Helping Adopted Children Attach

(This is the gist of two different Karyn Purvis seminars I attended this weekend.)

Understanding the attachment cycle is key to understanding why many adopted children struggle with trust. Kids learn trust, worth and self efficacy by having their needs met over and over in the first year of life. A responsive parent says yes to a baby 100,000 times in the first year of life. “Yes, I’ll pick you up. Yes, I’ll smile at you.”  And feed you and make you more comfortable in hundreds of ways each and every day.

Babies cry, and moms respond, leading them from disregulation to regulation, over and over, until years later as they grow and mature they gradually learn to regulate themselves. It is the foundation of mental health as an adult. But it all begins in the first years of life. Kids who are listened to as infants and little children, who get their needs met, learn that they have a voice. Kids who feel like they have a voice don’t need aggressiveness and violence.

Observation in orphanages shows that if a baby is ignored for 30-60 days, he will stop crying to signal his needs. He’s discovered he doesn’t have a voice. Neglected kids don’t feel like they’re worth love and attention. And past infancy that black of core of shame brings aggressiveness. Sometimes that shame causes aggressive towards others, sometimes against the child himself in the form of negative thoughts or actual self harm.

When we bring home a child whose needs were not met early on, we need to treat that child like a newborn in a way, even if he or she is 8 years old. We need to give the child many, many yeses, to build trust and teach the child that he has a voice in this new relationship. Problem is, it’s easy to say yes to an infant, and harder to say yes to an 8 year old who is testing boundaries.

Always be on the lookout for ways to turn no into yes. For example, if the child says, “Can I have a cookie?” and it’s five minutes before dinner, instead of saying no, try saying “Yes, after dinner.” It’s not always possible, but many times it can be done with a little creativity. Give a child a choice between two things, both of which you can be happy with. Whenever you can give a joyful yes, say yes. If not, don’t bother.

You should aim to say yes 7 times for every no. When a child’s needs are not being met, when he is in distress, it activates the sympathetic nervous system (heart rate up, blood pressure up). The more upset the child is, the less well a kid can listen or cooperate. Kids whose needs are routinely not met get an overactive sympathetic
nervous system. In this case a biological system affects behavior and
makes it hard for a child to make good choices.

When you meet a child’s needs, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and that’s where cooperation and learning and healing can occur.  An emotionally healthy child can be successfully parented in a variety of ways. But the more traumatized a child is, the narrower the range of parenting that will work, especially in the first few years of the relationship.

The good news is that all kids can heal. But for a child of any age, the parent is the modem for that healing. Most trauma is relational induced. Healing is going to have to happen relationally. It can take some time—it can take 3 years of steady mentoring for the hippocampus (a part of the brain) to heal. But the hippocampus grows til age 30.  So there’s hope for any kid.

It may sound like Purvis is telling parents to be pushovers. Nope. She showed video clip after video clip where she gently but firmly requested that kids turn disrespectful communication into respectful talk, or where she gently and creatively worked with a child until the child modeled the behavior she requested, while still treasuring and building the relationship. She gives kids power in the relationship by allowing them to make small decisions, however, since that makes it easier for kids to trust, especially early on in a relationship.

For example, in the middle of a discussion with a child about a disrespect issue, the child asked if she could turn off the light. It was random and off topic, but the child had asked respectfully, and so Karyn happily told her yes. That yes about a small thing made it easier for the child to comply with a larger thing, the request Karyn was making that the child redo a bad behavior correctly. The child did so, and the interaction ended with both people feeling good, with the relationship having grown.

The goal with a newly adopted child is to connect, not control. If you can tuck that little child under your arm, keep him close, you can usually get the child to go with you. Even a fearful, unattached child deep down has a longing to trust, a longing to have a relationship with the parent. You just have to coax them to come.

Principals for Correction

1. Time-in NOT time out. Bring child closer instead of sending him away (Mary here: I think there are times when a break is wise if the parent is too frazzled to be wise. However I see her point about closeness, not distance, being the relationship-builder)

2. Resolution vs consequences. Aim to problem-solve. Give kids tools for success in future similar situations.

3. Advocate vs. adversary. Focus on the child’s preciousness instead of focusing on the child’s failure. Struggling kids desperately need to hear that they are valuable, aside from their performance or lack of it.

One way to set a child up for success is to discuss a situation ahead of time. For example, “I’m going to ask you to clean your room. Can you show me the wrong way to answer mom? Can you show me a halfway good answer? OK, now let’s try having you show me the right way.”

It’s also a good idea to train kids to ask: “Can I have a redo?” That way if something jumps out of his mouth that he immediately regrets, he can ask for a chance to repair the damage.

When you are correcting a child, remember the “IDEAL” parental response
• Immediate (within 3 seconds)
• Direct (get close and use eye contact)
• Efficient (measured, calm response)
• Action-based (give child a chance to redo)
• Any criticism is leveled at the behavior, not the child

Recommended Resources

Attachment Styles:  Recognizing where your child is
The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder,


  1. We begin our journey as a foster family on Monday (YIKES!). Thank you for taking the time to put this together. Much, much appreciated.

  2. I loved this post, I linked to it and quoted it on my blog

    thank you

  3. Thanks Mary this is great.. I am linking to you from my blog ..


    ps I just love this picture of your little one…

  4. Great summary, Mary! Thanks for sharing your wisdom! I’m also going to link to this!

  5. Angela Crawford says:

    thanks so much for this, exactly what had been on my mind for the past while in thinking of our pending adoption.

  6. Thank you for sharing more information – I am ‘hungry’ to understand our kids and what they are dealing with. Your posts are very helpful.

  7. Excellent advice. I work with foster and adoptive parents and find these children love to get into control battles over anything. Often, the parent takes this personally and their feelings override and they parent with their feelings instead of rationally.


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