One Big Happy Family? Bonding in Adoption
In many families, like ours, there were already children in the home when a new adopted child joined the family. Questions I’m often asked about this include:
- How do we handle the blending with children already in the home?
- Are there jealousy issues?
- What about birth order?
- What do the kids (if not infants) call you when they first come home?
- How hard is it to bond with the adopted child?
- How do you protect the children already in the home?
What everyone really wants to know is this:
Does a family like ours ever really feel like one big happy family?
I ask you to bear with me today, as this is the longest post in this series. There is just SO MUCH to cover here. In fact, I could do a whole series on this topic, and depending on the types of questions/input I get on this post, I may do that.
I’m approaching these questions from the angle of the parents because as parents, you are the ones making the decision to adopt, and you’re the ones who will be responsible for parenting. However, as I’ve said before, if there are already older children in the home, I’d encourage you to involve them in the adoption process as much as possible.
This post spoke volumes to me, so I’m sharing an excerpt:
“Adoption has given us love. A new person to be loved by. A new person to love. But sometimes – some weeks, a lot of times – we love only because Jesus tells us to…
And this is family isn’t it? Commitment that isn’t circumstantial, whose roots wriggle way down to stretch deeper than feeling, relationship with a memory longer than the present moment.” – Shaun Groves
I don’t candy-coat adoption because I believe that does a disservice to everyone involved. If families enter into adoption with realistic expectations — no rose-colored glasses — there is a much better chance for parents and children to thrive. Of course, EVERY SITUATION IS UNIQUE. This is why I’m sharing thoughts from so many other parents.
First, my own experience.
The love has not been hard; that was a decision. We loved Lindsey from day one, and that has grown as we’ve shared experiences and gotten to know each other better. I expect it to continue to grow throughout our lives. But the trust has been hard: earning hers and teaching her that she must behave in a trustworthy manner — no lying, no hiding things — in order to have the privileges she wants. She tends to tell us what she thinks we want to hear, which doesn’t ever really get to the heart of things. Some days it feels like we take several steps backwards, but other days we finally make it a few steps forward. We’ll get there, but it’s a process.
Any difficulties between our girls have mostly come from Lindsey learning to be a big sister, rather than the one “in charge” as she was with practically raising her little brother (who was adopted separately), and in Kathryn learning that Lindsey wouldn’t want to spend every moment with her. Really, it’s all been very normal sibling rivalry stuff, except that it happened rather suddenly — and now we’re working through it and things are going well. Lindsey and Kathryn still get on each other’s nerves sometimes but they’ve learned to enjoy each other’s company, and I expect that to grow as they grow older.
One point I think is HUGE: if your children are old enough to understand what’s going on, involve them in the adoption process as much as possible! I believe our open communication about this is one of the reasons Kathryn has done SO WELL with all the adjustments that came in adopting Lindsey.
We adopted out of birth order, and we’re often asked about that. I believe that really wasn’t an issue. Bringing differing personalities together had it’s challenges, but that would’ve been the case even if we’d kept things in “normal” birth order. We try to keep an open (and private from each other, if necessary) dialogue with both girls about how things are going so we can address any problems that come up, but again, I don’t think adopting out of birth order has been as issue for us at all.
Another frequent question: When Lindsey asked what to call us, we told her we hoped someday she’d call us Mama and Dad, but she could call us whatever she felt comfortable with. We felt the relationship was far more important than our title. Around the time of her adoption, she made the decision to switch from “Jamie and Ken” to “Mama and Daddy.”
Enough about us for now; let’s move on to thoughts from other adoptive parents shared thoughts on how hard or easy it was to bond with their children:
“All 3 of my adopted kiddos began calling me mommy on the day they moved in. I realize that to some of them that is more of a title pertaining to my place in the family and less of a term of endearment, but it still helped me to feel bonded to the child. We never pushed affection on the kids, just offered it and bonding happened naturally. I feel that we have a very strong bond together and that the kids have strong bonds amongst themselves. Our only birth child was thrilled when he got his first sibling… They are still the closest out of all four kids even though they have the largest age gap. He was very happy to add sister number two as well. After her first weekend visit with us he cried when we had to take her back because he missed her. Then when we finally got him a little brother he was over the moon. His little brother wants to be just like him and thinks that being a brother is the best thing ever. It makes me happy that my kids are so very close. I think it helps that they are all so close in age. (6, 7, 7, 8)”
“Some days it’s hard and some days it’s easy. I find that spending one on one time is a great way to help with bonding, as well as family activities and meals. Starting new traditions and keeping old ones. Of course, there will be bad days. Nothing worth having comes without some sacrifice. My older [biological] sons found it hard dealing with our new daughter when she was disrespectful to “their” mom, but my daughter that is closer in age has bonded with her sister very well. There are days I have to separate them because they are arguing and days when they are enjoying their sister bond so much, I can’t get them to stop distracting one another from school work. It takes time. Our daughter has seen a therapist on and off since she came to us and that has helped a lot. Our oldest son just got married last weekend and I think it speaks volumes when I tell you that both of his sisters were asked to stand up at his wedding; there was never the slightest hesitation.”
“We were the fifth home they’d lived in, at two and three years old. Bonding took time, and we are still working on building trust with both of them. I credit seeing a marriage and family therapist who specializes in traumatized children for helping us bond with both girls. Our youngest just started lighting up when I come to pick her up from her preschool. What a blessing to see she is attached and happy to see me! Our older daughter is attached, but still struggles with trusting us to take care of her, and is still fearful of being hurt or rejected. Our biological son was part of the process of adopting the girls. He had the last say on if we were going to have them join our family or not. He has been an amazing big brother, and treats them with lovingkindness even when they aren’t so kind to him. He loves them very much and I really admire how he’s given up time with me, being the center of attention, and so many other things for his sisters.”
“I had no trouble bonding with my daughter. I had waiting my entire life for her and the love was instant and intense. I had a harder time bonding with my son though. I’m not sure if it was because his case was so unsure in the beginning or if it’s natural to be scared about adding a second child. I felt like I had everything I ever dreamed of with Josie and didn’t know if I had love for another. It took a couple of months for me to start seeing Gabriel as my baby, but once I did, I loved him with everything. I can’t imagine a greater love than I have for these two!”
“Bonding was and is hard. I had always heard people say ‘you’ll love them just like your own biological kids.’ But I didn’t. I prayed and pleaded with God to help me adore them. It seemed like it would never come. It is very hard to bond to a child who is so full of rage for what you represent: a woman who neglected them then left them. They pushed me away with all of their might. But it is through this that I learned a deeper love. A love Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians. A love that isn’t romantic at all. A love that says ‘you can tear my house apart, call me every name in your 4-year-old dictionary, and hate me with every fiber of your soul — and I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU!‘ At times it has been very very hard on our bio daughter, and we have had to get very creative to make sure everyone feels cherished and important.”
“We do not have any biological children, but bonding was different for each of our girls. [One adopted as an infant; the 2nd daughter adopted as a teen.] The bonding between two sisters was not difficult, but it was still difficult for our teen to be accountable to a “little sister” and know that her words and actions are being heard and repeated. Bonding with our teen is an ongoing process, so many times she has had to shut herself off when she moved from family to family to limit the hurt, so it is easy for her to shut people out. I had a mentoring relationship with her when we first met and changing into the ‘mom’ role was not easy for either of us at first. She is more open to sharing and bonding when shopping or listening to music/doing art, so I try to plan these activities and just let the Lord take over! I think sometimes a child will push you away to ‘test’ you to see if you will love them at their worst and know that you will stay or not send them away.”
“Building attachment with older adoptive children requires extra time and consistency. With the sibling group we’re [in process of] adopting, we had to make sure to give extra attention to our other adopted children. This is especially important during the time of transition especially when they first moved into our home. It’s easy for jealousy to form on both sides for new siblings. Ideally you teach them how to interact and enjoy each other’s company and always let them know that mom and dad have enough love to give everyone.”
While we’re on this topic, we have to address Reactive Attachment Disorder. This is a big issue. I recently read a great post explaining more about this from a mom living in the trenches: “What is Attachment Disorder?”
Recently, I’ve found a new blogland friend: Jen has one biological child, and has adopted a sibling group of three from Africa, and a sibling group of six from foster care. It goes without saying that she knows a thing or two about bonding with children who have come from difficult situations, and she has become active in speaking to groups about helping families work through Reactive Attachment Disorder and other attachment difficulties. I asked her to share a bit of advice, and I was greatly blessed by what she had to say:
Children from hard places who have experienced trauma (and I would argue that losing your birth family is always traumatic) are going to have “attachment issues.” Their trust has been broken by the very people who were supposed to be the most trustworthy. Your words mean nothing to them. They have no reason to trust what you say and they have every reason to doubt. They have been hurt, they have had to learn to protect themselves, they lack the ability to empathize, and they are scared to death, they are master manipulators and they want to be in control. WARNING: Their behavior is going to reflect this. And it is going to make you feel crazy. And parenting them is hard – CRAZY HARD.
Even if you “fell in love” with their referral pictures, chances are that once you enter this crazy hard world of loving a child with attachment issues, you are not going to FEEL like you love them. No, it does not FEEL the same as parenting a healthy attached child. Not the PC thing to say, but true. It’s hard to feel love for a child who tries to sabotage you at every turn.
But, you see, you DO love them: You love them by doing the loving thing over and over and over. You love them by parenting them in the way they need to be parented – with high nurture and high structure (despite how you parented your other kids or how your church friends parent). You love them by holding them when they are raging and telling them that you aren’t going anywhere. You love them by praying for them and fighting the spiritual battle on their behalf. You love them by not being easily offended. You love them by not being easily manipulated. You love them by not giving up, by not confirming their suspicions that you are just like all of the others who abandoned them and broke their trust. You love them by laying down your life, picking up your cross, and dying to yourself over and over and over.
Yes, you love them. . . and by the grace of God, someday, yes someday, you will wake up and realize that they believe you and they trust you and both of you FEEL, truly feel that phileo (friendship) love that you have both been longing for.
–> The subject of bonding in adopted families is entirely too deep to cover in depth in any one post, but I hope I’ve painted a realistic yet hopeful picture of how bonding happens in families with adopted children. Follow along with new posts via email.
New to this series? Here’s what you missed so far:
1 – 10 Days of Adoption: Introduction
2 – Why is Adoption So Important?
3 – If We Want to Adopt, Where Do We Begin?
4 – Common Types of Adoption
5 – Greatest Misconceptions About Adoption
6 – Can We Afford to Adopt?
7 – Special Needs Adoption: Could I Handle It?