Confronting Feelings of Abandonment and Emotional Trauma

Your child's emotional reactions will depend on whether she's a young infant or older, whether she's from another country or different racial group, and whether you have other children already. Your essential tasks are to thoughtfully and carefully figure out just what you can do to heal past traumas, to engage your child in the reality of where she is, and to support and promote a secure attachment to you, so that she will grow up emotionally and mentally healthy.

Importance of Attachment

If you brought your child home from the hospital or adopted her within a few weeks of birth, your child will, in general, have few problems with feelings of desertion. But once your child is old enough to understand biological relationships, the questions will start, and emotions will become complicated. Feelings of abandonment are lessened and finally eradicated as your child progresses through the stages of attachment that begin at birth.

A child who has not developed healthy attachments to caregivers may respond with these kinds of behaviors:

  • Cruelty to others and pets

  • Lack of long-term friends

  • Superficial and indiscriminate friendliness, especially toward strangers

  • Lack of eye contact and resistance to nurturing touch

  • Attachment doesn't happen all at once. It's a long-term process that continues and changes over time. It consists of approximately five to seven stages (depending on how the levels of intimacy are broken down). Each stage must be accomplished before your child can move to the next.

    The first three stages, Learning to Trust, Learning about Family, and Developing Autonomy, occur during infancy and early childhood. The next stage, Learning about Social Roles, is a transitional stage that allows your child to prepare for relationships outside your family and needs to happen for her to succeed in school. The final stage of attachment, Developing Independence and Competency, starts around age twelve (but can happen as early as eight or nine) and continues through the teens.

    Promoting Attachment in Infants

    Stage One, Learning to Trust, is the most critical of all, because it should begin immediately after birth and usually end within six months if outside circumstances don't come into play. Unfortunately, a significant number of adoptable children don't have the opportunity to enter and progress through this stage. If they never do, they can become emotionally impaired, developing relationships that are unsuccessful and often never experiencing the rewards of true intimacy.

    Your baby must learn that you are reliable and can be trusted to meet her needs. Through you, she'll learn the world is a safe place for her. Your baby also learns that she can get you to respond to her by using attachment cues (e.g., crying when hungry) to express she needs something. Over time and with thousands of repetitions of expressing needs and getting them met, this intricate exchange of attachment cues between you and your baby helps her develop the belief that she is capable and lovable.

    People watching the interchange of attachment cues and responses between a baby and primary caregiver often liken it to a dance. If your baby doesn't come to you until she is several months old, she will either have attached to a previous primary caregiver or she may have been neglected by a birth parent or institution and be emotionally fragile, and weak in successfully using attachment cues.


    Your pediatrician can give you specifics, but in general your baby needs an iron-fortified formula with licopene for her first year. Commercial formulas contain balanced proteins, fats, carbohydrates, sugars, vitamins, and minerals necessary to sustain rapid growth. Neglected infants will need more specialized diets, based on medical knowledge about nutrients they may have missed.

    If your baby has already made an attachment, she must transfer that attachment to you, a process that takes some time. Her grief at the separation from her previous caregiver will be more intense if her first caregiver doesn't absolutely agree to you being the parent. This can be a major factor when the state steps in and removes a child from birth parents.

    Her foster parent or primary caregiver can help her feel safe by giving her permission to become your child. Of course, your baby can't understand spoken language, nor can she speak, but she can understand or sense the emotions of those around her.

    Help your baby complete Stage One by:

  • Providing a predictable environment

  • Responding to her cues about hunger, discomfort, and fear

  • Playing with her and responding to her vocalizations and gestures

  • Initiating eye and skin-to-skin contact

  • Rocking her and talking to her during feedings

  • Helping her learn to self-soothe

  • It's important that the person who has cared for her clearly and vocally tell her it's okay to trust you and that you will be her parent. This transition of trust can take place in a variety of ways. For instance, take over feeding, diapering, or bathing after the foster mom starts the process. Do this for a few times, then respond to your baby's needs while the foster mom watches, and finally, respond without her present. Some babies will transition more easily than others. Get help from your pediatrician or social worker if things become too hard.

    Promoting Attachment in Toddlers

    Toddlers (children between the ages of twelve and thirty-six months) have the most difficult time changing caregivers because their verbal and cognitive skills are limited, yet they are very aware of their surroundings and sensitive to change. They tend to get stuck, as many therapists describe it, in this early phase of attachment. You will need to replicate, as much as possible, the care needed at the early phase of attachment she is stuck in. For example, she may have been swaddled tightly at nighttime, an activity that signals it's time for sleep. If you think she's too old for such swaddling, gradually loosen the blankets over a period of days or weeks until she can fall asleep in response to your specific cues.

    If your baby spent eighteen months in an orphanage and was handed a bottle or food to give to herself, you will have to take back the feeding role, gently and consistently. If your toddler was abused as well as neglected, you will need serious psychological intervention and the guidance of a therapist or pediatrician who specializes in attachment and complicated trauma.

    Progression Issues

    Unless your child has completed the first stage of the attachment process, she will be unable to move into Stage Two. If she's been neglected and or abused, her brain chemistry will have her on high alert and she won't be able to relax enough to relate to you.


    The second level of attachment, Learning about Family, normally takes place when your child is between six and eighteen months of age. Babies in this stage often demonstrate stranger anxiety. They turn to Mom or Dad, whom they trust, to keep them safe when they're afraid. They learn who is family and who is not, and test the boundaries of those relationships.

    You may find that your child will resist your touch and she may be stiff and fearful. Her respiration and heart rate may accelerate and she may shut down emotionally. Shutting down is a protective mechanism for children who have no power over what happens to them. Other protective mechanisms are punching, running, spitting, or biting. You have to get past the fear response before anything positive can happen. Your primary task will be to complete the Stage One process, starting with where she's stuck, and that will be different for each child.

    Attachment Issues for Older Children

    If your child is a tween or teen when you adopt her, your obstacles may seem huge because you will also be dealing with the normal challenges that come with the adolescent's desire for more separation and independence from parents. An adolescent who hasn't securely attached has the added sorrow of knowing what she's missed. She may have been harmed by the emotional and physical trauma of growing up in a dangerous environment, where she always had to be on alert or where she left the frightening circumstances behind by disconnecting. See Chapter 10 for more information.


    Two books with excellent suggestions for building secure attachments at each stage are The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Attaching in Adoption by Deborah D. Gray. For serious situations, reading alone won't be enough — you'll need the help of an attachment therapist who specializes in adoption.

    Preadolescence is a significant time for your child to question her identity. The last two stages of attachment (Learning about Social Roles and Developing Independence) are when children figure out relationships to their peers and discover their adult identities. These last two stages allow them to move from the safety of your home into establishing their own families, but adoption makes the process more difficult. Your child will have an added struggle due to her adoption and separation from her birth family. This can be a time when your child does not fully understand the desire to separate from you.

    On some level, separating from home reminds her of her first painful separation from her biological family. If her adoption experience has not been openly talked about through her developing years, she may feel confused and ambivalent about leaving home, not being able to make the distinction between bad or painful separations and leaving with the excitement of exploring a new phase of her life.

    Special Issues Stemming from Lack of Attachment

    If you have a vision in your head of a child who responds to your overtures with hugs and delighted laughter, you may be crushed when your child turns her back and ignores you — or worse, yells that she hates you. Unattached children are not gratifying for parents; they don't know how to reciprocate kind words and actions. It takes many months, often years, for them to learn this essential human skill.

    You will be challenged to change mindsets and concepts your child learned at a preverbal level. A child who never received nurturing interaction as an infant will feel neglected and may act out no matter how much attention she receives now.

    If you have an anxious child, don't make the mistake of mirroring that anxiety. You should take advantage of your greater knowledge and de-stress yourself. The more needy your child is, the greater your stress levels will be. It's imperative that you find ways to lower your stress, so you can maintain your high-structure/high-nurturing parenting.

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