Faith-based organizations, church leaders, and Christian families across the country have propelled the orphan-care movement in the past decade, inspired by the repeated biblical command to “father the fatherless,” to take care of children who need our help.
Often, though, we associate orphan care with married Christians who can adopt children, who can welcome foster kids into their home, and who can afford to send hefty donations. Single Christians, even those who feel the issue of orphan care weighing heavy on their hearts, may resign to wait until they’re ready to start a family before they can live out this biblical call.
If you think you’re too young, too single, too inexperienced to do anything, I’m here to say: you can help right away.
While much attention has been given to the work of international adoption and setting up in-country orphan care overseas, we also have approximately 400,000 children in foster care in this country. The Christian Alliance for Orphanscalls them “social orphans,” noting that during the time children are in foster care they are without the support, protection, and provision of their biological parents.
U.S. government, adoption agencies seldom help; one family shares challenges of caring for daughter
NEW YORK – Amanda Alexander always wanted to adopt. In 2008, when her adoption agency sent a picture of a Russian girl who was available, Amanda fell in love.
The girl was almost 2, and the agency warned that she had a “developmental and speech delay.” Two years later, an American doctor also diagnosed the girl with fetal alcohol syndrome and severe attachment disorders.
Now 7 years old, Alexander says, the girl has attacked her mother and classmates and tried to cut out her tongue with scissors. In the last three years, she has been hospitalized nine times for psychiatric care.
The Alexanders sought help from schools, social workers and other parents. But they found there is little assistance available for parents of international adoptees, particularly when children have severe trauma and emotional problems.
Their situation reflects a quandary faced by adoptive parents across the United States. With high hopes and often at great expense, families have adopted needy boys and girls from orphanages overseas, only to realize after returning to America that the children have behavioral or psychiatric problems that hadn’t been diagnosed or disclosed.
Many parents are unprepared to handle the problems. Their adoption agencies often won’t help. And neither will the U.S. government. Amanda Alexander left a job in management to devote time to her daughter. The Alexanders travelled from Seattle to Virginia to meet specialists, amassed enormous medical bills and moved to a different state to get better care for her.
In response to the news agency’s findings, state and federal lawmakers are seeking measures aimed at stopping re-homing, and Russia and other nations are calling on the United States to account for what has become of international adoptees. Since the late 1990s, Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries, but no authority tracks what happens after those children arrive in the United States.
The Alexanders say giving their daughter to a stranger they met online would have been unthinkable. “It’s not something that we would ever do,” Amanda Alexander says.
But for parents who hold onto a troubled international adoptee, the way ahead can be grueling. Reuters interviewed about two dozen families with troubled children adopted abroad. They described how their children molested siblings, tried to crash their cars, pulled knives on them, killed or tortured animals, or took weapons to school. Many of the parents did not want their names to be published, in part because they say they worry about stigmatizing their families.
Amanda Alexander, 34, decided to speak publicly. “It has been really hard,” she says. “It’s completely changed our lives in every way.”
‘LEAP OF FAITH’
In 2008, the Alexanders made three trips to Russia. There, eight doctors evaluated the parents-in-waiting to see if they would be fitting caretakers. The Russian physicians listened to their hearts with stethoscopes, inquired about drug and alcohol use, even asked about their greatest fears. The exam seemed somewhat staged to the Alexanders, who say the doctors asked them to pay $800 each for the service. They obliged.
The trips were required to complete the adoption. On each journey, the Alexanders learned a little more about the toddler they hoped to take home. On the second visit to Russia, they recall learning that the girl had a heart condition; on the third, they discovered she also had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Amanda Alexander says she requested all of the girl’s Russian medical records but was told by the adoption agency, European Adoption Consultants, Inc. that she would receive them on the final trip to Russia. When she did get the records, they were in Russian and contained references to conditions including cerebral palsy and a heart issue that were not mentioned in the English paperwork that the Alexanders had initially received.
NEEDED MORE: The Alexanders say they are glad they adopted their daughter, but they wish they had known more about her medical conditions before bringing her home to the United States. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry
An attorney representing European Adoption Consultants, citing confidentiality agreements, said the agency could not comment on specific cases but that parents typically receive the full medical information from orphanages earlier in the adoption process.
After the family brought their daughter to her new home in Tennessee, the family took the girl for a battery of tests by American doctors. They discovered her heart condition was a benign murmur, and the cerebral palsy was mild. But the girl’s behavior was odd. She was hyperactive and would hit her head against her crib.
Doctors initially diagnosed her with ADHD. It would be another two years before Amanda learned that the girl had all the characteristics of fetal alcohol syndrome, along with child trauma and severe attachment disorders.
The Ohio-based adoption agency also offered no training and little information about the possibility of attachment issues, stating only that these were rare, the Alexanders say. Instead, the agency offered advice about travelling to the Moscow airport and how to declare money. The couple says they took it upon themselves to buy and read adoption and parenting books to prepare.
The executive director of European Adoption Consultants, Margaret Cole, said that training is part of the homestudy requirements, and the training includes “all the elements of parenting and adopting.” Cole did not respond to further requests to comment.
International standards recommend – and will soon require – that adoption agencies provide 10 hours of training for parents seeking to adopt overseas. That’s not nearly enough, parents and adoption experts say.
The Alexanders say they would have proceeded with the adoption if they had known more about their daughter’s eventual diagnoses, but would have prepared differently.
“I took a leap of faith and said, ‘I want her,’” Amanda Alexander says. “She was meant to be ours.”
SWEET BUT VIOLENT
When the girl was age 4, the Alexanders placed her in a pre-kindergarten program. She received private speech and language tutoring, but the school determined she was not eligible for a specialized program.
The girl was volatile. She could be sweet and spunky, then become physically destructive without warning. She attacked other students at school. Doctors prescribed medicine. Still, Amanda regularly received frantic calls at work about the girl’s behavior.
When the girl threatened to kill a classmate, her pediatrician recommended a psychiatric hospital. It would be the girl’s first of nine hospitalizations in the next three years.
Izidor Ruckel, shown here at age 11 with his adoptive father Danny Ruckel in San Diego, Calif., says he found it hard to respond to his adoptive parents’ love.
Parents do a lot more than make sure a child has food and shelter, researchers say. They play a critical role in brain development.
More than a decade of research on children raised in institutions shows that “neglect is awful for the brain,” says Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. Without someone who is a reliable source of attention, affection and stimulation, he says, “the wiring of the brain goes awry.” The result can be long-term mental and emotional problems.
A lot of what scientists know about parental bonding and the brain comes from studies of children who spent time in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s. Children likeIzidor Ruckel, who wrote a book about his experiences.
Izidor Ruckel dons a hat of a style common in his birthplace, Romania. He now lives in Denver.
Barry Gutierrez for NPR
When Ruckel was 6 months old, he got polio. His parents left him at a hospital and never returned. And Ruckel ended up in an institution for “irrecoverable” children.
But Ruckel was luckier than many Romanian orphans. A worker at the orphanage “cared for me as if she was my mother,” he says. “She was probably the most loving, the most kindest person I had ever met.”
Then, when Ruckel was 5 or 6, his surrogate mother was electrocuted trying to heat bath water for the children in her care. Ruckel ended up in an institution for “irrecoverable” children, a place where beatings, neglect, and boredom were the norm.
Polio had left him with a weak leg. But as he got older he found he had power over many of the other children who had more serious disabilities.
“There was no right, there was no wrong in the orphanage,” Ruckel says. “You didn’t know the difference because you were never taught. I was put in charge of kids and I treated them just the way they treated us. If you didn’t listen to me, I’d beat you.”
In the Institute for the Unsalvageable in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, shown here in 1992, children were left in cribs for days on end.
Addressing Adoption Issues May Clarify Behavior | Horia Varlan
Long-term studies examining the emotional and mental health of children who were adopted as infants indicate that most fare very well. They are not plagued by low self-esteem or chronic lack of empathy, and are actually less likely to exhibit delinquent behavior during adolescence than are their non-adopted counterparts.
Nonetheless, about 10% of adopted children exhibit serious behavioral symptoms that are sometimes mistaken for Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder, Childhood Onset Type. These children are angry, argumentative, and often refuse to accept any personal responsibility for their aggressive actions or outbursts of rage.
Psychologist Dr. David Kirschner has coined the phrase “Adopted Child Syndrome” to refer to this aggregate of symptoms; the syndrome is considered controversial and has not yet been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Possible Psychodynamics of Adopted Child Syndrome
In a healthy adoptive situation, parents are open and honest about the child’s adoptive status. In dysfunctional situations, parents either wildly overcompensate by showering the child with intrusive attention and material things; or utterly ignore the fact of adoption as much as possible, refusing to discuss birth parents or the adoptive process with the child.
The adopted child thus never develops an adequate conscience because there is a proposed schism between good and “evil” self-images. Often, the child believes that a “good adoptee” would never want to know about or meet his birth parents. At the same time, hostility toward the adopted parents builds, leading to explosions of fury. (In less than 1% of such cases, the adopted child eventually murders one or both of his parents.)
Children with the syndrome also have a tendency to act out in such distressing ways (fire setting, truancy, compulsive lying, violence toward animals or other children) that they suffer inevitable rejection by parents, peers, and authority figures. This defensive provocation gives the child a measure of perceived control: The world is rejected before the world has a chance to reject the child. Their actions increase their isolation, confusion, and frustration.
Interestingly, the same feelings of alienation exhibited by some adopted children have been tracked in studies of “test tube babies” as well. Some feel adrift and disconnected from society, the product of a mere donor rather than the child of a loving parent. In fact, symptoms of pain and confusion are much stronger and more prevalent in sperm donors’ offspring than they are in adopted children.
Of course, the above statements are generalizations gleaned by therapists and researchers through their interactions with myriad adoptees and their adoptive families. Each case will exhibit its own unique characteristics; symptomology and its origins do not always fit into a neat little box.
Pre-exsiting Conditions That Can Be Confused With Adopted Child Syndrome
Sometimes an adoptee comes to her new home with a plethora of problems. These may include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, attachment disorder, and PTSD or Acute Stress Reaction from pre-adoption abuse. Other factors that seem to increase the development of behavioral problems in adoptees include: older age at the time of the adoption, and a longer amount of time spent in institutional-style settings such as orphanages.
Adoptive parents may wrongly blame themselves for the child’s symptoms, and perhaps not seek available therapeutic help due to misplaced feelings of shame or depression. Some parents even harshly punish the child for wrongdoing, which usually exacerbates the problem.
Treatment for Adopted Child Syndrome
Unlike true Conduct Disorder or Antisocial Personality, those who exhibit symptoms of Adopted Child Syndrome have a more encouraging prognosis. Their preoccupation with biological origins, which is often vociferously denied because it causes guilt, can be brought out and resolved through psychotherapy.
If the adoptive parents are very reluctant to discuss adoption with the child, they too may benefit from counseling sessions. Results are often excellent; though as with all emotional disorders, long-term therapy may be required. The prognosis for adopted children with Conduct Disorder is, unfortunately, not so optimistic.
Positive Family Dynamics and Adopted Child Syndrome
In general, parents who maintain an environment of nicely balanced structure and flexibility in the home will achieve the best results with a troubled adoptee.
One Lakota Sioux child’s delinquent behavior virtually disappeared when her Caucasian adoptive parents permitted her to visit Native American reservations, where she learned about her culture and incorporated some aspects of Native American spiritual beliefs into her family’s Christian tradition.
The family’s tolerance of the child’s anxious identity quest is probably key to permanently resolving the behavioral issues. If the adoptee is required to deny his longing for knowledge of his origins, it’s believed that the psychopathological behavior is likely to continue or worsen.
First Step: Admitting that Trauma of Adoption Exists
Since the vast majority of adopted children do not exhibit Adopted Child Syndrome, psychologists worry that adoptions will be needlessly discouraged if they admit that some children are deeply traumatized by the adoption process. This fear is possibly specious or overemphasized, as most prospective adoptive parents realize that an immense amount of work is required to raise any child; a natural child may well have special needs or severe emotional issues, and no one worries that the birth rate will plummet because of this.
Moreover, the Adopted Child Syndrome is generally only mentioned in the media in relation to the less than 1% of alleged sufferers who commit murder (e.g., Matthew Heikkila, David Berkowitz, Joel Rifkin). Thus it becomes difficult for patients and therapists to examine the facts rationally and conclude that the Syndrome’s existence should not be denied just because it has occasionally been exploited for “shock value” publicity or used as an excuse by those desperate to justify indefensible actions.
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Attachment disorder – RAD – Abandonment – Adoption Syndrome – Whatever you call it, it is difficult to deal with. Some are able to pull through it. Others, like us, are not. I am NOT against adoption. I have always been for it. Unfortunately we got hit very hard with the extreme eye opening experience.
Our prayer is that we can take our experience and use it to help others. We still hope to get involved in orphanage ministry. All children need love. Please don’t use my writings to pull back but to move closer to offering healing to children in need. This whole area of need is in need of a lot of prayer.
The new home. This home had some differences from the last home but many similarities. Some things were better and some were worse. Some of the kids were nicer and some were meaner. I’m not going to spend time describing the home in detail – it’s not important. People (at Americans) are so obsessed with living conditions. How nice is the home? How good is the food? Do you have hot water? How is school? Do you have toys to play with?
Let me tell you, none of that matters. I would have rather been back with my family in our little block house with no running water (except when it rained) than to be in a new luxury home without my family.
In my later years, I read about the Jews suffering terrible horrible conditions in the Nazi camps of WW2. Those people faced disease, torture, starvation and death and yet they they wanted to live. Think about that: why did they have the will to live? I have everything now but I don’t. What happened to me? What crushed the spirit in me that the Jews thrived on?
I learned how to lie. Lie about everything. Survive without caring. Survive without loving. Lie about how I feel, what I want, what I did. Lies and more lies. Cover up. Blend in. I did what was expected and go with the flow. Going with the flow people and people won’t suspect me. Blend in and stay hidden. Smile and everyone assumes I’m ok. Don’t bring attention. After awhile I didn’t even know who I was anymore. Smile. Smile and seem happy. Smile and do what people want to see. Lie. Survive the day, the night, no one really knows who I am because I don’t know who I am.
Boys or girls thrown together in a room are not family. They really aren’t friends. We co-existed. Tell me – if you know any orphans that came out of an orphanage, do they want to see other children that they lived with in the orphanage? Most don’t. I’m not attached to anyone. I’m just surviving with a smile.
Warning Signs, Symptoms, Treatment & Hope for Children with Insecure Attachment
Attachment is the deep connection established between a child and caregiver that profoundly affects your child’s development and ability to express emotions and develop relationships. If you are the parent of a child with an attachment disorder, you may be exhausted from trying to connect with your child. A child with insecure attachment or an attachment disorder lacks the skills for building meaningful relationships. However, with these tools, and a healthy dose of effort, patience, and love, it is possible repair attachment challenges.
Children with attachment disorders or other attachment problems have difficulty connecting to others and managing their own emotions. This results in a lack of trust and self-worth, a fear of getting close to anyone, anger, and a need to be in control. A child with an attachment disorder feels unsafe and alone.
So why do some children develop attachment disorders while others don’t? The answer has to do with the attachment process, which relies on the interaction of both parent and child.
Attachment disorders are the result of negative experiences in this early relationship. If young children feel repeatedly abandoned, isolated, powerless, or uncared for—for whatever reason—they will learn that they can’t depend on others and the world is a dangerous and frightening place.
What causes reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems?
Reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems occur when children have been unable to consistently connect with a parent or primary caregiver. This can happen for many reasons:
A baby cries and no one responds or offers comfort.
A baby is hungry or wet, and they aren’t attended to for hours.
No one looks at, talks to, or smiles at the baby, so the baby feels alone.
A young child gets attention only by acting out or displaying other extreme behaviors.
A young child or baby is mistreated or abused.
Sometimes the child’s needs are met and sometimes they aren’t. The child never knows what to expect.
The infant or young child is hospitalized or separated from his or her parents.
A baby or young child is moved from one caregiver to another (can be the result of adoption, foster care, or the loss of a parent).
The parent is emotionally unavailable because of depression, an illness, or a substance abuse problem.
As the examples show, sometimes the circumstances that cause the attachment problems are unavoidable, but the child is too young to understand what has happened and why. To a young child, it just feels like no one cares and they lose trust in others and the world becomes an unsafe place.
Early warning signs and symptoms of insecure attachment
Comforting a Crying Baby
It’s common to feel frustration, anxiety, and even anger when faced with a crying baby—especially if your baby wails for hours on end. In these situations, you need to be calm and centered so you’ll be better able to figure out what’s going on with your child and how best to soothe his or her cries.
Attachment problems fall on a spectrum, from mild problems that are easily addressed to the most serious form, known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
Although it is never too late to treat and repair attachment difficulties such as reactive attachment disorder, the earlier you spot the symptoms of insecure attachment and take steps to repair them, the better. With early detection, you can avoid a more serious problem. Caught in infancy, attachment problems are often easy to correct with the right help and support.
Signs and symptoms of insecure attachment in infants:
Avoids eye contact
Doesn’t reach out to be picked up
Rejects your efforts to calm, soothe, and connect
Doesn’t seem to notice or care when you leave them alone
Doesn’t coo or make sounds
Doesn’t follow you with his or her eyes
Isn’t interested in playing interactive games or playing with toys
Spend a lot of time rocking or comforting themselves
It’s important to note that the early symptoms of insecure attachment are similar to the early symptoms of other issues such as ADHD and autism. If you spot any of these warning signs, make an appointment with your pediatrician for a professional diagnosis of the problem.
Signs and symptoms of reactive attachment disorder
For more signs and symptoms download the Child Attachment Checklist and Infant Attachment Checklist in Resources and References section below.
Children with reactive attachment disorder have been so disrupted in early life that their future relationships are also impaired. They have difficulty relating to others and are often developmentally delayed. Reactive attachment disorder is common in children who have been abused, bounced around in foster care, lived in orphanages, or taken away from their primary caregiver after establishing a bond.
Common signs and symptoms of reactive attachment disorder
An aversion to touch and physical affection. Children with reactive attachment disorder often flinch, laugh, or even say “Ouch” when touched. Rather than producing positive feelings, touch and affection are perceived as a threat.
Control issues. Most children with reactive attachment disorder go to great lengths to remain in control and avoid feeling helpless. They are often disobedient, defiant, and argumentative.
Anger problems. Anger may be expressed directly, in tantrums or acting out, or through manipulative, passive-aggressive behavior. Children with reactive attachment disorder may hide their anger in socially acceptable actions, like giving a high five that hurts or hugging someone too hard.
Difficulty showing genuine care and affection. For example, children with reactive attachment disorder may act inappropriately affectionate with strangers while displaying little or no affection towards their parents.
An underdeveloped conscience. Children with reactive attachment disorder may act like they don’t have a conscience and fail to show guilt, regret, or remorse after behaving badly.
Inhibited reactive attachment disorder vs. disinhibited reactive attachment disorder
As children with reactive attachment disorder grow older, they often develop either an inhibited or a disinhibited pattern of symptoms:
Inhibited symptoms of reactive attachment disorder. The child is extremely withdrawn, emotionally detached, and resistant to comforting. The child is aware of what’s going on around him or her—hypervigilant even—but doesn’t react or respond. He or she may push others away, ignore them, or even act out in aggression when others try to get close.
Disinhibited symptoms of reactive attachment disorder. The child doesn’t seem to prefer his or her parents over other people, even strangers. The child seeks comfort and attention from virtually anyone, without distinction. He or she is extremely dependent, acts much younger than his or her age, and may appear chronically anxious.
Parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder: What you need to know
Parenting a child with insecure attachment or reactive attachment disorder can be exhausting, frustrating, and emotionally trying. It is hard to put your best parenting foot forward without the reassurance of a loving connection with your child. Sometimes you may wonder if your efforts are worth it, but be assured that they are. With time, patience, and concerted effort, attachment disorders can be repaired. The key is to remain calm, yet firm as you interact with your child. This will teach your child that he or she is safe and can trust you.
A child with an attachment disorder is already experiencing a great deal of stress, so it is imperative that you evaluate and manage your own stress levels before trying to help your child with theirs. Helpguide’s mindfulness toolkit can teach you valuable skills for managing stress and dealing with overwhelming emotions, leaving you to focus on your child’s needs.
Tips for parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder or insecure attachment
Have realistic expectations. Helping your child with an attachment disorder may be a long road. Focus on making small steps forward and celebrate every sign of success.
Patience is essential. The process may not be as rapid as you’d like, and you can expect bumps along the way. But by remaining patient and focusing on small improvements, you create an atmosphere of safety for your child.
Foster a sense of humor and joy. Joy and humor go a long way toward repairing attachment problems and energizing you even in the midst of hard work. Find at least a couple of people or activities that help you laugh and feel good.
Take care of yourself and manage stress. Reduce other demands on your time and make time for yourself. Rest, good nutrition, and parenting breaks help you relax and recharge your batteries so you can give your attention to your child.
Find support and ask for help. Rely on friends, family, community resources, and respite care (if available). Try to ask for help before you really need it to avoid getting stressed to breaking point. You may also want to consider joining a support group for parents.
Stay positive and hopeful. Be sensitive to the fact that children pick up on feelings. If they sense you’re discouraged, it will be discouraging to them. When you are feeling down, turn to others for reassurance.
A note to parents of adopted or foster care children with reactive attachment disorder
If you have adopted a child, you may not have been aware of reactive attachment disorder. Anger or unresponsiveness from your new child can be heartbreaking and difficult to understand. Try to remember that your adopted child isn’t acting out because of lack of love for you. Their experience hasn’t prepared them to bond with you, and they can’t yet recognize you as a source of love and comfort. Your efforts to love them will have an impact—it just may take some time.
Repairing reactive attachment disorder: Tips for making your child feel safe and secure
Safety is the core issue for children with reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems. They are distant and distrustful because they feel unsafe in the world. They keep their guard up to protect themselves, but it also prevents them from accepting love and support. So before anything else, it is essential to build up your child’s sense of security. You can accomplish this by establishing clear expectations and rules of behavior, and by responding consistently so your child knows what to expect when he or she acts a certain way and—even more importantly—knows that no matter what happens, you can be counted on.
Set limits and boundaries. Consistent, loving boundaries make the world seem more predictable and less scary to children with attachment problems such as reactive attachment disorder. It’s important that they understand what behavior is expected of them, what is and isn’t acceptable, and what the consequences will be if they disregard the rules. This also teaches them that they have more control over what happens to them than they think.
Take charge, yet remain calm when your child is upset or misbehaving. Remember that “bad” behavior means that your child doesn’t know how to handle what he or she is feeling and needs your help. By staying calm, you show your child that the feeling is manageable. If he or she is being purposefully defiant, follow through with the pre-established consequences in a cool, matter-of-fact manner. But never discipline a child with an attachment disorder when you’re in an emotionally-charged state. This makes the child feel more unsafe and may even reinforce the bad behavior, since it’s clear it pushes your buttons.
Be immediately available to reconnect following a conflict. Conflict can be especially disturbing for children with insecure attachment or attachment disorders. After a conflict or tantrum where you’ve had to discipline your child, be ready to reconnect as soon as he or she is ready. This reinforces your consistency and love, and will help your child develop a trust that you’ll be there through thick and thin.
Own up to mistakes and initiate repair. When you let frustration or anger get the best of you or you do something you realize is insensitive, quickly address the mistake. Your willingness to take responsibility and make amends can strengthen the attachment bond. Children with reactive attachment disorder or other attachment problems need to learn that although you may not be perfect, they will be loved, no matter what.
Try to maintain predictable routines and schedules. A child with an attachment disorder won’t instinctively rely on loved ones, and may feel threatened by transition and inconsistency—for example when traveling or during school vacations. A familiar routine or schedule can provide comfort during times of change.
Repairing reactive attachment disorders: Tips for helping your child feel loved
A child who has not bonded early in life will have a hard time accepting love, especially physical expressions of love. But you can help them learn to accept your love with time, consistency, and repetition. Trust and security come from seeing loving actions, hearing reassuring words, and feeling comforted over and over again.
Find things that feel good to your child. If possible, show your child love through rocking, cuddling, and holding—attachment experiences he or she missed out on earlier. But always be respectful of what feels comfortable and good to your child. In cases of previous abuse and trauma, you may have to go very slowly because your child may be very resistant to physical touch.
Respond to your child’s emotional age. Children with attachment disorders often act like younger children, both socially and emotionally. You may need to treat them as though they were much younger, using more non-verbal methods of soothing and comforting.
Help your child identify emotions and express his or her needs. Children with attachment disorders may not know what they are feeling or how to ask for what they need. Reinforce the idea that all feelings are okay and show them healthy ways to express their emotions.
Listen, talk, and play with your child. Carve out times when you’re able to give your child your full, focused attention in ways that feel comfortable to him or her. It may seem hard to drop everything, eliminate distractions, and just be in the moment, but quality time together provides a great opportunity for your child to open up to you and feel your focused attention and care.
Repairing reactive attachment disorder: Tips for supporting your child’s health
A child’s eating, sleep, and exercise habits are always important, but they’re even more so in kids with attachment problems. Healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way in reducing your child’s stress levels and leveling out mood swings. When children with attachment disorders are relaxed, well-rested, and feeling good, it will be much easier for them to handle life’s challenges.
Diet – Make sure your child eats a diet full of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein. Be sure to skip the sugar and add plenty of good fats – like fish, flax seed, avocados, and olive oil—for optimal brain health.
Sleep – If your child is tired during the day, it will be that much harder for them to focus on learning new things. Make their sleep schedule (bedtime and wake time) consistent.
Exercise – Exercise or any type of physical activity can be a great antidote to stress, frustration, and pent-up emotion, triggering endorphins to make your child feel good. Physical activity is especially important for the angry child. If your child isn’t naturally active, try some different classes or sports to find something that is appealing.
Any one of these things—food, rest, and exercise—can make the difference between a good and a bad day with a child who has an attachment disorder. These basics will help ensure your child’s brain is healthy and ready to connect.
Professional treatment for reactive attachment disorder
If your child is suffering from a severe attachment problem, especially reactive attachment disorder, seek professional help. Extra support can make a dramatic and positive change in your child’s life, and the earlier you seek help, the better.
If you suspect your child might have an issue with attachment, start by consulting with your pediatrician, a child development specialist, or one of the organizations listed in the Resources and References section below.
Types of treatment for reactive attachment disorder
Treatment for reactive attachment disorder usually involves a combination of therapy, counseling, and parenting education, designed to ensure the child has a safe living environment, develops positive interactions with caregivers, and improves peer relationships.
While medication may be used to treat associated conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or hyperactivity, there is no quick fix for treating reactive attachment disorder. Your pediatrician may recommend a treatment plan that includes:
Family therapy. Typical therapy for attachment problems includes both the child and his or her parents or caregivers. Therapy often involves fun and rewarding activities that enhance the attachment bond as well as helping parents and other children in the family understand the symptoms of the disorder and effective interventions.
Individual psychological counseling. Therapists may also meet with the child individually or while the parents observe. This is designed to help your child directly with monitoring emotions and behavior.
Play therapy. Helps your child learn appropriate skills for interacting with peers and handling other social situations.
Special education services. Specifically designed programs within your child’s school can help him or her learn skills required for academic and social success, while addressing behavioral and emotional difficulties.
Parenting skills classes. Education for parents and caregivers centers on learning about attachment disorders as well as other necessary parenting skills.
Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Joanna Saisan, MSW, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: June 2013.
So, I’ve been removed from my family, my aunt, a stranger and now I’m packing to leave the boys home. I say goodbye to the boys in my room and our room mother. No one shows any emotion. Why would they and why would I? We’re barely human. We’re shuffled around from place to place like cattle. No one wants us. We don’t belong anywhere. We’re a burden on the system – someone needs to run “homes” to care for us. People donate food for us to eat and clothes for us to wear. We live in Guatemala and all of us are wearing American T-shirts printed with English slogans and ads that none of us can read. I leave with a couple changes of clothes, one pair of shoes . . . no personal items – remember, they’ve been stolen or broken.
I climb into a van and we begin the hour drive to another “home”. I don’t know where it is. What difference does it make. I could be 5 minutes away from my family but it wouldn’t matter. No one is going to visit me. I don’t know what my “home” address is or where it is. Some boys talk about finding their family when they turn 18. Where would I begin looking? I have no idea where they are or if they are even still alive. I hurt inside. I’m closing down. How could I ever open up to anyone again? How could I trust anyone? I’m dead inside.
We go through the metal gates to the new “home”. There are block buildings with tin roofs scattered around. Dirty children play in the yard. Older children are playing futbal (soccer). There are frames for goals but no net. There are boys and girls in this home. There are workers doing laundry. Large clothes line run from building to building with clothes of all sizes hanging on them to dry. A couple of ratty scrawny dogs run around while children throw stones at them.
This is home, I guess. What difference does it make? I’ve been abandoned.
This is a controversial but very interesting subject to study. I am not going to post any more than this Wikipedia post but there is a lot out there to read. It is politically incorrect because it is negative on adoption (which I’m not). Like I said, very interesting . . .
David Kirschner, who coined the term, says that most adoptees are not disturbed and that the syndrome only applies to “a small clinical subgroup”.
Researchers Brodizinsky, Schechter, and Henig find that in a review of the literature, generally children adopted before the age of six-months fare no differently than children raised with their biological parents. Later problems that develop among children adopted from the child welfare system at an older age are usually associated with the effects of chronic early maltreatment in the caregiving relationship; abuse and neglect.
Psychologist Betty Jean Lifton, herself an adopted person, has written extensively on psychopathology in adopted people, primarily in Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience, and Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness and briefly discusses Adopted child syndrome.
The (Sometimes) Tragic Realities of Adoption for Adoptive Parents
Ours was a familiar adoption story. My wife, Erika, and I turned to adoption in 1991. We thought surely there were millions of babies out there in need of two loving people desperate to be parents.
Then we learned about the realities of adoption.
A foreign adoption seemed our best bet, but options were limited then. To improve our chances, we’d need to be open to an “older” or “special needs” child. This was not how we envisioned starting a family, but we wanted to be parents.
A chance encounter with another adoptive family steered us to an adoption attorney in Warsaw, Poland. Erika was of Polish descent and spoke the language. Maybe this was our chance. In a late night phone call to Warsaw from our home in Connecticut, the attorney was sympathetic but discouraging. She had a long backlog of clients and available children were scarce. What about an “older” or “special needs” child, Erika asked. It was then that we first heard about a fourteen-month-old girl in a rural orphanage. In a matter of five short months, we’d rushed through home studies and background checks before boarding a LOT flight to Poland to receive our daughter, who we’d named Casey. It was nothing less than a miracle.
Casey was an unwanted pregnancy, a three-pound preemie whose twin sister had been stillborn. She went straight from the delivery room to an incubator to an orphanage in Mrągowo in Poland’s northern lake district. At fourteen months, she was withdrawn, listless, unable to sit, crawl or feed herself. Medical records were scant. But to us she was perfect; nothing that two able bodied Americans couldn’t fix with love.
Adoptee Grief: Golden Gate Bridge Suicide
Indeed in the years that followed, it seemed that a loving home was all Casey needed. We moved from Connecticut to the San Francisco Bay Area where she transformed into a bright, spirited, charming little girl.But in the privacy of our home, things were often different – violent tantrums, crying jags, defiance. We looked for answers from friends, pediatricians, therapists, counselors and pastors, but were assured repeatedly that Casey was just high-strung; she’d grow out of it. In the meantime, we had to be tough with her. Though fully aware of her abandonment and adoption, the professionals never explored the matter.
At seventeen, Casey gained early admission to Bennington College in Vermont with a bright future ahead. She wanted to make a difference in the world.
But she never made it.
Just five months shy of her high school graduation, she took the keys to our car, drove to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped.
Adoptive Father Looking For Answers:
Secret Sadness and Depression in Adoptees
Drowning in grief, I looked for answers. How could this have happened? What did everyone miss? What could we have done differently? I went to the library and scoured the Internet for everything I could find on adoption, something I’d never thought to do before. I learned about attachment disorders that can have a devastating effect on orphaned children. It explained everything – the angel at school and the tyrant at home, the tantrums, crying jags, low self-esteem and defiance, things that she kept carefully hidden behind a suit of armor from parents, therapists and friends.
How could everyone have been so blind?
I connected with other parents of children adopted from foreign orphanages and heard similar stories. Some stumbled onto appropriate treatments whereas others, like us, were left in the dark. Adoption and attachment experts shared with me the therapies and parenting techniques that have proven effective in dealing with the unique emotional needs of orphaned children. This information was in the public domain, yet everyone involved in Casey’s short life missed it.
I can’t have another Casey, a do-over. She was one of a kind.
But regardless of the tragic outcome, I’ll always consider myself the luckiest guy in the world to have been her dad for sixteen of her seventeen years.
Warning to Adoptive Parents: “Just Loving Your Adopted Child Enough,” May Not be Enough
From her death we learned that adoptees can be exposed to disorders that are still misunderstood by many professionals. Not every adoptee has attachment issues, but for those who do, treatment can be illusive.
Other adoptive parents who may struggle with what we did can use our story as a learning experience.
Acknowledge your child’s loss, parent her in a way that may not be intuitive to you,
get her the right kind of help. Just “loving her enough” may not be enough.
Hopefully, that will save a precious life.
A Note from the Adoption Voices Magazine Content Manager and Publisher: