Sunday, September 16, 2012

Attachment: Toddler Style

This morning it is my turn to work in the Toddler Room at our church.  I'll be spending the worship hour playing with blocks and wiping noses.  I won't be able to stress about the mess being created, or the laundry or what's for dinner, or sit with my nose in my phone. And that is a perfect way for me to spend Sunday morning. The truth is, the biggest obstacle to my attachment with my toddler is, me.

Attachment is a two way street... just as your child needs to fall in love with you, you have to fall in love with your child. The best way to do that is (just like in a new romantic relationship) to spend lots and lots of time just being together.  I don't know about you, but I find spending lots and lots of time with an active toddler to be very challenging. First of all, the destruction. Lily's favorite thing to do is make giant messes. Oh, the day she discovered the tupperware drawer! Oh the field day she had with my boxes of fabric! Oh the peanut butter adventure! (smearing is fun!)

It is hard for me to spend lots of time with Lily and stay focused on her. I get distracted... by the mess, the laundry, my phone, the computer, the chaos in the tupperware drawer.  And when I get distracted, she gets more destructive.  It's a vicious cycle.

The biggest challenge for attachment with a toddler, I think, is meeting them where they are. I know what I need to do is get down on the floor and join her in the glorious mess. (And I will do that... in the safety of the church block room. Making messes outside of my house is much less stressful for me.)

Our attachment process with Lily has had its ups and downs. Here are some strategies that did work, and that are fairly typical of the toddler attachment process.

1. FOOD.  When Lily first came home she had not been exposed to solid food at all. At the Ethiopian care center she'd been fed copious amounts of formula and warm cereal with purees.  On the spur of the moment I'd packed a box of sweet potato "puffs", and as I've joked many times, "This adoption brought to you by Puffs."  Lily loved those puffs. They got us through our first days together, the airports, the plane trips, our first hours home. That box of puffs took us a long way.
 Food is a major part of any baby or child's attachment process. It is common for adoptive parents to make sure that they alone are the ones to prepare and feed their newly adopted child.  Especially for children who have known hunger and deprivation, food is more than nourishment for the body.  Food = safety, security, and family.  For us, introducing new foods, textures and tastes to our 15 month old was a great opportunity to bond. She loved to eat. She loved to make a huge mess with her cereal and snacks.  I spent a lot of time with her and food, encouraging her to try new things, eating with her, and making sure we always had a snack on hand.  I literally do not leave the house for even the shortest errand without at least one snack packed. (More about food insecurity and hunger triggers when I describe our older child's attachment process. Oh boy!)

2. Cozy time together. It is common for adoptive families to encourage a certain amount of regression. This is a case of 5 steps back, great leaps forward.  There are several reasons to encourage regression. One is that, in family age, even older children are babies. They are new to this family, they are new to this country and this language.  They need to be coddled and cuddled, just like a newborn.  Another is that, just like for newborns, the best attachment strategy is just to be quietly cozy together.  Some families sleep in one big bed. Some families use rocking chairs, even with older children.  I used to carry Lily around in a baby carrier, even though she loved to walk. We still rock every night before bed. We try to strike a balance between encouraging her growing independence and making sure we have cuddle time every day.

3. Routines 
Routine = Structure = Safe = Attached

We are ridiculously strict about our evening rituals. Daddy and Mommy do better when the kids go to bed on time (early), and the kids thrive when they know exactly what is going to happen. They've had some nasty surprises in their short lives. They don't want any more, even if it's as small as "mystery dinner". We don't do surprises in our house.  Even on holidays we follow similar routines.  Last Christmas Eve I had the brilliant idea to go for a drive after dinner to see all the pretty lights. Ha, ha, ha, ha! Silly mommy. We don't go for drives after dinner. We get into our pajamas and watch TV, then we read books and go to bed. We don't care that it's Christmas! Get with the program! We will not be trying that again soon.

Predictable routines are especially important for toddlers.  Lily now attends a very traditional, structured day care and she LOVES it.  She loves knowing exactly what is expected of her and having a set of daily routines to follow. She's not a fan of the uniform, but she's thriving on the structure.  Her natural tendency is still to create chaos and mess, but she now also is learning the satisfaction of clean up time. 

Thank goodness!

Adoptive families of toddlers... what strategies have worked with your little ones?

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