Thursday, March 14, 2013

Attachment: What is it and Why it Matters

Q. I have an adopted child that I have had since he was six months old.  However, due to some struggles that we have been having with him, I have been doing research on attachment and why it matters so much.  I never thought that we would have attachment issues with my son since he was six months old when we adopted him.  Can you shed some light on this for our family?

A. I am sorry to hear that you are having some issues with your son. I know that can be disheartening and frightening. The good news is, there is hope and healing for your son and his attachment. Parents often believe that because they received their child at such a young age that they could not possibly struggle with attachment. However, what most parents find is with all adoption comes some level of grief and with that grief the possibility of attachment challenges.

The time your child spent in utero, their first few days, and first few months are crucial for their attachment and development. It is hard to imagine that those first few days are the building blocks for later attachment. Regardless of what your child's life looked like those first few days though, research tells us there is hope to help fill in any missing building blocks.

First, let's define what attachment is. Attachment is defined by many components but the most common definition is: an enduring emotional relationship with a specific person. This is usually the mother, father or significant caregiver. This relationship is also characterized by, "safety, comfort, soothing and pleasure. Loss or threat of loss of the person evokes intense distress" (Perry, 1999).*

So how does this attachment take place? It takes place through sequences of events called bonding.  Bonding is having shared interactions with child and caregiver. It is through these countless numbers of interactions that the child is able to receive the safety, comfort, soothing and pleasure. My favorite description of this comes from Dr. Karyn Purvis of the Texas Christian University Child Trauma Institute.  She refers to this process as a dance**. As a child and care-giver dance with one another through the parent meeting the child's needs, then the child learns the world is predictable and safe.  When they are hungry and they cry, the parent meets that need with food and learns they are valued and worth taking care of. When the child is wet and needs to be changed, the parent changes that child and the child learns they are safe and will be made comfortable. Through hundreds and thousands of dance sequences like this, the child builds their attachment with their primary caregiver.  This sets the stage for their entire life and future relationships.

So what happens when something goes wrong? Unfortunately not every child has the best start in life. In those cases, the parents and care-givers must work to help that child rebuild. You can accomplish this through a healthy, attuned relationship with your child. Because their trauma is relationship centered, it will only be through relationships that they will experience healing.

You and your child may need additional help. If you would like more information about a specific type of therapy called Theraplay, please click here to learn more.

If you would like to read a heart-warming story of a family that has experienced healing and hope, please click here.

Be on the look out in two weeks for our book review on The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis.  In that review, we will have the opportunity to talk more about different strategies with children who struggle with attachment. 

*Perry, Bruce, 1999, Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children
** Purvis, Karyn

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