and the parents respond. As the child’s physical and emotional needs are consistently met by the same caregiver (usually parents), the child learns that he or she is safe, secure, and can trust this responsive person. Attachment is created through the consistency of the caregiver’s response to the child’s needs and the child’s reception of these positive messages.

Attachment responses in adopted infants

Children adopted as infants display little difference in their quality of attachment from non-adopted infants, reports Dr. David Brodzinsky, noted psychologist and author. Adopted mother-infant pairs tend to look almost exactly like biological pairs. Differences don’t show up until infants are past the age of six months.

A psychiatrist at the University of California at Irvine, Dr. Justin McCall studied the adjustment behaviors of infants moving to an adoptive home. McCall noted that in the first six months of life, distress manifests itself in greater or lesser degrees as eating and/or sleeping difficulties, spitting up, chronic diarrhea, and crying for no reason. Extreme cases can result in the development of failure to thrive—a psychological condition in which an infant loses the will to live.

McCall’s continuing observations of infants past the age of six months show that these children have developed a more advanced way of signaling distress, including: “searching behaviors as though looking for his caretaker; uncontrollable crying, withdrawal, uninterested in playing or eating, clinging behavior, lack of vitality, frequent weight loss or illness.”

Even though some infants do manifest such behavioral difficulties, Dr. Brodzinsky notes that children are generally incredibly resilient. “In fact,” he comments, “the evidence suggests that the great majority of these children adjust quite normally.”

As the child grows

Infant Attachment: A Crucial Life Need

Ted and Jennifer fortunately learned early that building attachments with their precious new son was a process. It involved many of the following behaviors:

  1. Enjoying physical contact with the infant: holding, rubbing, cuddling, stroking, kissing.
  2. Developing face-to-face contact, particularly emphasizing eye contact.
  3. Responding and repeating a child’s vocalizations and verbal expressions.
  4. Using a gentle tone of voice.
  5. Learning appropriate age-development skills for the child and working with the youngster in mastering them.
  6. Looking for and identifying characteristics of the child that remind them of themselves or extended family members.

How can adoptive parents know that their efforts to create attachment between themselves and their infant are succeeding? According to specialists in this area, a measure of successful attachment can be monitored by the parents’ sensitivity to the child’s need signals, their initiation in responding to those signals, their confidence in meeting the child’s needs, and the child’s responsiveness to them. Another prime indicator of strong attachment is the child’s positive response upon returning to the parents following a brief separation.

If adoptive parents recognize symptoms of attachment distress or deficit in their infant or toddler, professional guidance may be required. Therapists who specialize in such difficulties work with the child and the parents in establishing this essential emotional and psychological need.

Adapted from The Whole Life Adoption Book by Jayne E. Schooler. Published by Pinon Press. Copyright © 1993 by Jayne E. Schooler. Used with permission.