What is a "Attachment" and why are you so worried about it?

Ok folks, I'm about to talk about a very touchy subject. This is something that MOST families who are knee-deep in the adoption world are VERY familiar with, and if you are, I would LOVE for you to read this and add your thoughts in the comment section. I know that many of my blog readers are NOT connected in the adoption world, or are just beginning the process of adoption/fostering. I hope this post (and the others to come) will enlighten you a bit on what life will look like for us after we bring Israel home. We will need a lot of support and it will bless us greatly if you know what are appropriate ways to support us!


Adoption Parenting defines attachment as "a close, trusting tie between two people; or in particular, as the reciprocal relationship between an infant and her primary caregiver... Healthy attachment occurs when the infant experiences her caregiver as consistently providing emotional essentials such as touch, movement, eye contact and smiles, as well as the basic necessities such as food and shelter." (p.43).

Attachment, which is a big buzz word in the adoption community, is the connection that the child has with the parent- in which the child completely trusts the parents and allows the parents to meet the needs of the child. This is typically a natural process for biological children, but for adopted children (even a child adopted at day 1 in the hospital) have already experienced some major losses that can interfere with the attachment process. 

If you've had a biological child, think about it this way: from the moment you found out you were pregnant, you (probably) had positive emotional feelings towards your child. For 40-ish weeks of pregnancy, you took extra care of your body, talked to the baby, anticipated his arrival, etc. When the baby was born, you took care of his needs immediately- feeding, changing, bathing. Every time the baby cried you were probably there to meet its needs. From the beginning (conception) the baby knew that you loved it and even after birth, you met the needs the baby had.

Now let's think about (in general) institutionalized (orphanage-setting) children. Please note all of this is generalization, nothing is specific to Israel's story or meant to say that every institutionalized child comes from this background. In some cases, the events of conception could be traumatic (rape, etc) or the discovery of pregnancy could result in shame, abuse, and fear. The 40ish weeks of pregnancy could be very traumatic instead of peaceful and joy-filling. The birth could occur in a dangerous or unsafe setting, and the child's needs could be unmet by abandonment or malnourishment. Perhaps the child is moved to an orphanage, and then to another orphanage or foster home. Each time the child is moved to a new place, the child loses the connection with the previous one: loss of birth mother, loss of home, loss of familiarity. There is not one person consistently meeting needs.

Identifying these losses will not only allow us to be compassionate towards our kids, but understand why we have to rebuild trust. Our son has been in an orphanage almost his entire life. He has been passed around between special mothers, and although he is being very well fed and cared for, he does not have a primary caregiver like he would if he was in our home. His special mothers always care for multiple children at a time, and his needs may not be met immediately, like if he was in our home. Even when we do finally bring Israel home, there will be a huge loss for him- the culture of Ethiopia, the sound of Amharic speaking, the sights of brown skinned caregivers, the smells of Hannah's Hope. Everything will be completely new. He won't automatically know or trust us, even though we did spend four days with him in early March.

How Loss Affects Attachment

Institutionalized adopted children can deal with several emotions, all that lead to reactions. In Adoption Parenting, these emotions are listed as loss, rejection, guilt and shame, grief, mastery/control, identity and intimacy (p.7). If these emotions are not processed correctly (with the caregivers) then internal reactions occur. The way the parents help the children heal and meet the child's needs affects the attachment that they have.

 In the same book, pages 55-56 describe types of attachment:

Secure- able to engage with mom, and others. Upset when mom leaves but is happy when reunited. Able to develop trust, self-regulation, and self-reliance, healthy and meaningful relationships and coping skills for stress and frustration.
Anxious/Ambivalent- inconsolable when mom is gone, reunions with mom are resentful; resistant when mom initiates attention; afraid to explore surroundings or meet new people.
Insecure/Avoidant- avoids and ignores mom; treats mom same as strangers, doesn't express emotions and doesn't explore environment, finds ways to self-care and won't ask for help or show needs.
Insecure/Disorganized- scared of caregivers; acts rejected, alarmed; hurts others with little remorse.
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)- little conscience or fear of consequence, will hurt, life and steal without remorse, will not respond normally to nurturing or discipline.

The Big Deal
Karen Purvis wrote in The Connected Child: "Children raised in an impoverished orphanage setting without any primary caretaker at all can lack attachment skills entirely. These children may not have the basic moral compass that tells them not to hurt other people because they never got closely connected with another person." (p28).

At Created for Care, Amy Monroe said something beautiful: "The past affects the future but does not determine it." Just because Israel, and other institutionalized children, have had inconsistent settings from the beginning, and may currently have some attachment issues, the LORD can overcome their grief and heal their hearts.

Congrats if you made it through to the end of this post! Come back next time for a post on HOW to heal their hearts! (Based on research, not personal experience- as our son is not home yet.)


  1. Appreciate you sharing, Rebekah. I, too, did a lot of reading/researching before bringing our kiddos home. Some of it has been so very helpful as we draw closer to our kiddos and work at building trust. The larger part for me is remember that shepherding my child's heart (no matter if its a bio child or adopted child)is most important. It will look different for each child but thankfully, I know the ONE who created my child, knows their story and who grants wisdom to those who ask.

  2. I loved this! We have been home for 2 months now with Emme (from Ethiopia age3) and we are struggling with some areas of attachment. Emme will let anyone take care of her. She will even go up to a stranger at a park for help where as my bio kids wouldn't do that. She will just go up to them and grab their hand. She also calls any female that is caring for her (babysitters, aunts, grandma's) mom or mommy. It hurts. There are several other things that she does that is hard but we know God heals. And he redeems and it is a process. Though her abandonment will effect her future you are right it will not determine it. God has her heart and he will heal it. We cocooned for a while but not long enough. I HIGHLY recommend cocooning longer then we did. I love your blog and your heart! I always look forward to reading!! I can't wait to see Israel in your home!

  3. Cacooning is huge, but even if you can't stay home and limit over-stimulation, you can do your best to make sure no one else picks them up or holds them, feeds them, changes diapers, kisses boo boos, etc. Our daughter went to a small day care after 3 months home, and I asked that the same teacher do all of the feeding/changing and only picked her up when needed, etc. I think we had my dad and step-mom babysit once during the first 8 months home.I was also sure to intervene asap when she did interact with a stranger. I tried not to freak out, like when she walked right up to a stranger at a restaurant and let her place her on her lap (never mind what I wanted to say to that lady).I just picker her up and reminded her that we don't talk to strangers without mommy or daddy, etc. It takes time, but it will improve.

  4. This is so helpful! We are at the beginning of our Ethiopian adoption process, but it is never too early to learn. Thank you for teaching!


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