When a child comes into your foster/adoptive home, they may have already lived in several different homes with many, ever changing adults taking care of them. The lack of steady, reliable caregiver in their life can cause the child to have trouble learning to trust people. While a foster child of any age can have an attachment disorder, my own experience has only been with infants, so that is what I will discuss here.
An attachment disorder usually occurs when the child has not been nurtured at all during his young life, or when the child has lived in so many different places that he has never learned to trust in one stable, nurturing influence. No one has ever cared for him long enough to learn his body language and individual needs. The faces he see change too often for him to learn to ‘attach’. As a defensive mechanism, the child simply turns inward and refuses to be comforted by anyone.
When a child comes into a foster/adoptive home, the parents automatically want to nurture the child. In their more mature minds, they know bonding needs to take place for them to be able to effectively meet the needs of the child. The child with an attachment disorder, however, does not have a mature enough thought process to understand this. He only knows that people come and go, and it’s not safe to love and trust anyone. The young infant has never learned the security that lies in the arms of a consistent caregiver. It can be very frustrating for both the parent and the child.
An infant with an attachment disorder will stiffen, scream, and/or push you away when you try to hold him. He will not turn to you when he is hungry or cold or sick. He will not respond to your love or to your gentle discipline. He will fight and cry where an infant who was loved and cared for from birth will settle and quieten. In the middle of the night, when you are both tired, you may finally win the battle in getting the child to sleep, but you will not have the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing the child needed you, but will be left with the feeling that you have only outlasted the child, who finally succumbed to his need for sleep.
All is not lost, however. A young infant, much more so than an older child, still has within him the ability to attach, and while it may take a lot of work, and will not have exactly the same results as a child who is nurtured by you from birth, it is still a rewarding, worthwhile endeavor to make the effort.
While the child may not want you to just cuddle and rock him, you may be able to get him to sit in your lap while the two of you play with a toy. Don’t be disheartened if it only lasts a very short time. Play as long as he will let you hold him. While you play, stroke his back, rub his hair, and touch his hands and feet. Talk quietly and happily to him. When he is ready to get down, don’t try to prolong it, but let him down. If the child will not sit in your lap right away to play, sit in front of him with a toy. When he is well distracted with it, move slowly around so that you are sitting close enough to lean against him a bit. Every chance you get, touch the child gently.
Even a baby with attachment disorders will sometimes like to be carried. Try a sling or a backpack. Use it as often as possible, and talk and sing to the child while you are carrying him around.
If he will not let you rock him to sleep, try laying him down, then stand over his bed and rub his back for a few minutes as he drinks his bottle. Sing him a lullaby, maybe the same song every night, so he will learn to expect it.
Routines are very good for a baby with trouble trusting and attaching. Let them learn that you are always there, and they can count on that. Don’t plan any trips or weekends away from him for several months. Leaving him can cause major set backs. If you work, take as much time off as you possibly can, or better yet, quit your job if possible, so the child can learn to know you. The mental well being of this child is more important than any material things you can give him beyond what he needs to be warm, fed and clothed.
Have fun with the baby. Play with him a lot. Take him places that children like to go: the park, or the zoo. Make sure it’s somewhere where the two of you will interact, rather than somewhere that he will simply be entertained. It won’t be like taking a child who already trusts you places, but remember that you are working towards a goal.
It will be hard to take this child in public at times. If he gets upset and you are unable to comfort him, bystanders will not understand why. They may look at you with disapproving faces because you cannot keep your child under control. It can hurt or embarrass you. Realize that is all part of the process. Hold up your head, and remind yourself that you are working with God in the life of this child, to help him understand that the world is not always a cold, lonely place to be. Give the disapproving person a smile, and don’t let it make you lose sight of what you are trying to accomplish. If your attitude is right, the child will not feel frustration from you, and that will be good for him.
It may take weeks, or even months. Learn to evaluate your progress in small steps. Did the child sit in your lap willingly? Did he lean his head on your shoulder? That is a huge accomplishment. When he got hurt, did he look for your face? Even better, did he run to you? That’s an even bigger accomplishment.
Sometimes, as the child learns to trust you, they will go through a belated separation anxiety. If you are out of their sight, they will get scared and cry for you. Their cries for “Momma” will sound every time you step around the corner. You may become the only person they will let hold or comfort them. While that can be frustrating in itself, see it as a major step. They have learned to trust that there is at least one person in their little world they can count on. Give them the emotional support that they need, and give it cheerfully. They are just a little delayed in their journey to becoming emotionally secure. That’s okay.
One day, you will suddenly realize that you have done it; the child is attached in a healthy way, and acts just like a normal child acts. With your patience and parenting instinct, you have healed a child, and helped him learn to trust. You can now heave a sigh of big relief, and have the rest of their growing up years to enjoy them. It’s a beautiful reward for you both!