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Attachment and Adoption Issues

African American mother with teenage boy smiling

We all need and desire connections with other people. We are happier and healthier when we are able to establish long-lasting supportive relationships. How we go about meeting our need for connection and love often depends on our attachment style.

Attachment style refers to our manner of meeting our needs for connection and support from others. There are three main types of attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment: People with a secure attachment style are comfortable with relationships. They are warm, loving, and confident. They feel their relationship needs will be met and they are able to meet the needs of others.
  • Anxious attachment: Those with an anxious attachment style are preoccupied with relationships. They worry that other people will not love them back and they often feel emotional hunger. They may become needy or clingy in relationships with others.
  • Avoidant attachment: People with avoidant attachment fear intimacy and closeness. They may feel it threatens their independence or they may try to protect themselves from getting hurt. They consistently distance themselves from others.

In many circumstances, a person may have a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment styles. This is called anxious-avoidant.

Our attachment style is generally formed in infancy and early childhood and lasts throughout adulthood. However, our styles may shift over time, depending on our relationship experiences.

When someone has an anxious or avoidant attachment style, their emotional needs may go unmet and they may seek to meet those needs in unhealthy ways. This affects their ability to establish supportive, lasting relationships. If they do not form a secure attachment style from infancy, it is still possible to work towards becoming more secure and forming strong relationships.

Adoption and Attachment

A fetus is biologically and emotionally connected to its mother. Because of this, some believe that separation when the infant is born can be traumatic. Adoption of older children may also be difficult for parents and a child. Although adoption is a wonderful thing, it can cause attachment disruption between a child and a family.

3 Important Facts:

  • Roughly 60 percent of Americans have a secure attachment style. Of the rest, 20 percent have an anxious attachment style and 20 percent have an avoidant attachment style.
  • Adopted children with emotional difficulties often display symptoms of bipolar, ADHD and learning disabilities.
  • Our attachment styles affect how we interact in relationships with parents, siblings, peers, romantic partners and co-workers. Learning your attachment style early can help you work on any issues and significantly improve your relationships over your lifespan.

Signs to look for

  • Significant problems in their interpersonal relationships
  • Anxious-attached: might call or text multiple times, self-harm, threaten to leave or be sexually seductive
  • Avoidant-attached: using alcohol or drugs, isolating, self-harming, or lacking empathy
  • Seems to have it together and then has a major emotional meltdown

Specific symptoms of an attachment issue will vary from person to person. In general, people with attachment difficulties will have significant problems in their interpersonal relationships. For example, an anxious-attached person might respond to threats and stress by calling or texting multiple times. They might also self-harm, make threats to leave, or be sexually seductive. An avoidant-attached person may react to threats and stress by using alcohol or drugs, isolating, self-harming, or lacking empathy. They may also seem to have it together and then have a major emotional meltdown. All of these are indications that the person does not feel secure in their relationships.

Next steps

Attachment and adoption issues may require psychotherapy. Talk with your mental health professional if you suspect you or your loved one is suffering from an attachment issue. A therapist can help you identify your attachment style and help you resolve interpersonal difficulties. By learning how to establish supportive, lasting relationships, you can feel more secure and have happier, healthier relationships.

Helping a friend or loved one establish their identity as an individual with strengths, talents, and supporting them with love is very powerful because many individuals with attachment difficulties view themselves as “broken”, “not good enough”, “unlovable”, “replaceable”, etc. A therapist can work with such individuals to identify this deep negative belief they have about themselves, work through the pain it’s causing, and then help them establish a deep positive belief about themselves.

If you or someone you know need help with adoption issues, a therapist can assist you in processing unrecognized feelings of loss. The therapist may also help you work through fears of abandonment that are preventing you from establishing or maintaining secure relationships.

With the right treatment and support, healing from attachment and adoption issues is possible.

Common Q and A

How common are adoption attachment issues?

Although only 2 percent of the U.S. population is adopted, between 30-35 percent of the population at residential treatment centers is made up of adopted students. This suggests that although adoption is uncommon, emotional issues related to adoption are not.

What affects the type of attachment style we develop?

Abuse, neglect, bullying, and trauma may all play a role in what type of attachment style we develop. Our chances of developing a secure attachment style are lessened if these things are present in our childhood (or later years). The most significant relationship that affects our attachment style is the relationship we have with our parents as a child. Parents who lovingly and quickly respond to our needs as children increase our odds of developing a secure attachment style.

What can I do to help my adopted child?

Here are some ideas to help your adopted child. One is to journal for your child. Some journaling examples are, how you felt the first time you saw your child or what they did during their first week of life with you. Also, make sure your child understands you see their inherent worth and that this is independent of their behavior. You might also make scrapbooks for your child, documenting your time together. This shows love and dedication. Home videos work great as well. These are tangible reminders that you have always been there for your child and love them unconditionally.

Should I talk about the adoption or birth family with my adopted child?

Yes; this is often the first step to healing. Adopted children should know that it’s okay to feel a loss. They have been separated from their birth parents and this can result in feelings of grief. Your child may be curious about their birth family; this, too, is normal and even if you don’t have much information about their birth family, acknowledging their feelings of curiosity is appropriate.