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Monday, April 6, 2009

A glimmer of a breakthrough!

Before we adopted, we read the recommended books and thoroughly discussed "bonding and attachment" issues with our social worker. This is a critical topic in adoption because orphans often arrive with "baggage" from their past that can affect how they bond/attach with their adoptive parents. A lack of attachment can have a long-term effect on a the child's ability to fully trust. At first glance, this may not seem like a critical issue - but TRUST is the basis for every relationship, within the family and beyond.

With a biological child, this reciprocal trust occurs naturally in a healthy relationship. Your baby cries and a parent immediately responds to his needs (hungry, tired, cold or hot, wet diaper, etc.) This regular interaction (cry - respond, cry-respond, cry- respond) creates a natural bond of trust and love. Later the child responds and learns and loves because they have learned early in life to TRUST. Orphaned children may not have learned this reciprocal trust early in life for a variety of reasons - perhaps the parent just wasn't there to respond. Children who don't learn to attach, can manifest a variety of relationship issues - as children and later as adults. Experts much wiser than I have written volumes on this topic, so I will leave the complete explanations for them.

With Wesley, our 2 year old, we noticed evidence of bonding and attachment issues within a few days of arriving home. Before we had even travelled to Ethiopia, our monthly reports contained information about his behavior - he would quickly resort to biting or hitting when he was angry. When we travelled to Ethiopia to bring home our sons, each of us were victim to one of his bursts of anger. When something happened that didn't fit his plans, he would turn and bite or hit or scratch. Poor Maea got bit on the cheek on two different occasions - and these were not little nips but a full-fledged bite that needed to have his little jaws pried loose.

The other issue we noticed is that he was not recognizing us as parents with any parental authority. If we said "No" to hitting or biting, or insisted that he eat some fruit or vegetables, or proclaimed that it was bedtime - he would respond with a tantrum, no eye contact, a glare, rhythmic crying - or seek out another person to try to get his way. This would even happen in public - at a coffee shop for example, where he pointed to a cookie and I shook my head "no". He would arch his back and writhe to be put down. He immediately went to Jay, raised his arms to be picked up and then demanded the cookie. When Jay shook his head "no", he writhed and arched his back to be put down. He then stepped to the next person in line - a stranger - and lifted his hands to be held so he could ask for the cookie.

This indiscriminate preference and affection to strangers was exhibited many times in public. As parents, we have a huge investment in his long term well-being and health, and we have the sometimes difficult task of saying "no" for his own good. For a child that has not "attached" to us as parents - we are simply obstacles standing in the way of getting what he wants. And if he does not learn a healthy attachment to us - he will continue to view people as obstacles and will not form appropriate relationships, but will manipulate people to get what he wants.

To others, children with attachment issues seem like the most charming and outgoing and social of children. That is until they don't get what they want - then they are not charming or social. Whether we were in church, in a store, at a coffee shop, anyone that approached to say "hello" was immediately met with Wesley's beautiful smile, twinkling eyes and outstretched arms. Yes - absolutely charming but absolutley not normal or appropriate behavior for a child this age. Think of your children and nieces and nephews - can a perfect stranger approach, and will your child readily dive into their arms?

However - this is normal behavior learned in an orphanage. When a visitor arrives, the cutest, most charming child that clambers into the arms or lap of a visitor first, will get the attention and maybe even a treat from their pocket. This is survival behavior - but it does not work well within a family and is not healthy behavior in the long run.

So what do you do? Recognize it and know that creating an EXCLUSIVE bond of trust and love will take time. For us, once we recognized the behavior, we began to set guidelines and rules so that we can help him learn to trust, bond and attach to us exclusively as his parents. Jay and I exclusively are the ones to meet all of his needs - bedtime, soothing, eating - and the only ones to discipline him. We are also the only ones to hold him.

This can create awkward situations at times when someone you know approaches, and he eagerly reaches for them and tries to climb into their arms - and I have to say "no-no". Sometimes people ask to hold him and reach for him, and I have to explain that we are working on bonding and attachment and only Jay and I can hold him for now. Sometimes this explanation is met with a puzzled look and a frown. With extended family members (like grandparents, aunts and uncles) this is especially difficult to not allow others to hold him or snuggle with him for now. Once we explain the situation, everyone seems to understand but it is awkward and difficult.

Week after week went by, and I saw little progress in this area. The first smiling face or greeting he received in public from a stranger or friend, he would eagerly reach for them and lean in to be picked up or held. About 2 weeks ago, we spent spring break in Florida with Jay's parents. Being outside of our normal home environment and routine, and in a household with 2 extra adults presented all kinds of opportunties for Wesley to push the boundaries and defy the established rules. Jay and I stayed consistent with the discipline which I think was important for Wesley to understand that our rules are the same whether we are home or not. In hindsight, I think he was testing the boundaries on purpose and was reassured to discover that the protective guidelines were still in place. For a child - that is security.

Fortunately, Jay's parents were very understanding of our rules about "no holding or snuggling" and complied with our request, even though I am sure it was difficult.

BREAKTHROUGH - After arriving home from our trip, we attended chuch and Wesley was greeted by one of our friends. Instead of trying to leap into his arms, he leaned back against me, reached out his hand for a "hand-shake", and then promptly pulled his hand back. Wow - that was something new for him. Not sure if this was truly a breakthrough, I watched his behavior through the remainder of the week. And sure enough - each time he was greeted by a stranger or a friend, he leaned into me or Jay, and would even tighten his little arms around our necks. Now THAT is a breakthrough!

It has been 4 months and he is definitely learning to trust us and is forming a healthy attachment to us. Speaking to another adoptive mom about this issue, she too mentioned that it was about the 3 month mark when they began noticing a reassuring behavior change in their adopted daughter.

As I was scanning back through some of our pictures from Ethiopia, I started noticing a recurring theme in the photos with Wesley. In every photo from our trip, he is leaning AWAY from us as we are holding him. When I look back at those photos now, it dramatically brings into focus the remarkable change this little boy has made in 4 short months!

Now that I have come to know this little boy so well, he has become one of my own and I know his body language and his facial expressions. When I look back at these pictures I see fear in his face. I see his little body staying stiff and his face staying expressionless and his body leaning away whenever we hold him. He doesn't know us - we are strangers and we are taking him away from everything familiar and known.

The lack of eye contact, the defiance, the affection to strangers - these are all painful to experience as a mother because at the core level it is rejection. But over time - and with consistent love, consistent boundaries and consistent teaching him how to accept and be secure in our love, he is slowly learning to love us back. Has our son fully achieved bonding and attachment? NO. Are we making progress in the right direction? Definitely YES. Do we need to continue with the guidelines to help him learn bonding and attachment? Yes we are making great progress but we need to firmly cement this concept in his mind.

The pictures below are from our trip to Ethiopia - before he began to bond with us as family. Notice how he is stiff or expressionless or leaning away from us in each photo.

The next several photos below are more recent. In these photos I can see a complete change in his body language. His little arms willingly wrap around us and hug us tight. His face lights up with genuine joy when he sees us. There are times when he is playing with his blocks or fully engaged with a puzzle and I can hear him whispering to himself ... "mommy, daddy, mommy, daddy". Progress? yes!


Kari said...

I LOVE your post on bonding!! The photos melt my heart...look at those precious hugs. Thank you for sharing the journey!!

Jaime said...

thank you for posting this. i am soaking it all up.

Julie said...

I admire the work that you're doing with the boys, even though sometimes it's hard and awkward.

My parents had to do similar things when I first came over. We eventually bonded so well as a family, we forgot who was adopted and who was not.

Karla said...

TEARS! So this is why you won't come home this weekend! Miss you all always! Totally understand! Love - K

Kimberly Kulp said...

Praise God! We are preparing to leave to get Micah David and have really had to set firm guidelines with family before we leave, partially because of your honesty as well as the Hutchinson families willingness to discuss adoption. Thank you! We'll pray for continued bonding.

The Kulp Family

ethiHOPEia said...

Thank you for your post on attachment. I was just speaking to another family in our group who has a toddler about similar things.

I would love to talk to you sometime on the phone! We have similar behavioral issues with our son. Not to the extent as your son, but similar in nature.

Hilary Forrest

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a great family- look what you have accomplished! It's funny how often we birth parents feel frustrated by or feel the need to apologize for clingy babies/toddlers. Adoptive parents know young children are SUPPOSED to feel that way. They will grow up and need us less soon enough ;-)
Congratulations on your beautiful family, and way to stick with a difficult (and difficult for others to understand) process.
Emily Webb

jill coen said...

Great post Karen! The proof is in the pictures, for sure! I didn't even realize how empty my son's eyes were until months later when we looked back at pictures. Wow!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Karen! Our boys are more your older boy's age. How has this process progressed with him? I so appreciate your blog. God has given you a gift of great oppenness and honesty and you write it all down so beautifully!