Saturday, December 8, 2012


Welcome to More Injera Please! 
This post was excerpted in the Spence Chapin Fall 2012 Newsletter (yeah!) Thanks for reading...

Oh, irony of ironies... while I'm trying to get his piece written my 6 year old son, home one year, is asking me to play cars with him.  And I'm asking him to please, please play by yourself for just a little bit longer. Naptime only lasts so long. Sigh.  I'm clearly no expert on attachment. Karin Purvis would shudder. But, I'm pretty sure my son still loves me. So we'll carry on...

Here's my top 5 Strategies for Growing Attachment with Older Adopted Children.

FYI Older child = 4 years - 12 years old (I will claim no expertise adopting teens). Most children currently waiting to be adopted, both internationally and domestically, are in this category. So many, in fact, that they are considered "special needs", even if completely healthy. 

1. Food

If you make a parallel between fostering attachment with an older child to growing attachment with a newborn, food is first.  Newborns are fed, on demand, very often, and in very close proximity to a parent (nursing or bottle).  They are not left hungry, or told to wait for mealtime, or only given a little bit. They are fed til full, by a parent, all day and all night.

When our son first came home, he ate up to 3 bananas, 2 granola bars and 8 rolls every day, in addition to meals.  He ate about every hour, sometimes more often. We never went anywhere without enough food for the entire day. After all, we had a newborn on our hands. A five year old, 45 pound newborn.

Internationally adopted children are often underweight, and often have suffered from hunger, deprivation or malnutrition.  These are children from poor families in poor countries.  It is very common for newly adopted children to do a lot of catching up... and they eat that way. Our son has grown about 7 inches in the past year, and gained 15 pounds.  He went from the 50% to the 95% on the growth chart.  Allowing him to eat like a newborn was a key part of his growth, and our attachment process. We made sure he always ate with a parent (when not in school). We prepared favorite foods. ( I made meatloaf in August, as only a new mother could.) We shared, we cooked together, we said grace; we did everything we could to make his daily nourishment more than for his body.

2. Sleep

Being adopted is exhausting! Especially when you are learning a new language, and how to read and count and how to write your name. So newly adopted older children need lots of sleep. They may have difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep. They may have nightmares they cannot explain. They may be afraid of the dark. They may be afraid to sleep alone, because they probably never have.  Whatever sleep solutions work for your family, do it! I'll never forget spending a whole day at an African wedding.  I struggled all day to make sense of the language and the customs and the food. That evening I could hardly keep my eyes open, and I was tired for days.  This is an adopted child's experience every day.  Our son hasn't made it past 8:00pm, ever.

 I wrote about cuddle time in Toddler Attachment. All of that is also true for older children. It can be trickier to find ways to have one:one snuggle time with an older child.  A quick nap on the couch, some wrestling on the rug, a back massage, stretching out together, sitting together with a book, rocking in an oversize rocking chair... even a high five or a pat on the back is a good place to start. Who doesn't need a great big hug more than a newly adopted kid? Sometimes, they don't know it and don't want to admit it.  Sometimes we don't realize how much we need it too.

3. Play and Exercise

The first morning we were home in America, we took the kids to the park. We put them in the swings, side by side, and pushed them high. They've never smiled so wide.
Playing, kicking, bouncing, jumping, running, climbing, swinging, sliding, scooting, riding...  there is no language required to have fun. In fact, older children who have spent time in an orphanage or other institution have probably had loads of experience with outdoor play. (Daniel can jump rope like a boxer.) Our first summer home we spent every day at the park, hours and hours and hours. Lily toddled around trying to put sharp or disgusting objects in her mouth, as toddlers are want to do. Daniel learned about water balloons, sprinklers, and scooters. (One of his first sentences: "Want that, wheels.") Independent, unstructured creative play will probably be out of reach of an older adopted child.  It requires too much language, too much patience and ease. Our son still cannot sustain his own imaginative play for more than a few minutes. We've got building blocks getting dusty and playdough getting crusty. But chasing his sister around the apartment? That he can do for an hour. So, plan to have lots of space for an older adopted child to run, and run and run and run.

4. Connections to Home Culture

Being adopted can feel like alien abduction to older children. They get in an airplane with people who don't look, sound or smell like them, and suddenly they are eating and sleeping and living in a place that looks absolutely different from everything they've ever known. So trying to bring some part of their first home into their new home is crucial. It will never be enough, but it will be something. One of the first things we did after arriving home was let Daniel pick out photos to print and hang up in his room. He picked photos of his cousin, his new family, and the few photos we have of his Ethiopian family. We now have framed photos of their first family in both their rooms. We also have some Ethiopian books, artwork, and music.  Both kids love to look at Ethiopian cartoons on Youtube. We eat Ethiopian food at least once a week.  We're trying to make it seem like America is really on the same planet as Africa, as different as it is here.

5. Honesty

Here's the thing: being adopted sucks. Losing your first family, your first home, your language, your friends, siblings, everything: It's a really raw deal. And older children know it. They were there. They saw everything.  They are keenly aware of the losses they've suffered.  They will be super sensitive to any attempts to gloss over, put silver linings on or in any way diminish their past.  The best way to begin to develop trust is to be honest. Acknowledge their loss and let them know that you will not discount it. You do not think they are "lucky". (Maybe they are, depending on their history, but they probably don't see it that way.) Like we say here in our home, it is a sad story.  Which is not to say, it can't have a happy ending.

It can be so challenging to be honest with our children. They have such hard questions. And the answers are sad or incomplete or just simply unfair.  When our son asks us, "But why?" we are hard pressed to give him the truth.  But we cannot build a family on lies.  We must tell him, and we do. And it is sad, and it is unfair. The world is sad. The world is unfair.  But in our honesty, we are teaching our son: Here in our home, we can be sad, but we can help each other feel better. Here in our home, we will be honest and fair. Here in our home, nothing is too difficult to talk about or feel.

And then we go out to play, and run, and run, and run.

To Read More:

1. Attaching with a Toddler

2. Attachment Challenges

3. Attachment, Progress

1 comment:

  1. Becky, this is fine advice for any parent and all the more poignant because I truly believe that Daniel and Lily ARE so so very lucky. Not because they went from a 3rd world environment to ours, not because they are now fed, clothed and cared for. Their fortune comes from the thoughtful, respectful, and devoted love you and Andrew are creating a home around. The great loss and deprivation these kids experienced can never be undone, but it sounds like they will have all the emotional and intellectual development they need to one day "get it." Like, when they are in their late 30s. :)


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