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What is Attachment Disorder?
Attachment is the ongoing emotional connection that infants develop towards their caregivers. Attachment is the process whereby an infant’s needs are presented to the caregiver and then met. Once the needs are met, the infant relaxes and a sense of well-being and comfort is felt.
Dr. Vera Falberg studied how children become attached to a caregiver and called her theory “The Arousal/Relaxation Cycle”. Infants’ needs are expressed many times throughout the day. When the needs are met, the child comes to recognize the environment as predictable, which increases trust in the caregiver. Consequently, the child becomes attached to the caregiver. The separation of a child from the primary caregiver interrupts this process and threatens the development of healthy attachment. When the child’s needs are not met consistently, the trust and attachment are jeopardized and the child may learn not to rely on caregivers to meet his or her needs. If the child’s needs are consistently not met by the caregiver, the child may develop “Attachment Disorder”, which means it is difficult for the child to attach emotionally to anybody. The child distances themselves from anyone who may try to become close to them, thereby protecting themselves from further hurt or neglect. Often, foster children whose needs were not met by their mother or father, then were placed outside the home, and perhaps placed in several foster homes, develop the attachment disorder. They do not trust adults and will not allow themselves to become emotionally close to others.
Foster and adoptive parents should assume that attachment issues are usually present when a child is placed in their home. It is important for foster parents to begin working on providing a nurturing environment as soon as possible after a placement.
For foster children, many factors can influence the attachment cycle and how a child develops emotionally as a result. These can include: the age of the child at the time of placement; the child’s health or genetic factors; the child’s history of previous placements; the reasons for placement; previous attachments; prior physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; the child’s contact with the biological family; the foster parent’s comfort with filling the role as the primary caregiver; and the consistency of parenting the child has received.
Some of the signs that a child may have an attachment disorder are typical of other types of behavior or emotional problems, but some common ones are: illness, separation, or abuse of the child during the first 18 months; if the child is superficially engaging or charming; avoids eye contact or tries to stare the parent down; indiscriminately affectionate with strangers; refuses to show affection towards primary caregivers; self-destructive; no impulse control; hyperactive; preoccupied with fire, gore, or blood; inappropriately clingy or demanding; seeing one’s self as undeserving; unable to feel satisfied; or low self-esteem.
Ways to Promote Healthy Attachment With Foster Children
- Nurture the child. Hold, rock, and cuddle the child. Be physical, caring, and loving to the children with attachment problems. Be aware, that in the past, touch may be associated with pain or abuse, so be careful how the child responds to your physical contact. If the child is old enough, ask him or her how they feel comfortable being approached or touched. Do not force physical contact with the child until he or she is ready. A simple pat on the back may be all the child wants until he or she gets to know you better.
- Establish and stick to routines. This will give your child a sense of security by the predictability of each day’s events. Tell your foster child when they first come into your home what the daily schedule is and what your expectations are for following the routine. Also let the child know the consequences for not meeting the expectations. Base your expectations of the child on their emotional, not physical age. The child may have some developmental delays and not understand or have learned expectations you might assume they would know.
- Praise your child whenever possible. Most children with attachment disorders do not feel they deserve anything good and will likely not be accepting of a positive comment or praise. But, continue giving the praise and eventually your child will learn to accept it.
- Encourage your foster child to talk about his or her birth family. Even though they may not have a lot of good memories, it is important for you to accept and give permission for your foster child to talk about their feelings related to their parent. You can “set the stage” for a child to talk about their birth parent by starting a conversation with something like “You have such pretty eyelashes-I wonder if you got them from your mother?” or “You have such a talent for drawing-I wonder if one of your parents also did.” By leading into a conversation, your foster child will realize you do not feel threatened if they want to talk about their parents.
- Establish traditions with your foster child-incorporate some of your foster child’s family traditions or foods into your family’s to help him or her know you accept them.
- Develop a Life Book for your foster child. Keep important momentos together in a scrapbook or box for your child to take with after they leave your home to help maintain their sense of identity and history.
- Make sure to be sensitive to your child’s needs and meet them whenever possible. The younger the child, the more important this is. Be attentive to their crying or fussing to see what they need or want. Establishing the sense of their needs being met will help your child feel more secure and begin to attach with and trust you.
- Share your child’s pride and excitement in their accomplishments. Give praise, point out to others what the child did, and find ways to encourage your child to show others how they accomplished something, which will build their self-esteem.
- Listen to and talk with your child. Listening and responding to your child is one of the most pleasurable things you can do with him or her. Give your full attention to your child. By doing this, children will learn that what they say and expressing their feelings to an adult is acceptable and that someone cares about them.