Adoption and Attachment [Your Complete Guide]
Answering Your Biggest Questions about Attachment
As an adoptee, you may have heard about the idea “attachment theory.”
But, what is it exactly?
What are the different attachment styles? Are there any aspects of adoption that have a significant impact on attachment?
We want to help explain the most important things that you need to know about adoption and attachment in this comprehensive guide.
Attachment Issues in Adopted Children [Bonding with Your Adoptive Parents]
When your adoptive parents first brought you into the family, they may have had some concerns about attachment and adoption. Although you bonded with your birth mother in the womb or, if you were adopted at an older age, in your early childhood years, you also likely bonded with your adoptive parents. This is because they were your caregivers.
They likely bonded with you and cared for you throughout your childhood, which established your trust for them from an early age. In other words, this would be healthy attachment, which often has positive effects on long-term mental health.
So, you can have healthy attachment in adopted children, but it’s not always that simple. Being adopted can create some unique challenges, and you might have developed one of several different attachment styles.
What are the different attachment styles?
Below, we will go over the various types of attachment according to adoption attachment theory. In most cases, there are four types you should be aware of.
Keep in mind that figuring out your attachment style has nothing to do with if you are “good” or “bad.” We are all complicated people with personal histories and differing attachment styles.
Don’t grade yourself. Instead, see if you can figure out where you are at, and then consider how understanding your adoption and attachment history might help you grow into an even better version of yourself in the future.
Secure Attachment in Adoption
You may have guessed it, but secure attachment is exactly what it sounds like. When you were a child, a secure attachment style meant that you felt safe in your parents’ care.
This happens when parents show that their child can trust them with anything. When babies cry and their parents comfort them and take care of their needs, the parents are building secure attachment. This also includes parents spending quality time with their children, such as playing with them or holding them.
However, just because these actions were taken by the parents doesn’t mean a child is going to develop a secure attachment style. Other factors, like genetics, family history and social influences, can create other attachment styles.
Insecure-Ambivalent Attachment in Adoption
When it comes to attachment theory and adoption, insecure-ambivalent attachment is when the child is over-attached to their adoptive parent. This means that the child won’t feel comfortable or safe exploring on their own, and they will rely too much on their parents. In this attachment style, the parents may be emotionally inconsistent.
This attachment style is common. In the course of an adoption — either as an infant or (especially) as an older child — a child may begin to feel that no relationship is totally safe. After experiencing the loss of their first primary caregiver relationship through the adoption placement, a child may feel that no primary caregiver is guaranteed to stick around.
In response to this feeling, a child might become overly reliant on their parent(s) in an effort to ensure that they cannot leave. This style of attachment in adoption is a way of seeking safety in response to a real loss early in life.
People with ambivalent attachment are often highly suspicious of new relationship and constantly worrying about existing relationships ending. Finding safety, security and love through relationships can be a serious challenge, but is also the thing that people want most.
Insecure-Avoidant Attachment in Adoption
The needs of the child with insecure-avoidant attachment are similar to insecure-ambivalent attachment, but the way the child expresses those needs is very different.
Similar to children who have an insecure-ambivalent attachment; children with an insecure-avoidant attachment fear the loss of their caregiver, especially if this has already happened in their life through an adoption placement. To counteract that, a child might show resistance toward their adoptive parents and, occasionally, other people, too.
Behavior that is often seen as “acting out” is the child’s way of ensuring that a constant connection exists between themselves and a caregiver. Even if that connection is one based in anger or frustration from the parent, it is still a connection, which is better than no connection at all.
As someone with an insecure-avoidant attachment style grows up, they may struggle to enter into trusting relationships or share their feelings with those closest to them. Close relationships can be challenging, as they trigger anxiety but are also the very thing that the person is seeking.
Insecure-Disorganized Attachment in Adoption
Of all the styles listed in adoption attachment theory, insecure-disorganized attachment can be the most challenging for both the child and the parents.
Insecure-disorganized attachment comes from a place of serious pain and loss. It is not the sign of a “bad” child or a “bad” person. It is the sign of a person who needs (and deserves) love, safety and security, but most likely had experiences early in life that told them that they would not get these things.
Disorganized attachment and adoption can be confusing for everyone. For instance, a child might express negative emotions when their parent is away from them. But, when the parent arrives to comfort them, the child exhibits resistance toward the parent instead of affection.
From a general standpoint, the child is confused. Experiences of unpredictable behavior from the parent early in life may have set this course in motion, and it could lead to adopted child attachment issues.
It is also worth noting that attachment styles continue in a family throughout generations. Adoptive parents who had insecure attachments with their own parents may be more likely to establish an insecure attachment with their children. This concept applies to both adoptive families and birth families.
Attachment in Adopted Children [How Adoption Affects Attachment]
As an adoptee, you may be curious about the aspects of adoption that affect attachment. Is this something that only people who are adopted deal with, or does attachment theory apply to everyone?
Just like a child born to their family biologically, adoptive parents can establish a secure attachment with their child. And, just like a child born to their family biologically, a child can have a secure or insecure attachment with their adoptive parents.
In terms of adoption and attachment, you may have had difficulties bonding with your adoptive family right away, but they may have developed a stronger attachment as the years passed by.
Although adoption doesn’t affect attachment as much as you may think, attachment issues in adopted children can stem from a variety of sources:
- The early experiences of the child with their biological family
- The actions of the adoptive family early in life
- The way a child copes with their adoption story while developing a sense of identity
- And much more
During the first handful of weeks, the adoptive parents may harbor some anxiety about bonding with their child and tending to their every need. But, adoptive families should remember that patience is a virtue. Working toward a deep relationship with children takes time, and keeping that in mind can help foster a secure, healthy attachment in adoption.
As a child who was adopted, you might be exploring your attachment style later in life. What’s done is done, and now you want to understand how forces outside of your control may have shaped who you are.
Identifying your attachment style, and the primary causes of it, can give you insight into what you need to grow, health and thrive.
How You Can Identify and Respond to Your Attachment Style [Attachment Theory and Adoption]
Consider the hallmarks of each attachment style and compare these to your experience. Which do you relate to most? Though discovering your personal style of attachment in adoption may be a long journey, this quick exercise can point you in the right direction:
- Builds long-lasting, healthy relationships with others
- Tends to have great self-esteem
- Talks about feelings with friends, family members and partners
- Hesitant to develop close relationships with others
- Responds unhealthily to the end of relationships
- Fears that their partner does not love them
- Struggles with intimacy
- Doesn’t invest in social and romantic relationships
- Incapable of sharing feelings with others
- Takes on a parental role at a young age
- Acts as a caregiver toward the parent at an early age
This can be a lot of information to take in at once, so we understand if you have some more questions about attachment and adoption. Although we work with birth parents and adoptive families, adoptees like you can find useful resources from TCU and other attachment studies for the answers you’ve been searching for.
Information available through these links is the sole property of the companies and organizations listed therein. American Adoptions, Inc. provides this information as a courtesy and is in no way responsible for its content or accuracy.