Bonding in Adoption May Require Patience

donna barnesBy Donna Barnes
Adoptive Parent

Adopting is a life-changing event in many ways. Usually, the "changes" must occur on the part of the parent/family because the child is unable or less able to change. **

If you have adopted a child with a history of abuse, neglect, abandonment or other harmful growing up experiences, you will not only need (1) to make attitude changes yourself, but likely will need to (2) be very patient about bonding . . . that hoped-for-connection between you and your child.

Many who adopt a "special needs" older child, expect that by applying enough love to the child's wounds and scars, the child will let go of his/her past and mold into the existing structure of the family. It is also expected that this application of love and acceptance will result in "bonding" between parent(s) and child.

What if that doesn't happen?

heartBonding, to be truly effective, is the linking of two or more hearts in such a way that no matter what, the bond cannot be broken. For a variety of reasons, your child may not want, or be able to link emotionally with you. Since you cannot make it happen, you may need to adjust your expectations.

In raising our four adopted children, the bonding with each was different from my hopes and expectations . . .

Mike arrived (from foster care) as a five-week-old baby. By age 11, he was having nightmares about his "real" parents coming to take him away from us. His strong bond to us was a natural part of being our son. No problem here!

Amanda was different. She had been passed around by many sets of arms and couldn't figure out who she belonged to. When she joined our family at 6 mos., she sat stiffly and wouldn't cuddle or respond to our love. As she grew, personality issues interfered with her ability to give or receive love. Although her name was indelibly written across our hearts, it was a one-sided love affair for many years.

After high school graduation, she moved away and was separated from us for the first time. At age 26, she called long distance one day to apologize to me for her unloving, abusive behavior as a teenager. She was near tears. It was a healing, "bonding moment" for both of us, but it took patience and many years to happen. Since that time, she has been "glued to my hip" having finally learned how to receive and show love. Phone calls are frequent now and always end with "I love you, Mom . . . and tell Dad that I love him, too."

Sara, who dropped into our life at age two and a half, waited even longer than Amanda. With abuse in her background, she worked at not bonding with us. She went out of her way to identify closely with the mothers of her friends over me. When she went to camp, she said that the girls who got homesick were stupid. She ran away a time or two and tried unsuccessfully to re-connect with a "mother figure" from her past.

Like Amanda, Sara left after high school and was separated from us for a long time before the heart-to-heart feeling kicked in. At age 28, married and a mother of a new-born, bonding finally made sense to her and her attitude toward us as her (adoptive) parents visibly changed.

Vu, twelve years old, hurriedly left Vietnam in one of the air lifts. He had been without a mother for a long time so he was like a dry sponge for attention. The bonding connection was quick, reciprocal and enduring. In broken English, he has told me, "Mom, there will always be a room in my house for you!

In each of our adoptions, the bonding was 
different. . . the love was the same!

Wherever you are on your adoption journey, just understand that bonding is not always a sure thing. Even a little child such as Amanda, can have difficulty with emotional and physical closeness that can last a lifetime. Adoption requires first of all, your undying commitment, second, unlimited patience. Given enough time, the "love connection" will usually develop.

be patient!

Author's Note: "Bonding" is not only an adoption experience. As both a birth and adoptive parent of seven, I have experienced "bonding" in seven different ways, each as unique as the kids who call me "Mom."

** Click on article in Social Workers Corner titled, Meeting the Child's Needs, for a closer look at this subject.