Adoption: What to do when your baby is anxious

 

Dad and Julianna

Awhile ago I got an email from the momma of a toddler who had been home from Ethiopia for several months and who was wearing her out with whining and clinging.   The mom felt that the child was attaching, because she tended to make good eye contact and wanted to stay near her.   But the baby’s neediness was frustrating and made the mom wonder what was causing her to be so discontented.

I’ve experienced this with several of my adopted kids, and know that it is a common problem mentioned by other moms as well.   I thought it might be helpful to share my answer here too, in case some of you are also feeling frustrated with this type of behavior in newly arrived children.

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What your daughter is doing now sounds to me like anxious attachment.  Everyone is somewhere on the attachment continuum (explanation here), with disorganized attachment being at the negative end of the spectrum, and secure attachment being on the positive end. On the continuum, anxious attachment is the closest to  secure attachment.   Kids with anxious attachment are drawn to their mothers, but are not convinced that they are reliable, so they do a lot of testing.

This can be really exhausting, but the fact that your child is seeking you out is a great sign!   To help your child move towards secure attachment, treat her as if she is younger than her actual age.  Carry her everywhere with you– it helps to get a good baby carrier.  Rock her, cuddle her, respond to her positively in every way that you possibly can.   Feed her things she likes every 2 hours or more often.  Bottle feed her.  Say yes to her requests as much as humanly possible.  Sleep with her at night if you can.somewhere on the attachment continuum (explanation here), with disorganized attachment being at the negative end of the spectrum, and secure attachment being on the positive end. On the continuum, anxious attachment is the closest to  secure attachment.   Kids with anxious attachment are drawn to their mothers, but are not convinced that they are reliable, so they do a lot of testing.

This can be really exhausting, but the fact that your child is seeking you out is a great sign!   To help your child move towards secure attachment, treat her as if she is younger than her actual age.  Carry her everywhere with you– it helps to get a good baby carrier.  Rock her, cuddle her, respond to her positively in every way that you possibly can.   Feed her things she likes every 2 hours or more often.  Bottle feed her.  Say yes to her requests as much as humanly possible.  Sleep with her at night if you can.

If attachment-style parenting doesn’t feel natural to you or if her neediness just utterly exhausts you, you may need to get a couple hours of break once a week or so (with her being cared for by a familiar loving person). Also make sure you’ve got chocolate and encouraging music and a walk outdoors every day, and whatever else makes life feel more manageable for you at this point.

It’s going to take a time of just pouring yourself into this little kiddo to get her feeling safe.  Keep her routines simple and predictable and as home-based as possible.  Respond to her fears in love over and over and over, even if it seems she should have it figured out by now.  It may take a year or two, or even longer, for her to trust you more.  But don’t give up.

Also keep in mind that your own attachment style will impact how easy it is for you to respond to a needy child.  (Remember, we’re ALL somewhere on that attachment spectrum!) Even securely attached adults can get tired of responding to a needy child.   If you were parented by a mom who was constantly nudging you to be independent and didn’t respond well when you felt needy, you will be inclined to respond in that way to your child.  That can set you up in an unhappy tug-o-war with your child, with your child being needy, and you trying to minimize her needs and encourage independence.  That will only prolong her neediness.

Kids NEED to be DEPENDENT before they can learn independence, and an adopted child is not going to look the same developmentally as a child who has always been with a nurturing mom.  Even kids adopted as newborns can have attachment issues, but kids adopted past the newborn period are likely to have needs that seem ‘younger’ than their chronological age.  The best way to help them mature is to respond in a way that acknowledges and honors those ‘younger’ needs.

Hang in there.   Helping an anxious child attach takes months or years, not days or weeks.   But the more you are able to see her neediness as a GOOD sign, as a sign that she is drawn to you, the easier it will be for you to respond with the patient, warmhearted love that she needs to become completely secure eventually.

{ 26 Comments }

  1. Wonderful post. I think all parents, but especially adoptive parents, need validation and encouragement as they help their children settle in and attach. My philosophy with my own children has been to meet the need when the child expresses it (trying not to compare them to my other kids, or to development books…), so that they can eventually move on. In my experience, people who don’t get their needs met as children continue to feel those needs well into adulthood – not a pretty thing.

    I hear Ergo carriers are wonderful!

  2. Thank you for such an encouraging and informative post.

  3. It’s interesting, but we experienced an odd variation on what you seem to be calling attachment issues after a child of ours died. The younger children basically wouldn’t let us out of their sight and were very “clingy.” (I hesitate to use that word, since it has negative connotations.) We just spent time with them intensely as much as they seemed to need. We avoided making promises we couldn’t keep, like “I won’t die soon, don’t worry.” They learned a balance of trusting us while being secure in God’s hands. Everyone benefited and deep bonds were formed.

  4. Your posts on adoption are always honest in a loving and non-scary way. Thank you for being insightful and open.

  5. I have to admit that this post had me in tears. I have two biological sons who are 3 and 1 and we have adopted a little girl who is two years old. We’ve been home for almost six months and to say that I’m exhausted of her neediness is an understatement, especially since my oldest son is fairly high maintenance himself. I know intellectually that she needs more time and that I need to respond in love and patience and grace, and it sounds easy, but doing it all the time is just so much more than I can humanly do. I know that God is bigger than I am, and thank goodness. It hurts to hear, but is good to be reminded (if that makes any sense!) that her emotional worries are going to take time, and lots of it, to be healed. It’s so easy for me to want it to be NOW, but that’s just not going to happen. We’re in this for the long haul and I love to hear from other moms who are as well.

  6. multi-taskingmom says:

    I LOVE this post. Especially this line “It’s going to take a time of just pouring yourself into this little kiddo…..” and this one “Kids NEED to be DEPENDENT before they can learn independence”. You said it so well. When we bring a child home, we need to become their everything, responding to each and every need as immediately as possible. Mary once again, you have said it all and so well.

    Thank you!

  7. thank you so much for posting this! this is so where we are! our two attachment parented bio kids never had these issues. the trouble i am having with our adopted daughter is that she doesn’t want to be in the baby carrier and she doesn’t want to cosleep. she *does* want to be carried but only on my hip. i have back issues and so that’s difficult. also, my kids are 5,3, and 1 so i have lots to do. babywearing always allowed me to get stuff done. i can’t really make meals (chopping veggies, etc) with a baby on my hip, one handed. in a baby carrier — YES. any suggestion?

    thanks again! this was hugely encouraging for me.

    • Rachel, Sometimes kids who are resisting attachment find the front pack to be just too close and cozy– scary to them. You could try putting her in the front pack for 15 minutes at a time, and just keep her in there even if she cries. (Maybe a walk outside would be enough distraction for her to tolerate it for a few minutes.) Kids will eventually tolerate more closeness if you just BE close for a few minutes at a time several times a day. Or if you feel really uncomfortable with letting her fuss in the front carrier, maybe you could try a back carrier? I think the Ergo can be worn either front or back, and it could be that riding on your back would feel less scary to her than riding on your front. When I had ‘twinned’ toddlers http://ethiopia.adoptionblogs.com/weblogs/artificial-twinning-a-good-idea I also used clip-on high chairs at the kitchen counter a TON. I gave them play dough and little toys and snacks, so they could play right next to me (confined) as I cooked.

      • the ergo can also be used in a hip carry! as could a pouch sling, like the hotslings brand.

        • unfortunately my back issues limit a lot of my sling options. :/ the hotsling used to really irritate my sciatica, being off kilter to one side. although i might try it again, being i carry her on my hip so much anyway. the ergo backpack is the best for my back issues. i love the suggestion of trying it for ‘x’ amount of time. i set the timer for 15 minutes. she only lasted for 12, but hey, that was a decent start! i’m going to keep trying every day and see if she gets used to it.

          thanks for the great suggestions!

          • Good for you! I am guessing she will gradually get acclimated to it! Maybe try offering a special little snack when she starts getting unhappy with it…

          • re: your last comment, mary. our daughter has some feeding issues. she will only eat pureed food. we are working with an OT but progress is slow. she is 18 mo old. the only snack she will eat is chocolate chips (a girl after my own heart!) but i don’t want to give her too many chocolate chips because her nutrition isn’t great already.

          • Perfect! SAVE those chocolate chips as special treats to feed her in the baby carrier!! You will have her devoted adoration in no time flat. 🙂 (There are worse things nutritionally than chocolate!)

          • FABULOUS advice! thank you!

  8. So, so true! Attachment is a marathon, not a sprint, for our precious kids. It’s worth every exhausting moment we invest and the payoff is outstanding! Thanks for sharing, Mary.

  9. You are on the money, honey! Great post!

  10. My children are adopted from birth, and as of yet I have not seen any attachment issues… My oldest is only 6, and I think he still thinks that EVERYONE is adopted, lol 🙂 Maybe it helps that my husband was a foster child for most of his life, too ~ he always seems to have the right answer when questions arise.

    Love your blog, my friend. Your have a beautiful ministry here!

    Jaime

  11. Oh Mary, thank you so much. A very helpful reminder for me. My daughter has been adopted for almost 4 years now, but her attachment is not where it needs to be–and maybe has declined in some ways now that she’s almost 7 and I tend to view her more as a “big kid.” Unconsciously I’ve phased out many of the attachment techniques I used to use but that she still needs (in revised form). I’m trying to invest a lot of nurturing and security on her now as we’re expecting a new baby, who will become the only other girl in the house (she has 4 brothers).

  12. The question I have is how in the world not to be depleted by an older child who is still anxious in her attachment. 9 months in the constant need for affirmation and mom, mom, mom just wears me out some days. Other days I handle it gracefully but boy oh boy is it hard.

    • Bonnie,
      You’re right– it is incredibly hard. Don’t forget that self-care: walks in fresh air, prayer, early bedtimes for kids and you, an hour away now and then, chocolate as needed 🙂 My hubby and I didn’t get REGULAR at dates until we began parenting older-adopted kids and discovered regular breaks were essential to my sanity. Gotta take care of yourself so you can pour into your child….

  13. Your advice is so clear and appropriate. What a blessing you are to parents in need!

    Other resources for adoptive parents are the Circle of Security program (http://www.circleofsecurity.net/about_cos.html), the Child-Parent Attachment clinic at UVa (http://www.attachmentclinic.org/home.aspx) and the ABC Parenting Program (http://abcintervention.com/index.html). All programs are based on Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment work.

  14. As usual, so time appropriate for me! My own little one (though not so little anymore) still goes through phases of insecure attachment (read as: right now) and they are exhausting. But, in the long run – treating her younger neediness is helping to make her such a lovely, independent, affectionate older child. Thanks for the advice!

  15. Thank you…its taking our son 3 years to finally feel comfortable especially sleeping longer and longer at night. Hang in there everyone it does get better little by little.
    Rebecca

    p.s made some taco seasonings up last night from your cookbook and I am in love with how easy that was. It should last us a few months…making boston baked beans today.

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