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Adoption and bonding: Building a secure attachment with adopted children

Rich and Lew are the adoptive parents of a son and a daughter.

Here Rich talks about how building an attachment with their children has been a learning process...

Lew and I started talking about having a family about 18 months into our relationship, although we didn’t know what that would look like.

We decided that adoption was the best route for us but going into the process, we didn’t think we could adopt a baby. We’d read online forums that said gay adopters were normally only put up for the harder to place children. However, when we chatted to the social worker we’d been allocated, she reassured us there was no difference in the process for same sex couples.

Being a parent through adoption is about what you can offer to the child: giving them a loving home and helping them grow into fully-rounded adults.

Lew (left) and Rich (right) and their two children.

Attachment and adoption

Early on, we realised that understanding how to build an attachment with your child is a huge part of the adoption process. That became even clearer at a workshop with other would-be parents. We all formed a circle around another parent-to-be who was pretending to be the adopted child. Each of us held a piece of string which was connected to the ‘child’ and we were given different roles: birth parents, foster parents and the adopted parents. The social worker then cut each string until the only connection for the child was with the new adopted parents.

You got an idea of how the child might be feeling when those strings were cut: how attached they might have been to their parents and foster parents, and loss they'd experience as they move to you, the adopted parents.

It was hard to do, but it helped explain the reality of their world and why building a secure attachment was so important.

The social worker also explained that if a child has moved between lots of different foster carers, they might find it harder to form a bond with their adopted parents. They may feel they will just be moving on again. This really surprised us and made us realise that developing that attachment with our child wasn’t going to happen overnight.

Another part of the process was thinking about our own childhoods. We had to write about our relationships as a child and what they each of them were like now. It really made us think about our attachments to people, how they were formed and whether they were positive or not.

The matching process

After months of paperwork and meetings with our social worker, we were approved as adoptive parents.

We’d hoped we’d have a child right away but it doesn’t work like that.

In the end we were lucky and only had to wait eight weeks after being approved at the panel. Lew was at work when our social worker called him and said she thought she had a match. She emailed a photo of the most smiley 8-month-old baby you can imagine along with a few lines about his background.

They say adoptive parents usually don’t go for the first match, but for us, it felt it was meant to be. We fell in love with him straight away. After that, things moved really fast. We had to go to a ‘matching panel’ where they assess if you are the right parents – luckily they agreed we were.

Meeting our son for the first time

It’s only then that you actually meet your child. We’d taken a lot of advice about how to build an attachment at that stage. We had a cushion made with our faces on and this was put in our son’s cot at his foster home. Our faces were the first thing he saw in the morning and the last thing he saw at night.

We also recorded our voices on a teddy bear that he could listen to. Another great tip we were given was to create an audio photo book. We took photos of ourselves at home, at work and in his new bedroom and recorded little messages to go with each picture. We were then asked to film a one-minute video of ourselves so again, he could get used to our voices.

He was only 10 months old at that point so we don’t know how much he took in.

The foster carer and social worker both prepped us for our first meeting and said don’t do too much or try and pick him up. But when we first met him, he sofa-surfed towards us and didn’t look at us like strangers. Instead he had the reaction of ‘those are the men from the TV’.

We only had half an hour with him on that first day and within five minutes he’d befriended us. Over the next nine days, we gradually did more and more – giving him breakfast, taking him out for the day and eventually, we brought him home.

Bonding with our adopted toddler

It’s at that point, when you have your child at home, that you really start to build your attachment. I had an instant connection and felt it was a two-way thing with our son. Lew loved him straight away but felt he didn’t quite have that connection. He’s more practical than me, so was focused on making sure we had everything we needed. We asked the social worker for advice and she said it was totally normal. After that, he relaxed and the attachment came quite quickly.

We also realised that even though there were two of us, we didn’t need to do everything together.

By having one-to-one time, this meant our son had our undivided attention. This was especially true with bath time which we’d started off doing together. When we changed it to just one of us at a time, our son started to really enjoy it. One of us would get in the bath with him for skin-to-skin contact – something we were told helped build an attachment. He loved it so we took turns doing that.

When Lew and Rich's son was 2 years old, they decided to adopt again.

Going through the adoption process again

When our son was 2 years old we decided to adopt another child. This time it wasn’t just us we had to think about – our son was a really important part of the process. It wasn’t long before we were matched with our daughter. She was only 5 months old and that attachment was a lot easier, as she was that much younger.

Because we now knew how to parent – how to change nappies, feed and so on – we could totally focus on building our bond with her.

Lew said he felt an attachment within seconds because he no longer had the unrealistic pressure on himself to be the ‘perfect’ parent.

We also got a lot of support from Adoption UK and New Family Social who are more focused towards same sex parents. We spoke to other parents about their experiences, which was really helpful.

Building our support network

With both our kids, who are now 5 and 2, we also had to think about their attachment with other members of our family. When you adopt, it is the absolute opposite of having a new baby. Then, you have about 50 people turn up to hug your newborn.

With adopted children, you have to keep other people away so you can build your own bond with your child.

We also suggested our close family went on a course for relatives of adopted children. It teaches them why building attachment is different for adopted children. For example, facial expressions and the feeling of each other’s heartbeat are positive ways people can build an attachment with babies. But in some cases, your adopted child won't have experienced this when they were younger, so this might impact how they respond to you.

With anything new, most parents just crack on and do it.

With both of our children we’ve always got in the back of our minds whether there is anything we need to consider because of their backgrounds.

We know later in life we’ll need to explain more about their lives. We’ve been as open as possible and made both of them a 'life book' with photos of their birth parents and foster parents. There is another section for when they are older with more details about their backgrounds, written by their social worker. We will judge when we show them that by how they are developing.

And we know building a strong attachment now will only benefit us later when we have those harder conversations.

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