If you’re anything like me, adoption can be rough on your heart. I’m tenderhearted, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I’m an all-up-in-my-emotions person. Basically, I’m a walking tear factory some days. It’s not that I haven’t tried to toughen up. I’ve gotten better as I age about not crying over every little thing. However, it can be very easy to slip back into old habits when I feel rejected. Make that double when it is rejection from my kids that I waited years and years to parent. Bonding and adoption can be a difficult combination.
I remember reading about attachment disorders in the information packet I was given at foster parent training. I thought how awful it would feel to be rejected by a child for who I wanted to feel my love. I remember reading all the things I could get my hands on about trying to prevent attachment issues in adoption. The good news is there are things that can be done. The bad news is that sometimes trauma is bad enough that any type of bonding feels terrifying to a child.
If a child has an attachment disorder, their behavior can appear chaotic and they can appear to be desperately seeking your affection while adamantly shoving your affection away. It’s confusing, painful, and overall not a good time. So what do you do? How do you address bonding? Well. The answer isn’t fun either.
See, I’ve discovered that the longer I work at improving my relationships, the more gross things I discover about myself. For me, step one of helping my child to heal was working on healing myself. I have my own baggage and it was getting squarely in the way of bonding with my child. I was the kid that has always been told I’m too sensitive because…well, I am. Things that shouldn’t matter upset me. When I realized that a large percentage of the issue was me, I wish I could say things immediately got better but that would be a lie. However, the more therapy I had to work through my issues, the better things felt.
The number one thing that has improved my bond with my attachment-adverse daughter is faking it until it was real. I made myself do things like allow her to paint my fingernails, style my hair, and sit on my lap during storytime. It might not feel like a huge sacrifice to you, but let me explain.
I’m a touch-oriented person. I feel love when someone plays with my hair or holds my hand. I understand and respect that many people aren’t like that. But when I offer to hold my daughter’s hand and she rejected me, it outright hurt—a lot. So I stopped offering. Obviously, that didn’t help improve our bonding. So I had to start pretending I wasn’t bothered. I had to start responding to her hateful words with “I love you” even when I didn’t feel like loving her. Even when it was really difficult to feel loving towards her.
Getting her to hold my hand was a frustrating drawn-out ordeal at first. It turns out that what I needed to do was play up how fun holding my hand is. I’d hold my hands out to my other daughters and twirl them around like we were in a dance. We’d twirl and spin acting goofy in the Walmart shopping aisle. My older daughter would look at us, eyes wide, with a feral want in her eyes. She wanted that connection but she didn’t know how to accept it. I made a production of hand-holding every time we went out. I praised her sister’s twirls and admired how lovely their skirts fluttered. We always ended up dizzy and giggling. After a few outings with our shenanigans, she eventually asked, “Can I triwl too?” Of course, I said yes. She pulled away after a minute the first few times but now she eagerly holds my hand when we go places.
Sometimes you will end up with a child who just doesn’t want to be around you. One of my sons just does not want to exist in the same space as me. It’s painful for me emotionally. For him, my methods have changed. I make sure to surround him with adults I trust and I’ve backed off. While it’s not ideal I’ve needed to trust people that aren’t me to help him. I also use them for intel. I get information from his youth pastor’s wife about his favorite drink (because he’ll never tell me when I ask) and surprise him with it. His laundry is his job, but I’ll sometimes wash, dry, fold, and put away his things while he’s at school so he knows he’s cared for.
Sometimes it feels like I’m talking to a wall when I ask him what he’d like for dinner or why an assignment isn’t handed in for school. I’ve been told this is normal for teens sometimes. I’ll take their word on it. Regardless, I keep talking to him—even when it feels like I’m talking to myself. His eyes roll up in his head so hard I’m afraid they will get stuck that way.
Ultimately, I’ve realized I can’t make them like me. I can be as kind, sweet, generous, and loving as possible and their stuff might still get in the way of them bonding or accepting me as their mom. As long as I know I’ve tried my best to fix my side of the equation, sometimes that’s the best I can get. It’s unfortunate. I have to remind myself that I’m not the first parent whose kid has rejected them, and I won’t be the last. It is my job to be a mature adult and not a second, petulant, angry child. If I’m not careful I can slide in that direction much too easily.
Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.