Yearning for secure attachment

I assume that most adopters feel that the most crucial aspect of our relationship with our child/children initially is getting them to attach. I think it’s fair to say that we feel that attachment proves that we are doing a good job, that we are creating real security and that we are ‘getting it right’, in fact that we are unquestionably becoming a ‘complete’ family – and the sooner that it is achieved the better.

It’s only natural that we all yearn for that child/parent bond to be significant as quickly as possible, the bond that we are enviously aware is no doubt automatically there with birth children, yet is one that we have to work hard to achieve as adopters – after all we are competing with the ghosts of birth parents, foster parents and other parental figures that have been in their life prior to us, maybe even a teacher or a grandparent, aunt/uncle or older sibling.

Our children arrive as strangers and although they reassuringly turn to us right from the start we know that it is as their care givers and that it is led by circumstance and need – not emotion. We take what is on offer and as time goes by maybe even start to kid ourselves that it is real even though we know that it is too soon and more than we should be expecting, regardless we know that we have to keep trying, keep doing the best that we can to win our way into their hearts.

And gradually we see change, we see a increasing level of closeness, an intimacy that is new and of course so very rewarding. We feel that all our hard work is paying off and we allow ourselves to assume that all those fears of damaged attachment that the social workers planted in our minds throughout the preparation course and beyond are indeed unfounded – even for those of us who may have children who have been diagnosed with attachment disorder. We feel fortunate to have escaped the issues we were told could so clearly be a part of our life – forever.

Or maybe not! Maybe our child/children are not as settled as we hope for and maybe we are dealing with difficulties, with challenging behaviour, behaviour that we are truly struggling with, maybe there are clear signs that the attachment is questionable, signs that I think many of us chose to disregard or play down in attempts to convince ourselves that they have indeed attached, or at least started to attach.

My partner and I certainly did, we saw clear signs that our sons had attached from quite early on in the placement, or more to the point – we felt it. We felt the love, the bond, we felt the attachment and it seemed so real – and in the case of our oldest son amazingly it seems that it was.

However for our younger son, it is now evident that we really have been fooling ourselves. We certainly knew he had issues, which we always put down to the trauma he suffered. We knew that he was diagnosed with attachment disorder and that he displayed behaviour reflecting this, yet we still believed that there was true attachment. We feel his love, we see his joy when he interacts with us, we see his need for us and the unquestionable security that we bring.

Yet now we know that it is just not enough and that we still have a way to go regardless of the more than 5 years we have been together and we also know – and now accept – that there may never be full secure attachment.

Because of behaviour problems (mostly at school) he recently underwent a phycological assessment in view to undertake ‘theraplay’ and we have been truly shocked by one set of results in particular.

The therapist had asked our son to draw a circle and then a larger circle around this and the same again and again. She then asked him to think of all the relationships he has had and currently has in his life and starting in the centre circle write the names of the people that are most important to him and then work his way out as the relationships feel less important.

Our son wrote just 5 names, 4 in the centre and one in the second circle. These names include the one constant in his life – his brother – as well as his one and only friend and the family dog. Shockingly these 5 names did not include either myself or my partner.

They also did not include birth parents, long term foster parents (of almost 3 years), other siblings (who we are still in contact with regularly), a new aunt who he was especially close to until her death 3 years ago or any other of his new extended family – other than Granddad (my father), who we have not witnessed a particularly close bond to and who sadly has just died – adding to our son’s loss.

The therapist gave us time to digest the information and then said that she realised that it must be difficult to hear, but in fact was not too surprising. She pointed out that he had left off all the people he has got close to who have in some way deserted him – undermining his attachment. She said that our absence was evidence that he was still not able to fully attach to us because of the fear (probably subconscious fear) that we too would ultimately let him down and leave him – as all these people in his life before us have and as indeed Granddad has now done too.

We know the loss he has suffered has severely affected him, but I guess we hoped that we had broken through that and that the close, loving relationship that we have is proof of secure attachment and that we really had reassured him that we are not just here for him now, but that we always will be.

We just hope more than anything in the world that we will eventually get there. The positive is that we are optimistic and even if full secure attachment never happens, we feel confident that he will always know how much we love him and that we will always be here for him, no matter what.

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‘What ever makes you think your son is securely attached?’

‘What ever makes you think your son is securely attached? ‘ The kind therapist said.I was puzzled.

‘Erm. I’m his mum and he reaches straight for me if he is upset…?! …: Erm … dunno. We are very close. We have a strong bond… I think… I just know.’

‘Ok. How long has he been with you?’

‘Three years.’

‘I’d be very surprised if he was securely attached. Most adopted kids are insecurely attached.’

The point about my son’s attachment was only said in passing.
My riff was actually about how I was finding these boxes of avoidant and preoccupied/anxious/ambivalent very constraining or too simplistic. Surely it is a scale. Surely we all slide down in times of stress. How far down we slide is a matter of … a lot of things.

I first heard about attachment at a prep course for adoption. My husband and I looked at each other. ‘You’re ambivalent and I am avoidant.’ He said. I agree. Now years later I see ambivalence in him too and avoidance in me. Nothing is quite so clear cut as we want it to be I guess. But yes… there is a strong tendency towards one type more than the other in us both.

We enjoy a strong bond within our family. We are close. But it is also true that we are all insecurely attached. To some degree.

Looking at what we each bring into the family attachment cocktail has been interesting. How can he the son be secure if we adults are not?

Once we have established that baseline, we can work with it. Admitting that the secure base we are building is actually of immense benefit to all of us. It is something we all actively invest in. We are the grown ups so of course we do the heavy lifting. We carry the responsibility for the quality of our relationship with our son. And with each other. We fail. Reassuringly regularly. We let ourselves down. And we get up and on with it.

A big big thing within our family is dynamic separation. His from us. It’s huge. Only within the last year has our son been able to physically be in another room from us. He still wakes a few times a night needing to know we are still there. He can freak out big time if he can’t see or feel us parents. Freak in a way that I can’t reach him. The first few years he was a limpit – on me mainly but increasingly my husband too. He was on my body every waking hour and much of the sleeping ones too. Verbal reassurance didn’t and doesn’t do anything. Repetition and routine do. As does time.

Yesterday my son made me a pot of tea.
We’d been playing and when I heard kettle click as the water started to boil, I got up to make my tea. He stopped me saying he like to do it.

‘Trust me, Mummy.’ He said placing his hand on my arm. ‘I can do it.’

First time for everything I thought. ‘Okay. Off you go…’ I could hear his movements in the kitchen. Each step of the tea making. Even putting on the tea cosy. He returned. Smiling. Proud. He’d put everything on a tray. Including his prized batman cup. For me. I poured a cup. Of plain boiling water. We both laughed. It’s all work in progress.

I stood in the adjacent room, debating with myself if I was crazy to let a six year old alone in the kitchen handling boiling water. I’d say it was borderline. But that it paid off.

These small moments matter. This was actually very big for us. On many levels.

Yes attachment is responding to needs. Distress and otherwise. At the moment I’m toying with the reciprocity of trust. As a basic need too.

Our big adoption friendly / attachment aware school choice gamble.


I don’t buy lottery tickets or gamble, but when my husband gave me responsibility of selecting our adopted daughters school, that’s exactly what I did.

Almost three years ago, we met our fabulous children and started family life together. While in the throes of building a family relationship and surviving instant parenting of a 1 & 3 year old, we were pressured by our children’s social worker to select and apply for our daughters school place fairly early into our placement. Under time pressure, not knowing many local families with school aged children and being fairly emotionally exhausted, I will admit to doing fairly limited local research… visiting one school. Excluding many of the immediate local faith school options, I grasped onto a neighbour’s recommendation of a free school which was nearby. It had only been open for 2 years so came with many risks but, it sounded amazing. After looking at reviews and reading about the school, I applied assuming that being a London school, they would have some experience of the needs of looked after and previously looked after children. I was sold on the sound of the nurturing but classic education offered with firm behaviour expectations. To be honest, I didn’t even visit the school until the place was allocated.

Writing this reminds me of the big gamble I took with our children’s education. It was always a risk going with a recently opened school and I was aware it would be a work in progress. So how have we got on?

Our daughters school place was confirmed and I waited for the school to get in touch and arrange a home visit. When it became apparent this was not going to happen, I contacted the school only to have doubts well and truly set in. They no longer offered home visits, could not be less interested in allowing my daughter to visit the school to help prepare her for the move and the (then) head teacher along with her extremely bad attitude, left me spending the summer regretting the school choice and feeling like the worst parent ever. I debated changing to another school but, my husband and I both felt that we had to follow through having made the choice.

Our daughters first few weeks starting school were a test for me. She loved it immediately. I got 5 minutes on her first day to help settle her in the class and then had to leave her to it…. And it was so hard to leave. There were tears.. Mine! My assumption that the school would be experienced with understanding and meeting the needs of children who have experienced developmental trauma and have compromised attachments was fairly misguided. Thankfully, her teacher despite being newly qualified was incredibly nurturing and willing to learn / understand. Yes, some mistakes were made for example: seating a distracted hypervigilant child with her back to the door, not anticipating that changes of staff, environment or school trips lead to edgy/ hypervigilant behaviour.

Collecting my daughter at the end of the day was a lucky dip of either a food angry, emotional daughter who could fly easily into aggressive tantrums and rages or a delightfully happy little girl, loving school and wanting to share every moment. My lowest point was sobbing in the senco’s office about the tantrums and self-destructive behaviours which started about the time our daughter started the school. Hitting herself in frustration or giving herself massive nosebleeds, sometimes nightly, as a result of emotional anxiety and consequently many mornings she and her bed looked like there had been a massacre. I learnt to come to pickup armed with pockets full of snacks and not expect a hello or hug until at least half had been quickly consumed.

While I had conflicted feelings about the school’s lack of attachment experience / awareness, my daughter was thriving. The teachers were fabulous, the curriculum was amazing and being a new “free school” the parents wanted to make it a success There were many, many positives. Changing schools was not an option we would consider, as it would be further disruption. Speaking to other adoptive parents in the borough who had placed their children in school’s known to be experienced with adopted children, I realised we were not alone in having challenges regardless of the school’s experience.

I decided that I would become a squeaky wheel and (be annoying) encourage…… the school to work on becoming attachment aware, transparent regarding how the Pupil Premium Grant was being spent, share my experiences to ensure lessons were learnt and improve communication. Luckily, the head teacher left at the end of our daughter’s first term in reception and a senco started. New staff arrived and it was a breath of fresh air. On a mission, I contacted and met with the interim head which was a refreshing experience. After off loading, and then meeting with the senco laying out all the issues, the school were thankfully receptive to working with me on ensuring our daughter’s needs were met and receptive to feedback on areas of improvement needed. Our daughter thankfully now gets drama / play therapy sessions weekly, consistent staff to support her with changes, I’m notified in advance of changes to prepare her, she has access to confidence boosting clubs / activities and is thriving. The school remain receptive to feedback and ideas, taking on board anything I feel our daughter might benefit from at school. They have started arranging regular follow up sessions with parents of children needing support and are working on encouraging parents or carers of previously LAC to meet up/ support each other. Despite the odd tantrum and nose bleed now, it’s remarkable to reflect how much more settled our daughter is and very excited she is to be returning to school shortly in year 2. After the long summer holiday break, I’m excited she is back to school shortly too!!

As our son prepares to join his big sister and start school in a few weeks, I’m reminded of how far we have come! What a lovely feeling it is this time round to know he will be in good hands with a school who has observed him at nursery, had him do visits to the class/ meet his new teacher, provided him with a book of photos of the class/ school/ teachers to look at over the summer, his teacher is coming to visit at home and a phased starting school plan organised with clear parent/ school communication to ensure his needs will be met. Nurture spaces are in place and support is evident. Staff have had had attachment training and once he settles, there will be discussion on how his Pupil Premium Grant can be used to support him.

While the school continues to work towards becoming an “Attachment Friendly School”, it is really nice to appreciate how far they have come in two years. I realised early on that there was not the joined-up approach I had assumed would be in place regarding information sharing on things like talks on “how to become an attachment friendly school” or free training offers actually being offered directly to the school. I took it upon myself to share with the school any information I came across regarding talks or training opportunities for school’s especially the free ones. I would follow up and repeat if needed. Thankfully, a deputy head and the sendco have embraced the school working to become an attachment friendly school with full support of the head teacher and governors. They have gone to great effort to attend talks, become actively involved with virtual schools, signed up with PCT and more. Most importantly, they are working in partnership with parents such as myself on ensuring the school understands and works towards meeting the needs of their looked after and previously looked after students.

The icing on the cake apart from knowing how our children are benefiting is to hear from a fellow wearefamily parent, giving positive feedback about hearing the deputy head from my daughter’s school, speaking at a local virtual schools talk about the benefits of schools becoming an attachment friendly school… So far thankfully the gamble in paying off. Perhaps it’s time to buy that lottery ticket ….

So Damn Stupid

Photo by Lili Gooch

Up early, well before the alarm. Good, there is never enough time in a day.

Quick shower (it’s so much easier to do this before the boys wake up), dress, make coffee, sort out laundry, put on washing machine, empty… damn, we forgot to put the dishwasher on last night.

Let dog out, wash dog’s bowl, feed her and clean up her mess in the garden.

Second mug of coffee, computer ‘on’. Hopefully a full hour or so of work before the boys wake.

Hear partner getting up, he showers, dresses and comes downstairs. Clanking from the kitchen, too much clanking – the youngest is woken up.

Footsteps as he gets up and leaves his bedroom – they stop at his brother’s door ??? ‘Get out of my room and leave me alone’ I hear screamed moments later. Really? 5.50 am and they are already fighting.

I stop work – nowhere near finished.

Youngest comes downstairs, nothing more than a frown to my ‘good morning’. He has ‘that’ look in his eyes, it’s going to be be of those mornings.

Clearly he has not slept well, he is grumpy, he is defiant and as the morning unfolds he challenges everything and he pushes the boundaries as far as he can.

Partner has prepared breakfast and laid the table, he puts the bins out and sorts out the recycling, he then takes the dog for a walk, checking messages and emails as he goes.

I get the boys school clothes ready and make their beds. I tidy the house from top to bottom as I make my way back to the kitchen. I empty the washing machine, start dryer and unload dishwasher – why use the ‘quick wash’ function when it never does the job, half the items are put back in.

Breakfast is finished and I clean the kitchen and reload the dishwasher.

I set out homework and the boys sit down with me, it becomes clear that the youngest will not engage. He is simply not listening and is continuously distracting and antagonising his brother, the brother is taking the bait and is fighting back. I start to lose my temper and raise my voice – even though I know it will only make things worse.

I’m feeling disrespected and I can feel my anger rising – think therapeutic parenting, think therapeutic parenting I remind myself. It’s not working, I snap and immediately regret it as the youngest visibly closes in on himself. I leave the room before I make the situation worse.

Partner leaves for work after we have discussed what we are doing that evening and what needs picking up for tonight’s dinner. ‘Stay calm’ he says as he walks out the door, which of course just makes me more angry.

My phone bleeps, my first work message of the day. I realise I forgot to plug the phone in last night and I have to search the whole house for the power cable, I discover the oldest has charged MY iPad with it in his room – where screens are not allowed!?!?

I attempt to get back to my work on the computer, but the boys constant bickering makes it impossible.

I let them have screen time (mostly for my sake) and at last there is some calm. I rush through my work to get it finished and prepare what I need for the day.

Teeth cleaned and they are dressed for school. School work collected and bags filled, sports kit cobbled together – where the hell are the big one’s trainers? Shoes on.

The youngest one’s mood is not improving the slightest, everything he says is full of attitude and just on the edge of rudeness (or is it over the edge, but I just don’t have time to admit that?), it is taking every bit of effort from me not to lose it.

At the last minute I realise that I haven’t unloaded the dryer. Damn – not dry, the whole wash is going to be creased to hell by the time I get home tonight unless I take it out and hang it out all over the kitchen. That’s always a good look – and now we are running late and both boys are nagging me about it.

I very briskly walk them to school and the boys fight the entire way. The youngest walks off immediately we reach the play ground and he barely looks back as I shout ‘I love you, have a nice day’, so much for our usual goodbye kiss.

I get my first business call of the day as I am walking away from school, which is actually quite useful as it helps me avoid eye contact with other parents who I don’t have time for. I have to rush to make my first appointment, I am not looking forward to what I am sure will be a hectic day at work.

11am my phone rings, I pick it up and my heart skips a beat – it’s the school. I’m surprised as they haven’t called for well over 5 months now. I answer and I am told that the youngest is ‘not having a good day today’, he has been difficult and disruptive and they are concerned that it seems to be escalating and could get out of hand (as it has many times in the past), they wanted to make me aware of the situation in case I needed to come in. Just what I need today I think, I really thought that they had this under control.

I say that he had been in a difficult mood that morning and that he had been quite challenging. I start to say that he had gone to bed a little late yesterday and was up early, he was probably (not that it excuses his behaviour) a little tired because we had…

and then – and only then – the realisation.

…because we had Contact yesterday.

Contact with his other siblings, the brothers and sisters he doesn’t live with, the brothers and sisters he sees just twice a year, the brothers and sisters he misses so very much.

The ones who remind him of his past life, who highlight the differences between him and his peers. The ones who make him feel vulnerable in his new family – who make him feel like his new life could be temporary after all and that he could be moved on at any moment like each of them have been and just like he was twice before his 5th birthday.

How could I have been SO damn stupid!

Of course he is unsettled, of course he is being difficult and challenging us, challenging the school, challenging the world – of course, of course, of course.

He always is after contact and who can blame him for that? All morning he had been crying out for our love, for our reassurance and for our understanding – in the only way he knows how.

How on earth could I have missed it?

A Simple Equation

I was at an adoption prep group recently talking as an established adopter and mentioned that even after being placed with us for 3 years our youngest son still clearly struggles with the turmoil of his past, I said that we frequently suffer the consequences of that in his difficult behaviour and how tough we were still finding it. A social worker paused me for a moment, asked how old my son was and said to the group –

‘This sounds quite typical and is to be expected, there is a very rough guide that we use which is the age of the child when they come to you representing in years how long it will take before they are likely to fully settle’

IF this had been said during our prep course or any time during our adoption process we had both forgotten it and hearing it now was wonderfully reassuring.

For a large part of the time our son has been with us we have been waiting – and worse still expecting – for there to be a very obvious and significant improvement in his behaviour, waiting for the signs that he had indeed settled and that he had let go of his hurt and anguish and that he had embraced the love and more importantly the security he now had in our family.

And we have been worried, sometimes very worried that we could not see definite signs that we were close to being there or indeed – on some days – that we were on a path leading there at all.

We do know that things are better, there are of course unquestionable signs of improvement, but we were not sure if some of that is just maturity – regardless we still feel that we are a long way from things being easily manageable.

But now we know better.

Now we know that we have been harbouring unrealistic expectations and that we are still likely to be a way off him being fully settled and his behaviour reflecting that.

You know? Being aware of that helps tremendously. It helps us to relax and helps us accept the behaviour so much more readily – and that’s a huge positive for our parenting and for our family.

Update –

Amazingly this blog has been sitting around unfinished for almost 2 years and our son has in fact now been with us for almost 5 years – his age when he joined us.

So is the equation right?

Well we still deal with difficult behaviour so I could instinctively say NO, but in fact would not be true.

The behaviour we struggled with is now quite rare and there is no question that there is a huge change in him, in fact I do think it’s clear to see that he has very gradually settled into his new life and indeed continues to do so. I would say without question that he is far more secure in our family than he was when I started the blog originally and the difficulties we face today are more to do with his diagnoses of reactive attachment disorder, which we have learnt to deal with therapeutically and which has resulted in far more calm for all of us.

What we have learnt is that there are no short cuts and that as adoptive parents we have to embrace the difficulties for what they are and to allow time to heal the scars that our children arrive with, we have to give them time and we need to have realistic expectations along the way – and trust me it’s worth every bit of effort that takes.

He is not my friend

A pet peeve of mine is children and parents describing their relationship as a ‘friendship’.

I’m in my 50’s and I am aware it may be a generational thing as I hear it an awful lot from younger parents – and I appreciate that I may well be a bit of a ‘Dinosaur’, but never the less I can’t stop myself from wincing internally every time I hear a parent describe their child as ‘my best friend’ or vice versa.

I understand that it is often just terminology and not literal, but regardless for me there are such clear distinctions between being a parent and a friend that even casually blurring the lines feels wrong.

Personally I feel that getting on with your child, having a wonderfully close relationship, sharing certain interests, being able to open up and share your feelings with them and encourage them to share theirs with you is not friendship – it is just good parenting.

So it is somewhat ironic that I quite regularly hear my 8 year old son declare that my partner is ‘not my friend anymore ‘ when he is angry or upset with him.

It usually follows a reprimanding of said son and no doubt my partner having raised his voice – which our son always struggles to cope with as he immediately perceives it as a sign that the security he has with us is under threat.

He is comfortable using the word ‘love’ and he declares his love for us daily – as of course we do to him – and I know for sure that he sees us as his parents , yet I question if he truly feels it 100% and understands yet that it is forever.

And maybe that is where the idea of a ‘friendship’ with us comes from, I guess it’s easier for him to relate to the word ‘friend’ and to see his relationship with us as such – even though we have never suggested anything of the sort.

I think that even with the constant assurance of our love he is confused by our anger when it arises and he sees it as being decidedly ‘unfriendly’.

I’ll let it go – for now – and as he grows and settles more and more I will hope that it will slowly disappear. If not and he continues to see us as friends then I’ll accept that and even consider it to be an achievement under the circumstances. However, rest assured he will never hear me using it in return.

My sons smell.

I am sorry to disappoint anybody who thinks this blog will be about teenage boys and their personal hygiene habits – or rather the lack of.

My sons are still only 7 and 8 years old and ‘that’ blog is hopefully still a few years away. Thankfully they are so far not showing any signs of being ‘allergic’ to soap and water, in fact quite the opposite as they really seem to enjoy their nightly shower and are evidently pleased to emerge from it smelling of some weird and exotic aroma that is current ‘en trend’ in the shampoo and shower gel industry.

In fact it’s one of my favourite things to sit down with them all showered and in their pyjamas for our nightly read together, all three of us huddled together with the odd whiff of coconut, honey, lime, Bamboo Milk… Amazonian pigmy chestnut marinated in Himalayan sesame syrup.

But this blog isn’t even about the multitude of artificial smells created to make us part with our money, this blog is about their natural smell.

Yes, they smell.

As a new parent this really surprised me and I can’t help feeling that the surprise was all to do with being an adoptive parent. I now assume that all children must smell and that it is something that I was totally unaware of – or am I misguided and should I be rushing my boys off to a specialist to have them de aroma’d?

I am also assuming that babies and children must carry the smell of their birth parents and consequently the smell goes unnoticed, at least on a conscious level. However to an adoptive parent the smell is new and alien and I will be honest, at times when particularly pungent not all that pleasant and it can take you by surprise.

It is only really noticeable in the early mornings when they are fresh out of bed, having been cocooned under the warm bedding I guess the smell has accumulated and intensified. It is not sweat as that would need to be washed away and this smell simply leaves their body (or no doubt it dulls down and is unnoticeable) as they wind up for the day.

Yes it is certainly a touch of ‘morning breath’ , but the intensity of that clears before they have brushed their teeth too which suggests that it is most definitely not just the regular bad breath we adults wake up with – and inflict on our partners daily.

It is a smell from within and it seems to literally seep from their pores.

I think that maybe we underestimate the importance of smell to us humans and that in fact we are more in tune with this sense than we are aware.

I know that before adopted babies are moved in with a new forever family, the new parents are asked to sleep with a cuddly toy so that the toy takes on their odour, it is then placed in the crib at the foster home, familiarising the baby to its new parents in advance. The theory being that there is then a connection that will comfort the baby in otherwise totally new and alien surroundings.

That’s quite powerful stuff when you think about it and yet so totally obvious too.

We spend so much effort – and indeed money – trying to erase or mask our natural smell that I think perhaps it has misguided us about its importance, maybe we need to use less manufactured odours and look to embrace the natural which is within us all far more readily.

Having said that, it has been a long day and I so need to go take a shower, where did I put that Amazonian pigmy chestnut marinated in Himalayan sesame syrup shower gel?