From Our Inbox: Adoption and Attachment…Are we making enough progress?


Signs and symptoms of attachment strain or disorder can look different at particular ages and stages of development and  with different degree of issue.   This can make assessing progress tricky.   We recently  received an interesting email question relating to assessing attachment in a toddler.  Read the email and our response below.

From our inbox:

Hi –

I’m currently completing the Because They Waited course.  I’m wondering if you would help me think through how to evaluate my daughter’s behavior.  She has been home with us for 13 months.   She arrived home at the age of 6 months (on paper);  we feel she was probably closer to 8 to 9 months when we brought her home.  She has always been very interactive, social and very observant of her surroundings.  (To the point that others will comment on those qualities.)  I wondered initially if her behavior was a way of coping with stress, anxiety, her situation (orphanage care setting), overstimulation, etc.  We were very conscious of our parenting and pulled her close.  I’m a SAHM and she has had very infrequent childcare other than her parents and always for short periods of time in our home.

Two to three months after arriving home, she began to become “clingy” and to show a preference for Mom.  I spent the better part of a couple of months holding her or carrying her during that time.   She was cautious of strangers visiting and would refuse to go to family members at family gatherings, in preference of Mom.  She seemed to go through periods of stranger or separation anxiety at about 12  and 18 months.

Now – after 13 months home – she is a very social and outgoing toddler.  She will initiate social contact with others (children and adults), even in unfamiliar surroundings.  (Sometimes more so in new environments, which has caused me to wonder if I’m seeing an internal alarm reaction).  She has held her hands up to strangers and has once or twice tried to go to a neighbor or distant family member after having fallen.  In other areas, she is affectionate with her parents;  does check in with us visually when walking ahead of us or entering a playgroup;  asks for Mom and Dad (Mom especially) at bedtime.

We have felt that her attachment is progressing positively, but wonder if we should be concerned about the “social butterfly” behavior.   She is definitely more socially interactive than other children her age that I’ve observed.   Would you help me think through how to evaluate this and/or what more to do if we feel more attachment work is needed?


Anonymous Mom

My response:

Dear Anonymous Mom,

What great questions you pose!  I certainly cannot comment with any certainty on your daughter’s behaviors, considering I have never met her and I’m not a therapist, but your email does bring to mind several things I would like to share.

First I think the behaviors you describe are excellent examples of how each of the signs and symptoms of attachment strain can look differently and change over time depending on the age and stage of the child and where that child is currently on the attachment continuum.  It also reminds us that attachment is a journey that has a natural ebb and flow which can also make behaviors and changes in behavior hard to figure out.

It sounds like you are concerned about her “social butterfly” behavior even though you do see some progress.  From the behavior you describe I would tend to agree with your assessment.  Sounds like there might be some understandable attachment strain.  It also sounds like you have already made some good progress in working on this and parenting it well.

As tempting as it is to need someone to tell you definitively where your child is on the attachment continuum and to assure you that you are making progress, the reality is that the best thing you can do about attachment is to continue to parent in ways that address attachment needs.  That of course means most importantly that you continue to be a pull close parent who is meeting her needs.  I’m glad to hear that she went through a clingy phase and that she does show preference for parents most times.  These are positive signs that are likely the result of your parenting.

Also, whether my child had attachment issues or not I would always correct the behavior of going to strangers or neighbors, etc.  for comfort.    That can be difficult especially with well intentioned strangers or neighbors who think her behavior is cute.   Your story reminds me of my own daughter’s behavior early on in her attachment process.   I remember her climbing onto the librarian’s lap at story time and kissing the Applebee’s hostess goodbye when she gave her a balloon.  I also remember how uncomfortable those behaviors made me, and how hard it was to peel her off these people who were almost always gushing over her.  Long story short I became very vigilant about preventing such things.  I held her hand when entering social situations.  I reached for the balloon first from the hostess and never allowed the too friendly face to face interaction that would trigger my daughter’s behavior.  I also pointed out appropriate displays of affection in real life and books and movies.  “Oh look!  That baby scraped her knee.  Her Mommy is kissing her boo boo.  That’s Mommy’s job to take care of that baby!”  That being said, addressing these behaviors  and teaching specifics about relationship helps but does not minister to the real issue.  Needs meeting parenting over time is the  only real fix for moving kiddos along the attachment continuum.

Your story also reminds me of an interaction I had with a friend recently.  I was at a sports event and sitting in the stands with my friend and her daughter.  The daughter was adopted internationally at about the same age as your daughter but now is 6 or 7 years old.  The little girl barely knows me and yet she was acting very familiar and social with me.  At one point she colored a picture and wrote “I love you,” on it.  She gave it to me with a hug.  I immediately thanked her for the picture but also pointed out very matter-of-factly that she did not love me because she barely knew me and that hugs were for families and close friends that you really knew well.  Again, I wasn’t harsh, just matter of fact and then I changed the subject back to praise of the picture she had drawn.  Later when the daughter was off with her father the mother thanked me for my response and told me it was such a relief to spend time with someone who “got it” instead of others who encouraged her daughter’s indiscriminate affection.  Unfortunately it isn’t always easy to surround yourself with people who “get it.”

As for deciding what to do if you do need more work on attachment the first step is to regularly and honestly dialogue with your spouse (or someone else close to your family) about your daughter’s  progress.  This will help you to determine if real progress is being made.  As long as you are making progress and her behaviors are not severe (remember to think frequency, duration, degree) good parenting is really the most important thing.  If you decide she has stopped making progress or is regressing consistently (not the normal ebb and flow) you should seek professional help with a therapist skilled in attachment work.  Again, I can’t say definitely since I have never met your daughter, but it sounds like this is not currently the case as she is still quite young, you are parenting in needs meeting ways, you are the primary caregiver, and you are seeing progress.  Make sure if you do get to a place where you decide to consult a professional that you look back at the tips for choosing a therapist in the Because They Waited system.

Hope some of these suggestions help.  Hang in there, keep up the good work, and keep sticking  close to that kiddo! :>)


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2 Responses to “From Our Inbox: Adoption and Attachment…Are we making enough progress?”

  1. Camie Stamper Says:

    I have been involved with Heart of the Matter Seminars since before we adopted our daughter in 2004. My husband and I have done so many things you have recommended. And, quite frankly, don’t know how we would have traveled this journey without you! Our daughter was a toddler when she came home. Now, 6 years later, we are still seeing issues with attachment and bonding. Most recently my concerns have centered around school. Our daughter is very affectionate and loving to EVERYONE. I am wondering what and how to set boundaries with people at school. She knows these people well because she is with them daily but is it appropriate for her to hug them all the time? I’d love to hear you thoughts on this issue as I have great respect for your opinion. Thank you for all you!

    • Julie Drew Says:

      Hi Camie!
      Thank you so much for your kind words! And you are so right about setting boundaries! Indiscriminate affection can be hard to manage when kids are at school. This is one of those things that I would talk about with her teacher and explain. While it might be fine for her to hug a teacher she spends each day all day with, that is certainly different than hugging “everyone” as you put it. Ask the teacher for help with this by giving him or her words to say when your daughter’s boundaries become fuzzy. Your goal is that when your child is at school the teacher is supplying the words and boundaries that you would be supplying if she were at home. So when the adult your child barely knows comes into the classroom and your child reaches for a hug the teacher automatically suggests a smile and a wave instead of a hug. You could also encourage the teacher to share with the adults that your child interacts with somewhat regularly but does not actually know well that this is a problem area for her. This will hopefully help them not to inadvertently encourage the behavior.
      Hope that helps a bit!

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