By Katie R. Stallman, LICSW, CGE. Attachment. No other concept or word is uttered more when discussing parenting in general, but particularly parenting and adoption. Do you have a healthy “attachment”? Are you attached to your child, and even more importantly, is your child attached to you? What does the word actually mean? Deborah Gray, a renowned Northwestern attachment therapist and author of Attaching in Adoption and Nurturing Adoptions, reminds us that parent and child attachments are in essence – relationships – that will become the template for all future relationships and core beliefs. When an attachment is working well in infancy, a baby learns that he or she matters! And, that his or her needs will be met when they cry. Similar actions repeated for years over time ultimately act as a source of “insulation” for the child. Clearly, it is important, but definitions alone don’t necessarily bring conscious awareness to a process that is deeply instinctual and primitive. The great news – attachment is always capable of growing and deepening at ANY age!
Dr. Gordon Neufeld has done a beautiful job explaining how children attach in very specific, concrete terms. He also offers some interesting insights into why openness in adoption is an attachment enhancer. As described in his bio, Dr. Neufeld is a clinical psychologist in Vancouver, BC and has spent much of his professional life creating coherent theories for understanding child development. He weaves together many pieces of the attachment puzzle through his presentation and synthesis of a lifetime of studies of classical psychology, attachment theory, natural science, developmental science, and neurobiology. In becoming familiar with Dr. Neufeld’s approach there are several striking key and salient points for our community that can be immediately beneficial. Parents are the answer. Sounds simple doesn’t it? However, there are increasing numbers of all parents (by birth or adoption) who believe that an expert knows better than they. When confronted with difficulties, they believe there must be some other answer to the issue at hand other than one they intuitively reach. Yes, there are times when professional supports are absolutely required, but when parents seek to deeply understand and meet the needs of their child so much more is possible.
OA&FS adoptive parents understand the need for an open and honoring attitude towards the birth family. We salute them for that. It’s equally important for adoptive parents to feel comfortable with, and confident in, their role as the child’s parent and for the child to receive and accept that care. When parents fully claim that role, the child begins to feel completely taken care of and secure. Stepping into the role of parent fully doesn’t diminish the birthparent’s importance or value. In fact, what the birthparent wants, and what the child needs, is for the adoptive parents to form a generous, whole-hearted attachment to the child. Dr. Neufeld, and attachment researchers, have long talked about how attachment behavior is “the pursuit of proximity” referring to every human’s deep need to feel close and connected – emotionally and physically. This instinct to maintain proximity is what renders parents able to take care of their children – it makes kids want to stay close, to explore and check back as the test themselves, and ultimately to launch knowing they have the safe nest to return to when needed. A major task for ALL parents is to give their kids more than what they are asking for emotionally. This allows for satiation.
Dr. Neufeld asserts that when you meet your child’s attachment needs your child can “rest,” and then tend to the really important business of growing up. This is precisely why children with poor or challenged attachments have so many troubles. Their brains don’t have any space to focus on anything else other than getting those unmet needs met or defending themselves against the bitter disappointment of not getting those needs met. A concrete example of providing more than what is being pursued might be the parent who gets home from work and is preoccupied with the tasks and chores to prepare for the following day. That child may cue the parent in some way if they aren’t getting what they need – cries, tantrums, climbing, clinging, or getting particularly demanding if on the phone. “Providing” after such an interaction might look like the parent noting and offering even more. “Let’s read three books now instead of just one.” Beaming, that child might soon be snuggled in bed, and literally and figuratively “resting” on mom or dad’s shoulder, with body relaxed, and offering hugs happily.
Attachment is like a magnet. This concept is critical for those involved in adoptions. Imagine a large magnet and the energy surrounding it. Where there is attraction, there is also repulsion. Much like a magnet, kids can only be “pulled” in one direction at a time. This magnetism explains why a child can be perfectly content with one parent all day and suddenly tell that parent to get lost when the other arrives. It explains why children post-divorce struggle so much as they transition from one parent to the other. Or why day care drop off can be so difficult. Young children can’t hold on to two attachments at once. And especially interesting for the adoption community, it explains why adopted people can sometimes feel so utterly divided in their loyalties. With this magnet analogy, Dr. Neufeld daylights why it seems children with a culture of openness in their adoptions are able to form deeper attachments with their adoptive families. These kids don’t have to choose. Openness in adoption sends a message that both families are important; you can love your adoptive family and love your birth family. When birth and adoptive families acknowledge the importance of one another, they are literally on “the same side of the magnet”.
How Children Attach: An Introduction to the Six Stages of Development.
One should take note that many theories of attachment focus on the needs and cycles of care in early childhood. But where do you go once your child is three? How can you keep attachment in mind throughout your child’s life? Dr. Neufeld’s approach is sequential in nature, can begin at any age and is applicable to all relationships – with partners, spouses, your parents, and of course with your child. In explaining this process more concretely, we are hopeful that adoptive families can become more confident in the connections they are always building with their children. Children want nothing more than to feel like their parents are their providers, and that they are loved by the many people in their lives. Attachment is truly an evolving process and the responsibility and the capacity for building a deep, lasting, and insulating “attachment” resides with the adoptive parent. In cultivating deep attachments, parents literally pave the way for healthy development. Included in each stage is a quote from Dr. Neufeld illustrating the evolution of this process and how deepening attachments allows for growth.
Through the Senses. “When your immediate needs are met in terms of physicality, you can venture out more securely.” Attaching through the senses is the most primitive way of attaching and likely conjures up the many images people have when caring for babies – holding them, rocking them, gazing at them, exchanging coos, expressing delight at their every noise and development. A child needs “to sense” the person they are attaching to – through smell, sight, touch, and sound. Holding, wearing and sleeping with your baby when possible are all great tools. Attachment, when working well, at this stage looks like a beautiful and reciprocal dance between parent and child. Open adoption participants can honor this stage through attentive and gentle transitions between families – through a very “hearty welcoming phase” as our friend and writer Jim Gritter likes to say. Children should be savored during this period, and introduced and transitioned from birth family to adoptive family as slowly and thoughtfully as possible, with attention to replicating familiar sounds and smells.
“When we are alike, there is more room for separation.” At some point, there is a natural inclination for children to want to imitate parents and try to be like them. Children seek to be like those they are closest to. OA&FS birth and adoptive families have long been encouraged to recognize the similarities in one another. For example, “Your curly hair is just like Brandi’s!” “Listen to that voice. You sing so beautifully just like John!” It’s equally important for adoptive parents to notice and treasure their child’s similarities to them. “We both can’t stand our carrots touching our potatoes. I get it. You are just like mommy!” “You love to wiggle and shake to music just like daddy!” One adoptive mom who is parenting transracially, said she cried when a friend commented that her daughter walked just like her. “Nobody had even noticed something like that,” she shared. Especially in adoptive families where the differences are readily apparent, parents need to solicit details about what is the same when and wherever they can.
Through Belonging and Loyalty
“When we belong, there is more room for difference. “This stage often is shown through a child’s use of the possessive – “My mommy. My daddy.” Neufeld notes that part of feeling close to someone is considering that person your own. When children feel like they “belong”, the concept of “loyalty” soon makes sense. Loyalty is what allows a parent to parent. Children want to listen to, please and follow the directions of the people they are attached to. In this stage, wise adoptive parents are highlighting very clearly how their child belongs in their family and how they are also part of birth family. OA&FS adoptive mom Amy Prestia noted this stage can feel tricky as it is important to balance this for kids – making the child feel abundantly clear they “belong” in their adoptive family. One way she works on this stage is through acknowledging her daughter’s birthmother at different times and including her as part of their family. “We make a gingerbread house every year with people, representing every family member, including her birthmother,” she said. Another family, with very little contact, says a prayer for all the people in their family, including their daughter’s birthmother. Many older adopted adults report feeling not quite in one family or the other. Great attention to this stage can hopefully ameliorate some of that. Including or talking about birth family during family routines and rituals can also be useful.
“When we matter to each other there is more room for disagreement.” In order to feel close and connected to somebody Neufeld asserts, we seek “significance” which means, we seek to feel we “matter” to somebody. Kids attaching at this level absolutely delight in the happy faces of those they love. Parents at this stage are heavily rewarded by beaming faces when they tell their children quite actively how special they are and how lucky they are to have them in their family. “I am so glad you are my boy,” always gets a smile at my house.” There are many great children’s books parents can use to springboard into these kinds of conversations. Birthparents also aid this stage when they communicate to the child how important they are. More storytelling at this stage about how the child is cherished by both birth and adoptive family members is useful. As her preschooler moves through this phase, adoptive mom Amy Prestia tells pregnancy stories about her daughter’s birthmother, how they all came together at the hospital, cared for her together in the days following discharge, and then how she and her husband brought her home with big brother. Thankfully, nearly all children love talking about themselves at this age and are happy to hear about and feel their significance directly.
“When we have a sense of emotional intimacy, there is more room for individuality.” Attaching at this stage refers to those feelings of warmth and affection. Deeply felt and vulnerable emotion is always involved in deeper levels of attachment. Dr. Neufeld posits that you will know you have hit this mark when your child starts drawing hearts for you and telling you they love you. “They are literally giving their heart to you,” he said. It is also at this stage when children are better able to manage longer separations from their parents, because they are able to “hold on” to that parent more completely when the parent is gone. This is quite a fun stage to be in – with a partner or with a child. Reading particular books at this stage can be a powerful way to verbalize to a child they are loved, and that they are deeply connected to all of the members of their family. Some recommended books include: The Invisible String by Patricia Karst or The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.
Through Being Known
“When you give full expression of your individuality, when you are truly known by the other and have room to be who you are, that is being in deep attachment.” Deepen connections to your child with these books recommended by Dr. Neufeld. When attaching at this level to feel close to somebody is truly to feel “known” by them. The best way to describe this is to think about how you feel when a partner or friend gives you the perfect gift without any prompting. You feel moved by that person’s capacity to choose something so well suited to you. Children in this stage will share their secrets with you and won’t want to lie. They want you to know everything about them. Late night conversations at bedtime often accompany this stage. Parents can work on this stage by paying close attention to their child’s natural interests, activities and dreams. Wise birthparents inquire and do research before every visit – what is the child into these days? Adoptive parents can provide clues and then validate that. For example, “She brought you the paint set because she knows all about the animals you have been painting lately.” When all of us “feel known” for who we truly are it brings enormous comfort.
The Six Stages in the Service of Development
Neufeld, a developmental psychologist, deeply concerned about what makes children “grow up” considers attachment the “womb of maturation.” Children can meet their potential for growth when they have the confidence their needs will be met, that they matter and belong with their family, that they are loved, and that they are known completely and wholly, that literally all parts of them, including all their emotions, are acceptable, and will be valued. Dr. Neufeld summed up the purpose well when he said, “The more fully attached a child is, the more room they have to be themselves.” A person who is able to BE who they are innately, is a person with true freedom.
Want to Learn More?
Our hope is that these six stages can demystify the process of attachment in concrete ways. For those interested in deeper study there are many opportunities.
• Amy Prestia, an OA&FS adoptive parent and certified Neufeld Course Facilitator, can be reached through www.seattleneufeldcommunity.org. Amy is the Director of Education for The Seattle Neufeld Community, a non-profit organization with the mission of supporting Seattle-area adults who are nurturing children to reach their fullest potential. The Art and Science of Transplanting Children is one course which thoroughly explores attachment, the impact of separation, strategies for ameliorating the impact, why conventional discipline methods often don’t work and other strategies in their place. Please see their website for a listing of other courses.
• The Neufeld Institute, www.neufeldinstitute.com, provides education and training to adults involved with children using the attachment-based developmental model created by psychologist Gordon Neufeld. Their mission is to use developmental science to rejoin parents and teachers to their own natural intuition.
Inspired by OA&FS families since 2001, author Katie Stallman completed two courses on Dr. Neufeld’s theory after an introduction by adoptive mom and OA&FS client, Amy Prestia. Many thanks to her and to all for the ongoing illustrations of family and love that OA&FS families provide.