What Is Attachment?
Basically attachment is a strong connection or feeling of love towards something or someone. It's the "glue" that holds relationships together.
What Do People Mean When They Talk About Attachment Styles?
A lot of research has been done around the topic of attachment. The two most influential researchers were John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. They determined that there were four types of attachment styles:
This is considered the healthiest attachment style. In a secure attachment there is a warm and loving bond between the primary caregiver and the child. The child grows up feeling loved and cared for. People with secure attachment are usually confident in how they relate to others. Adults with secure attachment typically have no problem developing healthy long term relationships and don't have a fear of being abandoned. In secure attachment there is not a fear of rejection in relationships and the person is comfortable with experiencing vulnerability and intimacy in relationships.
This is an insecure type of attachment. Growing up these individuals learned that no one would or could meet their emotional needs. They feel unloved, unseen and insignificant. People with this style of attachment often find it hard to talk about or express their feelings, and often don't find it easy to understand the emotions of others. Intimate relationships are usually avoided. These individuals tend to consider themselves to be very independent and self-sufficient, and do not usually depend on others.
This is an insecure type of attachment. Individuals who experience this typically experienced significant separation anxiety as a child, and may have had a hard time being calmed even after their primary caregiver returned. These people often need a lot of closeness, reassurance, intimacy and affection in relationships, and find it difficult to be alone. They tend to question their partners commitment and fear rejection and abandonment.
Anxious-Avoidant (Disorganized) Attachment
This is an insecure type of attachment. Individuals who experienced disorganized attachment tend to not trust others. They are usually cautious in relationships. These people thrive on the approval of others and are worried that they will be rejected or abandoned. In adult relationships, those with this style will struggle to express and accept love from others. Trust is often a significant issue is relationships.
How Does Attachment Impact or Effect Adult Relationships?
The way that we were (or were not) parented, and the degree to which we felt loved, valued, wanted and seen by our primary caregiver(s), impacts how we act in relationship with others as adults. And whether we like it or not, we tend to pick partners based on the type of attachment we had with our parents. So if we grew up not believing we had value and that everyone that loves us leaves us, then we may find that we are more clingy in relationships. Or maybe we are constantly waiting for our partner to realize that they don't want to be with us and leave. Or maybe we believe that if we control everything that everything will work out and we will feel better.
Aren't Issues of Attachment Just for People Who Were Adopted or Lost Their Parents?
No! Anyone can experience issues around attachment and bonding with their primary caregivers.
Here are some experiences that could impact attachment:
-Young and inexperienced parents.
-A primary caregiver who is struggling with issues of serious mental health.
-A primary caregiver who is struggling with an active addiction.
-The child and/or primary caregiver experience a trauma.
-A primary caregiver has a chronic illness.
-A primary caregiver who was emotionally or physically neglectful.
-A primary caregiver who was emotionally, physically, sexually, financially or verbally abusive.
-An experience of separation from a primary caregiver through divorce, death or adoption.
-An inconsistent primary caregiver, which meant you were raised primarily by a secondary
caregiver such as a nanny.
-An experience that involves moving around a lot, or being in a foster home.
Ok, so if I have an insecure attachment style, does that mean there is no hope for me ever being happy in a relationship?
Absolutely not! The really great thing is that we can change and grow once we have awareness and understanding. We have the ability to basically "reprogram" our brain to learn how to feel safe in relationships. It is possible to not constantly be wondering if the person you care about is going to leave you. Through therapy you can learn new ways of thinking, and challenge beliefs around your intrinsic value and worth. There is hope!
Adoption is when the legal parents of a child change from being the biological parents to being someone who is not the biological parent. A child is eligible for adoption when termination of parental rights has occurred, and is typically done through the foster care system or private adoption. However, adoption can also happen as a result of the biological parent(s) passing away. Adoption can happen within the United States, or adoption can occur between countries.
Regardless of how adoption happens, it's important to remember that there is loss. "Adoption is trauma". This statement was recently made as part of a TikTok by Issac Etter, a transracial adoptee and the founder of the community Identity. The depth of that statement can not be underestimated. Often times the adoptive parents go into the process thinking about how they are "saving" a child from negative experiences. And yes, often times kids who become eligible for adoption have experienced some pretty negative things. But this process can not be about rescuing someone. That stance takes the assumption that the child felt they needed to be saved, and it dismisses the very real loss that the child is experiencing. It's critical that when we discuss adoption that the experience and needs of the child are always centered. This becomes even more important when BIPOC children are being placed in white-bodied homes.
What does it mean to center the experience of the child?
* Allow the child to talk about the biological parents, in whatever way they need. They do not cease to be relevant to the child's life just because they have been adopted. And them talking about their biological parents doesn't mean they love you any less.
* Consider the importance of continuing contact with safe biological family members. If there are siblings, this is especially important.
* BIPOC children in white-bodied homes need BIPOC influence. Develop real and authentic friendships with people who share the lived cultural experiences of your child. As much as you love your child, you can never fully understand what it means to be BIPOC. They need that support.
* Remember that there is a birth parent out there that no longer has their child. While their choices may have caused the loss to occur, it doesn't change the fact that for most birth parents, they did not want to lose their child. Most birth parents loved their child, and just didn't have the support or stability to raise their child. And it doesn't change the fact that your adopted child wants to be loved and wanted by their birth parents.
* Remove the words "save" and "rescue" from your vocabulary when you talk about adoption to your child, or others. And when people say it to you - correct them.
* Therapy, therapy, therapy! For the adoptive parents, and for the adopted child.
* Mind your reactions. There is no competition between you, the adopted parent and the biological parents. Don't personalize your adopted child's reactions or feelings around being adopted.
* Don't ever threaten to send your child back. This isn't clever, or funny, or helpful.
* Learn about Reactive Attachment Disorder. Lean about prenatal and postnatal attachment. Learn how children who have been removed from biological parents can be impacted.
* Don't compare your adopted child to your biological children.
* It's ok that you didn't give birth to this child. This isn't about you. If you are feeling grief and loss around how this child came to you, get support.
* Adopted children should never be "the only choice left". If you decide to adopt, it needs to be because you wanted to adopt a child, and not because this was your only option left to have a child. Resentment and grief around not being able to have a biological child needs to be dealt with prior to making the decision to adopt. It's not fair to put the burden on the adopted child.
* Accept that adoption is a trauma. Even if it's the best option for everyone involved.
So what does all of this mean for someone who is already adopted? Or was adopted decades ago?
It's possible that you landed on this page because you were adopted, or you have an adopted child, and you are experiencing difficulties as a result. You may not have even made the correlation yet that you or your child have been impacted by adoption. So many clients have come through the office with serious diagnoses that aren't necessarily appropriate to what is actually going on. But the clinician or Dr that they were seeing wasn't educated or informed about how adoption (even infant adoption) can impact future behaviors. Once we start to explore our history, we understand our present - and real healing can occur.
I'm thinking of adopting. What do I need to do?
It's important to really do some deep work within yourself before you decide to adopt. The process can be difficult, and emotionally traumatizing for the prospective adoptive parent. And you need to be prepared for whatever it is that your adopted child brings with them. By starting therapy before (or during) the process, you can explore why you made this choice, your own personal history and any unresolved relationship "stuff", and hopefully mitigate the ways that your future adopted child could be impacted. Adoptions often require a mental health screening and a look into what the experiences of the prospective adoptive parent were growing up. There are legitimate reasons for this, and it's important. A therapist can help you to go into your adoption journey healthier.
I've already adopted a child, and it's not what I expected. Can you help?
Absolutely. It's not abnormal for an adoptive parent to find themselves struggling with not feeling bonded to their adopted child. And for adoptive families where there are serious medical or mental health struggles with the child, it can cause a strain on self and relationships. Adoption can also bring up your own childhood "stuff". You may be struggling with how to discipline, how to manage, and how to get your child the help they need. You may not be sure how to center your child's experience. A trauma and adoption informed therapist can help. The reality of it is, if you aren't stable and feeling like you can do this - your adopted child isn't going to feel stable either.
- Amanda Johns, LCSW is an adoptive mom. She was a Foster Parent for Bucks County Children and Youth for several years, and served on the Foster Parents' Association Board. She has had significant education related to issues of Adoption and Attachment. She has provided training to local hospitals and community groups on the topic of Adoption and Attachment.