Attachment and the adoptive parent

Many adoptive parents understand the term attachment as it relates to their children.  Many of us – myself included – will not have heard this term until we attended adoption preparation training.  I remember listening to a 2-hour session on attachment theory and thinking I wanted to adopt a ‘secure’ child (as I write this today I remain horrified by my lack of knowledge and naivety).

Post adoption, much was spoken of my daughter’s attachment style. There was a drive to understand her attachment behaviours, and there was an expectation that I would work to create secure attachment opportunities.  At no point in the 10 years that I have been in the ‘adoption system’ has my own attachment style been explored or explained.  As a practicing counsellor and psychotherapist I find this extraordinary as my own attachment history will strongly influence my parenting practice.

The purpose of this post is to explore attachment as it relates to adoptive parents.

Recap on attachment

Attachment is described as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”.  Attachment theory explains the dance of attunement that occurs between an infant and primary caregiver.  The child responds to the care provided by the primary carer and this relationship forms the basis for how we view ourselves as people, how we view others and our place in the world (what we call the ‘internal working model).  

Attachment styles have been categorised into four areas:

Secure: Caregiving was consistently good enough, secure, nurturing and safe; View of the self is balanced and overall positive; Enjoys and seeks emotional closeness

Insecure – Avoidant: Caregiving was unavailable during moments of emotional stress or was overbearing; Propensity to self-sooth and suppress feelings; Views the self as not worthy of love and attention; Others cannot trusted; Often avoids emotional intimacy and conflict

Insecure – Ambivalent: Caregiving was inconsistent and unpredictable which often meant the child acted-out to get what was wanted; Believes the self is un-loveable and of little worth; May hold a black and white view of the world; Driven by emotions rather than thoughts

Insecure – Disorganised: Caregiving was dangerous, chaotic and inconsistent; Believes the self is bad and so is everyone else; Controlling; Self-Regulation difficult; Emotional closeness is frightening and/or dangerous

I will paint a very simple picture of how an attachment relationship may influence someone.

Case Study Part 1:  If your primary carer (usually your mum) was not responsive to your needs (you may cry and not be soothed, you may hurt yourself and be told to ‘man up’, you learn to hold emotion in rather than show it) then you learn that emotions are difficult and are to be supressed or ignored.  You may also form an unconscious belief that something about you makes your mum respond to you in this way – you unconsciously believe that you’re not worthy of love. Therefore, rather than trusting people with your feelings and thoughts, you rely on yourself and you show the external world that you are strong and independent.  In this case, your attachment style will have elements of ‘avoidant’.

Attachment in adulthood

Attachment styles and our internal working model remain consistent for most people over the course of their life.  This does not mean that these styles are fixed and will remain static through the lifetime – rather, new attachment strategies can be learned through experiencing a consistent, secure and nurturing relationship (with, for example, a partner, close friend or therapist).  

If in childhood a particular attachment strategy was required, these strategies become a learned pattern – they will be used by the individual into teenage years and adulthood.  Our attachment style influences all key relationships in our life, including our relationships with parents, intimate partners, friends and children.  Our early attachment relationships also influence our ability to manage conflict and interpersonal stress, emotional regulation and self-esteem.

Attachment styles are defined slightly differently in adulthood:

Autonomous (Secure) – Able to value and objectively reflect on attachment relationships; Open to emotions without being ‘owned’ by them; Can balance own needs / needs of others; Secure self-esteem

Dismissing (Insecure – Avoidant) – Minimise awareness of feelings in general and of relational feelings in particular; Need to feel strong, self-sufficient and independent; May relocate weak / untrustworthy feelings onto others; May have contradictory self-esteem between external and internal values

Preoccupied (Insecure – Ambivalent) – Hyper-aware of feelings; Highly sensitive; May switch between anger / passivity in attachment relationships; May be clingy and/or needy; Difficulty regulating emotions; Low self-esteem

Unresolved (Insecure – Disorganised) – Experience of trauma / loss that is not reconciled; Can become overwhelmed or chaotic when emotionally challenged; May use control as a form of regulation; Feeling of being perpetually threatened by feelings and by others; Low self-esteem

For most of us, our attachment style sits on a continuum – we will typically not be 100% secure or 100% dismissing / preoccupied – rather we will respond in particular ways depending on context.  Our responses are unconscious until we build awareness, at which point we can respond in ways that challenge our learned ways.

Case Study Part 2:  If you tend towards an avoidant attachment style, you may find emotional intimacy difficult within a relationship.  Part of you may want to be in a relationship, but you may feel uncomfortable or nervous when your partner gets too close; alternatively, you may choose partners who are ‘unavailable’. You may keep people at a distance, maintaining your independence and strong external face.  You may feel quite emotionally empty, without understanding why. Often you are successful in other areas of your life.

Attachment and parenting

There are high expectations on those of us who parent adopted children. We place those expectations on ourselves, and expectations are placed on us by the myriad of services that may be involved in our life.  I know about these expectations from personal experience – I may have experienced abuse, allegations, school refusal and highly controlling behaviour from my child – yet regardless of what happened in my life there was an expectation that I could (and would) provide secure attachment through therapeutic parenting. 

I understand that therapeutic parenting helps children who have experienced adversity to re-form their already-acquired attachment strategies. I wanted to therapeutically parent and I did so to the best of my ability.  However, I found that over time, my ability to be ‘secure’ for my child became increasingly difficult.  My head understood the process, yet I wasn’t able to emotionally live the experience.  I felt increasingly flawed and failing and this impacted both me and my child.

Case Study Part 3:  The adoptive parent will likely parent a child who uses insecure attachment strategies (including disorganised strategies) – this child may show pull / push behaviour, be highly controlling and emotionally unregulated; the child may live in a world of anger, sadness and fear.  The dismissing (avoidant) parent is likely to be severely challenged by their child’s need – their natural (unconscious) tendency may be to dismiss or ignore the emotional needs of their child.  The parent may find themselves becoming emotionally unregulated and will have few strategies to deal with their distress.  In a world of high expectation, their self-esteem and parental presence may be severely compromised.

Parenting children who have experienced adversity requires parents who are emotionally aware and resilient and who have access to multiple strategies to deal with interpersonal stress.  Parents who have early childhood experiences that are more consistently linked with insecure attachment will find it more challenging to access the skills needed to securely parent.  

The parent is the greatest healing tool for the child.  It is a missed opportunity that there is not significant focus on the attachment history of adoptive parents: how that history influences their parenting, and access to services that promote attachment knowledge and work with parents to question and broaden their attachment strategies.

Increasing awareness of attachment

Increasing my own attachment awareness has taken many years and has involved reading about attachment, reflecting on my own life history and recognising in my life today how I deal with conflict, emotional challenge and close personal relationships.  Understanding my strategies for managing these life elements has allowed me to effect change in my own life – in behaviour, self-esteem and self-care – and also to accept my personal attachment preferences.

I re-trained because I wanted to share my learnings with others. In my work as a psychotherapist I meet many adults who struggle with relationships.  In many instances the work we do together involves the exploration of their attachment history.  Helping individuals to make sense of their past allows them to find different ways of being in the present.  

While a therapist can help with this work, it is certainly not the only way to increase attachment knowledge.  Having emotionally secure relationships with close friends or intimate partners can also increase attachment security.  Reflecting on attachment history can assist in identifying fixed (often unconscious) patterns – and awareness of these patterns is a great starting point for thinking about or trying new strategies.  Reading about attachment can also be beneficial – “Attached” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller provides attachment information in an easy-to-read format.  

Over the coming months I will write about areas that I believe are important for attachment security:  self-esteem, emotional regulation, personal reflection and mindfulness.

References:  I have read many excellent articles and books about attachment.  The work of John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, Peter Fonagy, John Arden and David Wallin have all informed my understanding of attachment theory.

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