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Healing attachment disorder in adopted child?

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Hi, I believe my 7 yr old birth son and i have a great, very close relationship. But my question comes with my 4 year old adopted son. He was placed with us after he was 3 yrs old. Several foster homes and loss of sibling close in age. He was with his birth mom until over 2 yr. old.

I know he has come a long way in the year and half we have adopted him but will I ever get that closeness with him that I have with my older son? I have the same expectations of both my kids. i do not get babysitters. i babysit from home so I can be with my kids. I know in my heart he has an attachment disorder due to abusive and neglectful past. He will cuddle now, he is not as angry.

But everythingIi have read on this web site states bond from infancy. Yes this is proven, my older son is responsible, loving, accepting, compassionate, all the good qualities, when we come along a bump in the road it is easier with him. My adopted son has so many issues. I have read many books and have followed the advice I read. I know he is changing. but I feel he has got a long long way to go.

He never could stand "touch" before and now I can rub his back and cuddle him. I do not think he is as angry as he was before, I am trying to help him "grieve" and learn he has someone to always talk to. But I don't know what else I can do. I had to be the disciplinarian before we had a bond.

Do you have any other suggestions to help me bond and get a close intimate relationship with him? I love him so much. I know he is smart. I just feel like he will always resent me as his "mom" ... because women are the ones that hurt him in the past. I feel a mom is the most special person in anyone's life and he doesn't think much of women. Like I said I know he is starting to change, but maybe you have some advice that would give me a boost of encouragement to help my son. Thank you...
5 steps forward and 3 steps back


Dear Michelle,

You have my deepest admiration. You are doing the most important and hardest work there is, which is saving a life by healing the soul. As you know, this work takes constant love and attention. But love does transform people, and heal even the deepest wounds.

You say that your son is not as angry now, that he will let you touch and cuddle him. That is a huge achievement. You have done the hardest part -- your son has become willing to let you touch him physically and emotionally. Everything else builds on that connection.

You ask whether you'll you ever have the closeness with your younger son that you do with your older son. I think you can. It will take extra understanding on your part, but because you and he are going through so much together -- essentially bringing him back to open-heartedness after his traumatic past -- that in itself will create closeness.

You say that you try to help him grieve and to let him know that he always has someone to talk to. That is an enormous gift. You ask what else you can do to build a close relationship. I suspect you are doing this anyway, but the more you can offer him empathy, acceptance, and respect, the faster he will heal. An example might be a time when he misbehaves in some way. Most moms would threaten their child with a punishment. But that always undermines the relationship.

The way to build a close relationship (as I suspect you already know, from your letter) is to see it from his point of view. "I see you're not undressing to get in the bathtub, as I asked you. You're still playing, and you don't look like you're listening to me. I wonder if you're trying to tell me that you want to be in charge of when you get in the tub?" When he looks up at you, you can add "Ok, I see how much you want to play a little more, but you do need to have a bath and get all clean before we read your bedtime story. Do you think you'll be ready to get in the bathtub in five minutes, or in ten minutes?" Usually, at that point, he'll choose ten minutes. And because you're given him respect and some control, instead of what he would perceive as pushing him around or violating his desires, he will cooperate and get in the tub in ten minutes.

All kids do better with that kind of respectful parenting. But kids who have been abused especially need it, because their very self has been violated. Usually, over and over, they challenge you to see if you will offer them respect. If you can see it from their point of view, they relax and begin to trust you and to cooperate.

Here are some other things that are particularly important with kids who've been abused:

1. They need to know that you are in control of your own feelings and will not, under any circumstances, attack them in any way, including verbally. That means you have to be very careful about any discipline, since punishment is always perceived by kids as an attack. Resist any impulse to be punitive. Set limits, but set them with empathy.

2. They need to know that you are going to keep them safe in the world, which means keeping their world orderly and on schedule, and setting appropriate limits.

3. They need help managing their anger, specifically, to know that their rage is understandable, that they have feelings just like they have arms, and those feelings are to be accepted and honored. At the same time, they are responsible for what they do with their arms, and their rage. Most important, you will help them to contain their rage so that it doesn't pose a danger to them or anyone else.

4. They need the opportunity to "tell you" about what happened to them. This won't take place with words, but with rage and tears. When your son gets angry about anything, accept his anger and stay close to him. Keep looking him in the eye and empathizing. If he attacks you verbally, acknowledge how angry he is, and don't take it personally. Eventually, in your safe presence, he will break through his anger to the tears beneath it and cry and cry. That crying is an essential part of healing. He is expressing to a safe witness what he went through. After a session like this, you will see that he is more free, more affectionate, more cooperative.

5. They need your reassurance that their body won't be violated, and they need to have as much control over their lives as possible. You could use language like "You're in charge of your own body" or "You're in charge of your own clothes" whenever appropriate, and of course give choices whenever you can.

6. They need your reassurance that you will not abandon them, no matter what. Kids who have been abandoned always fear that there is something wrong with them that will cause anyone they depend on to leave them. Parents need to bend over backwards to assure these kids that they will always be there for them. They always "test" the parent by misbehaving, and need your reassurance that you love them especially when they act least lovable.

You say that you know in your heart that your son has an attachment disorder. That sounds likely. The most important "cure" is your love, but it would be a good idea for the two of you (together) to see a psychologist specializing in attachment disorders. The experience of such an "expert" could offer you indispensable support in your journey with your son.

I also have a book to recommend:

Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors by Heather Forbes. Forbes specializes in kids who have been adopted, and this book is very helpful in understanding how to handle the aggression usually displayed by children with deep fears.

Finally, I would not worry too much about your son's feelings about women. Every day that you love him is healing him of those feelings.

Please write anytime. I feel honored to participate even in this small way on your journey with your son.

Infinite blessings to you and your family,
Dr. Laura

Hi Dr. Laura,
Thank you so much for your quick response. It means a lot to
me. Your words have been very encouraging. I will definitely take your words to heart. Maybe I can work on giving him more choices. I know i do give him a lot of choices anyways but not in the regards in your example of bath time.

I know i try to see a lot from his point of view, as hard as it is sometimes, but I believe that has helped me put some of the pieces to his puzzle of the past. I know I think too much into things sometimes but I know cps does not know half of what has happened to him, he was in fost/adopt placement before and it only lasted a month or so. He was a hard to place child, when they did his staffing I was the only one that said YES!

And I am so very glad that he is my son. God has sent me a challenging gift. My two sons are the best thing that has ever happened to me. My husband and I had to work hard for them. I am pretty sure he knows he is here to stay.

I will be reading the book you recommended, I have not heard of this one. I have read the book "Attaching in adoption, practical tools for today's parents." by Deborah Grey. I must have kept this book for about six months from the library. It had so many useful things in it. All the way to how family reacts to certain situations to how my son acts around strangers, like he has known them forever or is still parent shopping.

We are working on him not being sneaky and lying. Which I have found through my reading this is common for kids that are adopted or have lost the trust in any adults. I know he is still "playing the game of survival" sometimes. And I actually remind him that he has a good mom and dad now that take care of him.

He tells me everyday that i am his "bestest" Mom. He is my son and I will never give up on him. I know I will make mistakes along the way but everyday I try my hardest. I will look forward to the day that he is confident about the world and himself. I am so proud of him, he will not be five until december and he has gone from never coloring or drawing to tracing his name, he knows his colors, count to 13, sings his abc's.

I have heard so many bad things about kids that are not attached as an infant, now I feel like we are not so lost. Before we had our son I never even heard of "attachment disorder". I assumed that I would bring him in the house the very first time and with my love would be instantly better. How naive I was. But I am learning. And love any advice or words of wisdom.

Thank you,


Dear Michelle,
I am so glad my words were encouraging. Being a good mom to your son takes a lot of strength and love, and I am delighted to be able to help even a little.

It may take your son a long time to understand deep down that he is with you to stay, but every day you offer him love and understanding is a step in the right direction.

You have every right to be proud of your wonderful son. The healing he is doing takes a lot of courage. And I am sure that your husband and other son are part of this healing journey as well. You must be very proud of your whole family, because each of you is a hero in your own way.

Thanks for your recommendation of Deborah Grey's book on adoption, I will check it out. Please stay in touch.

Blessings to you and your family,
Dr. Laura

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