Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What's the Connection? Adoption & Attachment

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

What is the relationship between attachment and adoption? Well, healthy, secure attachment is the goal when a family adopts a child and brings him into the home. Remember, however, that your child’s view of himself and the world around him is influenced by his early experiences (from birth to about age 5). Because children begin learning about relationships from the day they are born, most adopted children will have had “teachers” before entering their forever families. These early experiences will affect his view of you and how he interacts with you. As an adoptive parent, your job, in part, will be helping your child relearn how relationships work.

To understand how experiences affect a child, it is helpful to understand the process by which attachment is (or is not) developed. The drawing below illustrates the attachment cycle. Successful movement through the cycle requires two parties: the child and a caregiver, whose role is to recognize the child’s need and respond appropriately (step 4).

Over time, as a child experiences repeated movement through this cycle, attachment is created. So, attachment is created through experience. A child’s experiences are not simply external events; experiences shape and affect brain biology. Daniel Siegel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out, states,
For a brain, “experience” means the firing of neurons… psychiatrist-neuroscientist Eric Kandel [recently] won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that when neurons fire (are activated) repeatedly, the genetic material inside those neurons’ nuclei becomes “turned on” so that new proteins are synthesized which enable the creation of new neuronal synaptic connections (p. 33-34).
Here’s the translation: repeated experiences of movement through the attachment cycle actually wire the brain toward security, trust, and capability.

In contrast, when a caregiver is not present to accomplish step 4, the attachment cycle is halted. Children who live in institutional settings, like orphanages or group homes, often do not have access to caregivers who consistently participate in the attachment cycle. The wiring in their brains is different. Tune in next time to find out how.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

All about Attachment

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Attachment is a buzz word in the adoption community, and for good reason. Attachment plays an essential role in the life of a family, and being mindful of attachment is especially important when an adopted child enters a family. This 6-part series, called All about Attachment, is designed to provide easy to understand information about attachment as well as practical application points.

Attachment? What’s That?
The word “attachment” refers to the connection or bond that a child has with his or her caregiver. Attachment is a process that happens over time, and it is built on experiences that happen from birth to the first 3-5 years of life.

Healthy, secure attachment is built when a child and a caregiver interact in a predictable pattern where the child expresses a need and the caregiver responds to the need in a prompt and appropriate way. In other words, a securely attached child and his caregiver are like dance partners who are dancing to the same music with coordinated steps. In contrast, a child whose expressed needs are met inconsistently or not at all, is likely have an insecure attachment with his caregiver. The dance between this child and his caregiver is ungraceful, with partners using uncoordinated steps, dancing to different music, or even unaware that a dance is happening.

A child’s relationship with his caregiver is the first relationship that he experiences, thus his attachment with his caregiver sets the stage for the way he views all his other relationships. In her book Handbook for Treatment of Attachment-Trauma Problems in Children, Beverly James notes that a caregiver has three roles to fulfill as an attachment figure to a child: protector, provider, and guide. As a protector, the caregiver conveys and provides safety. In the provider role, the caregiver provides for the child’s basic needs as well as his comfort and psychological care. As a guide, the caregiver helps the child navigate the world and understand his part in it. The degree to which a caregiver fulfills these three roles affects the degree to which a child attaches to the caregiver.

Children use their attachment with their caregivers as a base from which to explore the world and who they are in it. Children who are securely attached to their caregivers learn to regulate themselves and manage their emotions, thus experiencing that they are capable of both meeting their own needs and getting their needs met. Children who are insecurely attached with their caregivers will have difficulty regulating themselves and managing their emotions. These difficulties make it harder to establish and maintain relationships with others.

In the next post, we’ll look specifically at the relationship between attachment and adoption, including the cycle through which attachment is formed and the brain biology that accompanies it.