Preparing for Attachment and Bonding (and How You Can Help)

The process of adoption is intense – the home study, the paperwork, the money, the travel, and the attention to detail through it all. It can be easy to see the travel to complete your child’s adoption as the finish line, the point at which you will have accomplished what you set out to do. Then the process is over, and you can celebrate! The celebration is, of course, real and deserved – a child who was without a family is now a beloved son or daughter. However, that is not the true finish line but rather the starting point for the real process – parenting, living life together, loving this child.

Matt and I have been thoughtful, these recent days and weeks, about what that will mean and what our next few months will look like. A lot of the specifics are still to be determined, depending on how her adjustment seems to be going in the first few days and weeks. But what we do know is that we’ll need to be showing FangFang that we are her forever family – that we will consistently be here to love her, to care for her, and to meet her needs.

There’s a lot about FangFang’s past that we don’t know – and even what we do know is her story, not ours, and it’s for her to share when and with whom she chooses. However, I do feel comfortable in laying out the implications of the obvious. This precious little girl, before she turned 3 years old, had lived in 3 different environments. Before she reaches 3.5, she’ll be in her 4th. Imagine with me for a moment what that would feel like – how it would affect your sense of security and your ability to trust – to live in 3 different places in less than 3 years, and not just 3 different places, but with 3 entirely different sets of caregivers. Imagine what it would be like if you were a child, and not only was this happening to you, but you had little to no understanding of what was occurring. You didn’t have the language to comprehend it, even if someone tried to explain it, and certainly no one asked your opinion about any of it.

That’s not the way God designed life to work. What’s supposed to happen is that a baby is surrounded from birth by familiar people, whose voices she has heard while in the womb. The baby expresses a need, and those people meet her need, and her relationship with them deepens. She learns to recognize and express her needs, and she learns that her needs will be met – that she will be warm, well-fed, safe, and loved – and she learns that these people are the ones who will take care of her.

But we live in a broken world, and that’s not the way FangFang’s life began. Because of that, we’re going to be parenting her a little differently than we would parent a biological child. We need to build these parent-child relationships from scratch. We need to show her that Matt and I are the people she can count on to feed her, keep her warm, love her, and care for her – and that we’re different from everyone else she’ll encounter. Doing that with a 3-year-old is a little bit more complex than doing it with a newborn baby, but we’ve been reviewing and will be using some tried and true attachment-building strategies that adoptive parents have been putting into practice for years. We’ll be working on developing eye contact (sometimes using stickers and funny games). We plan to treat her as younger than her chronological age, and we’ll hold and carry her as much as she’ll allow. We’ll offer a lot of healthy snacks and allow her to grow in her security with us through seeing our consistent provision of food. We’ll be band-aid parents. We’ll do mirroring play. We’ll cocoon – keeping her world small for a time (the length of which has yet to be determined) to enable her to get to know us and focus on building relationships with us without the distractions of other people and activities.

And as we do that, we also ask for your support and help. We need to give her the opportunity to learn what family really is and to learn to trust Matt and me specifically. And we’re not starting from a blank slate – we’re coming into her life at a time when she has learned, through experience, that caregivers leave, that the people she trusts today may be gone tomorrow. In that context, Matt and I need to be, for a time, the only people who meet her needs. To that end, we ask that you would refrain from offering her food, comfort, or affection. Please feel free to wave or smile at her and to interact with us as we are holding her, but please stay away from things like picking her up or giving her hugs or kisses, even if she seems to be initiating that contact. We plan to keep her close by, but if you see her seeking food, comfort, or affection elsewhere, please re-direct her toward us instead of offering to meet those needs yourself. A simple, “Oh, it looks like you’re hungry! Let’s find your mama,” would be so helpful. In time, after we have established the foundational family relationships, we are excited for all of you to get to know her as you know our other kids and to surround her with the same love with which you surround them. We just need to allow her to form bonds with us as her parents before she branches out into those other relationships, and it would be a tremendous blessing to us if you would support us in this process.

And if you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to let us know at any time – we always welcome questions and conversation!

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