As you welcome a new child into your home, whether through fostering or adoption, it’s imperative that she understands she is safe in your home and with you. Finding ways to bond with one another can cultivate those feelings of safety. With any new relationship, it takes time to build trust and security, so adoptive and foster parents must be in the frame of mind that slow and consistent is best. All adopted and fostered children experience trauma in varying degrees when they are separated from their biological families, so, as they enter your home and you take on the role of caregiver for this child, be sure to pursue that attachment with patience and tenderness.
Adoptive and foster parents can carve out time and activities that will encourage attachment. Those positive moments that are planned with intention are fantastic, but parents must also acknowledge that attachments are being forged and hindered by their responses to adverse scenarios as well. Age is certainly a factor when trying to create an attachment to a new child entering your family. Babies are longing to feel loved and have their needs met but are unable to communicate their feelings about the trauma they have experienced. Toddlers and older children will communicate their distrust or loneliness in different ways that can be upsetting for parents trying to form attachments with them. Adoptive and foster parents need to be prepared to respond with empathy to grumpiness or hostility from their new family members; how you respond during those grumpy and hostile moments can be a deciding factor on whether or not this child will learn to trust you. However, bonding is not just about the child in the equation. Adoptive and foster parents are taking on a parenting role with a child who is a stranger to them, so working intentionally to build that attachment will encourage your bond as well. Below are some ways that you can bond with your new family members based upon their age.
Bonding with Babies
Forming an attachment with babies is much more natural because they are fully dependent upon their adoptive or foster parents.
1. Skin to Skin – There are so many benefits of skin to skin, particularly for adoptive and foster parents. You can read about the benefits for the bonds of biological mothers to their children, but don’t feel like you lose out on those advantages just because you aren’t a biological parent who gave birth. Skin to skin encourages attachment when babies feel the warmth of your skin. They can hear and feel your heart. All of this simulates the comforts of the womb. Skin to skin also gives you, the adoptive and foster parents, the opportunity to bond with your child.
2. Cuddling – Cuddling and comforting your baby is the best way to bond with your new baby because it can happen at any place, anytime. If you don’t feel comfortable with skin to skin contact, this is an excellent alternative. Allow the baby to sleep on your chest, or rock him while he is awake and can see your face. Feeding time is a perfect opportunity for cuddles too. Your baby will learn to seek you as you continually meet her needs. She will seek you for comfort and learn to trust you when she sees and feels you consistently meeting her needs day to day.
3. Talking/Singing/Reading – This bonding activity cannot be overstated. Talking and singing to your new baby has so many benefits that go behind helping you and your baby bond. Babies recognize voices before recognizing faces, so the first benefit is that your new baby will get to know your voice as he has his basic needs met by you. They learn that it’s okay to trust and depend upon you. Another benefit of talking and singing to your new baby is that she learns language through hearing the sounds you make and seeing you form words with your mouth. This language acquisition is so important for their growing minds, and your child can reap benefits well into his schooling years as he begins to read.
I became a mother for the first time when my son was two days old. I loved just watching him sleep and cuddling with him. I also remember knowing that it was good for me to talk to him, but I had no idea what to say to him. He seemed so quiet and peaceful, so I just started talking about our new relationship. I told him that I knew my voice sounded different than his biological mother, but I promised him that I would continue to care for him and love him forever. I talked to him about all his family members that he would meet and told him how nerdy our family was likely to seem to him and apologized in advance for all the embarrassing moments we were destined to put him through as parents. The more I talked to him, the easier it was to just begin narrating our entire life. The more we interacted, the stronger our bond became.
4. Eye Contact – Babies cannot see far when they are first born, so getting close allows them to begin to learn your face. Big animated faces and sounds are engaging for little babies as they grow. Your new family member will begin to see you as part of her life, not just meeting basic needs. Your voice and face are where the relationship really begins to become a trusting bond. As your baby grows, she will begin to see you express emotion. There are so many social and emotional benefits to making eye contact with your baby.
Bonding with Toddlers
Forming an attachment with a toddler wanting independence can be a bit more challenging but can certainly be accomplished with commitment and consistency over time.
1. One-on-One time – This is so important, especially if you already have multiple children in your family. For each child to have a special bond with a parent, an adoptive or foster parent must dedicate one-on-one time for each child. This doesn’t have to be accomplished daily or even weekly, but it is vitally important that a child new to your family can get to know his new parent deeply.
Our daughter was placed with us at 2 years old, and if there were one thing I would do differently, it would be this: We were the family that did everything together, and on most occasions, that is a special characteristic of our family. We didn’t know what we could gain by having one-on-one time with one another. By luck one day, my son put up a protest about taking a family trip to the grocery store, so I decided just the girls would go. It was the most pleasant shopping experience we had in such a long time with two 2-year-olds in our family. She and I got to jabber, but more importantly, she got me all to herself, which I didn’t realize was so vitally important to her trusting me and loving me. She needed to me invest in her, not just the entire family, but her individually. This has really changed some of our family practices. We go on parent dates where each parent takes a kid to dinner and does something they want to do without their sibling. This practice has really changed the dynamic of our family in such a positive way, and I wish I had known sooner what a change it can make in our bond.
2. Get on the Floor and Play – When building a bond with your new family member, there is nothing better than saying “YES!” to playing with him and getting down on the floor to pretend and create and imagine together. This is the perfect opportunity to get to know your child and have experiences with him. Toddlers are learning language, colors, shapes, numbers, and letters. This is prime time to get in there and play, allowing her to guide you in what she wants to discover. My daughter loved to pretend to tuck me in, covering me with a blanket, saying prayers, kissing my cheek. It was hard for her to learn to trust us, but those little moments were indications to me that we were on the right track.
3. Eye Contact and Noticing – This may sound simplistic, but as often as you can, get on your child’s level. Adults tower over children, and that can feel looming or intimidating for a child who is new to your family. When a parent brings their face down to the level of their child’s, looking eye to eye, it communicates that you are stopping what you are doing to listen closely, a willingness to invest in what is taking place in the moment. As much as possible, get on her level and tell her the things you notice about her: “I noticed you really seemed to like that game.” “You were smiling and laughing so much when I tickled you.” “I saw you jump so high just now.” “It seemed like you were really upset when we had to put that toy away.” These comments let children know you are watching them and taking pride in them and also noticing when they are hurting. Getting on their level to play and notice and name their emotions can really help toddlers cope with change and form an attachment with you.
4. Meet Their Needs – With toddlers that are new to your family, meeting their basic needs is a significant way to form an attachment. They are not helpless babies who need you, and they may occasionally fight you to get them dressed or to eat what’s for dinner. Allowing them to regress a bit in this area is okay. There will be time for independence later.
Our social worker suggested that my husband and I be the only people who meet our daughter’s needs for a minimum of three months, six months being ideal. Since we are both working educators, we knew we needed to take full advantage of the summer to establish a bond with her. We had no babysitters for the entire summer. She received every diaper change, clothing change, and meal from one of us. It was hard work. We also isolated ourselves from family and friends for a time so that she could get to know us. We wanted her to know that she would come to us for safety when we were in public, rather than strangers. If people came by to pay a visit, we had to politely ask them not to feed her or serve her. If she wanted help with anything, she had to ask her mommy or daddy. I remember after about two months and a couple of public outings, we ventured to a friend’s birthday party. I had quite a bit of anxiety to just let her go during the chaotic mingling of the adults and loud chatter, but it was our chance to let her know that even if she doesn’t see us right next to her, we are still there for her. She was playing in the middle of the living room with a couple of other kids and a toy was loud and surprised her. She wheeled around looking at the sea of faces, and we locked eyes. She smiled and went back to playing, and again, I knew we were on the right track because she was finally learning who her mommy was.
5. Swimming – This is a great activity to build trust and get some skin to skin contact. Children can jump to you, exercising their faith in you that you will keep them safe and follow through. Swimming can create a mixture of fear and excitement for toddlers, so be willing to walk away if it is causing too much stress. The last thing you want to do is have a bonding moment turn into a struggle. Even if it does cause stress and you choose to stop swimming, that communicates to your child that you hear him and see what he wants and needs to feel safe. Leaving the pool can accomplish that just as much as the activity itself.
6. Reading – Reading to your toddler has so many advantages to it. A child who is new to your family can hear your voice and gets to hear you read stories she is interested in. It can open up a dialogue about characters and imaginative play. Crawling up into your lap and being held during a story can be so soothing and cathartic to these children that are desperate to feel safe and loved.
Bonding with Older Children
These bonds take the most time and consistency. Older children may have patterns of mistrust and hurtful experiences where those they love may not have followed through for them. It’s imperative to realize that their behaviors are not personal, but a symptom of pain they have experienced. They need you to invest in them over and over to form a bond.
1. Invest in Their Interests – Find out if there are activities they want to try. Are they interested in karate or drawing? Using the activity as a way to form an attachment means a parent cannot just sign them up and drop them off. It has to be an activity you do together, so if your child is interested in drawing, have her teach you how to draw or watch tutorials together and work alongside one another. Ask her to “Show me how you…”
Let older children take the lead. Give them options of what to choose for a family fun day or a one-on-one parent date. They may want to go to an amusement park or go sit down at their favorite restaurant. Make the activity all about them with lots of choices that they get to guide and direct. Older children that are placed into care or adoption have not had the chance to control much of their life, so this is a great opportunity for them to lead for a day. Be ready to say YES to some of their crazy ideas. They may give you the opportunity to try something completely new.
2. Swimming – It’s hard to make older kids cuddle with you and trust you enough to crawl up into your lap when they are hurting, so swimming is a great opportunity to promote closeness in a less intimidating way. Older children may love to race or to be thrown into the pool. Swimming can be one step in many where your newly adopted child opens up to be silly and fun, and he may desire that closeness again later when the pain of his past experiences resurface. Again, swimming is definitely not something to push if older children have apprehensions at all. It’s more important to listen and be receptive to their feelings.
3. Be Ready to Process – Older children have likely endured some significant trauma in their lives. Being ready to discuss that and help them process through their emotions when they open up to you so you can really be an opportunity for trust and faith in one another. They need to know that they can lean on a parent that won’t abandon them. They may have many unlovable behaviors that they can’t seem to stop, and they may try to self-destruct some of the good things happening to them because they feel they are unworthy or undeserving. Talking honestly about the reasons for pain in their life can open the door to healing, but again, this process to build trust takes time.
4. Reading – As a high school teacher, when I read a book that my students recommend, they are so excited to be able to talk about it with me, and I’m always surprised at how much they love to hear stories read aloud. If you are searching for an activity to do together, let them choose a book you will read together. Find a series that they will love so they want to create a long-term routine of reading together. Again, it can really open up dialogue about life and choices and pain and perseverance, all themes that may be difficult for older children and teens to open up about. Reading together can be the door opening to pivotal conversations for their lives and your bond together.
No matter the age of your new family member, there are plenty of activities you can engage in with them to help create an attachment. The key to forming a bond is to be unfailingly present for them and to consistently invest in activities that will promote their bond with you and your bond with them. If you ever feel stumped, just hop online where there are tons of suggestions that may be right for your child and your family. A bond will not happen overnight, but the work that it takes will be worth it as you continue to see your relationship grow.
Callie Smothers is a writer, English teacher, and softball coach from the midwest. She and her husband have a family built through adoption, including two ornery, beautiful four-year-olds that are actually 5 months apart. Her family specializes in making messes, creating imaginative stories, and playing hard outdoors as much as possible. Check out her other writings on her Worship in a Warship Facebook page.