Attachment issues in adoption and foster care

All children who are looked after, whether they are being placed with a permanent foster or adoptive family, will experience some difficulties around attachment: all of them will have suffered the loss and trauma of separation from their birth mother.

The degree to which they will be affected by attachment issues will vary widely. Some children will have a greater degree of resilience, while some may have had some positive parenting experience in the past.

Image of a white boy outside

The relationship between the extent of early trauma experienced by the child and the degree of attachment issues is therefore not a simple one, as there can be many influential factors, but it is fair to say the older child with a chaotic early life and multiple placements is very likely to show a greater level of attachment difficulties. However, it is important to remember that even a child relinquished as a baby can display attachment issues, whilst an older child may not.

Recognise the behaviour

Children who have attachment difficulties can express this in a wide range of behaviours and it can sometimes be difficult to recognise that the issue is linked to attachment.These behaviours can be broadly categorised as follows:

  • Aggression, oppositional or defiant behaviours (e.g. extreme tantrums, open aggression and defiance, or gratuitous violence)
  • Hyperactivity, poor concentration and risk taking
  • Lying, stealing and manipulative behaviours
  • Compulsive caregiving, compliance and self-reliance (the child looks after him or herself as well as their carer)
  • Indiscriminate approaches to adults and children (the child may treat their carer the same as stranger adults, or may appear to show more interest in or affection for unfamiliar adults than their familiar carer)
  • Social withdrawal (e.g. rejecting behaviour towards the main carers)
  • Sexualised behaviour
  • Sleeping problems
  • Eating problems
  • Wetting and soiling
  • Self-harm

Acknowledge the problem

When the child who has joined their family starts displaying behaviour which they have difficulties dealing with, many adopters and foster carers can start doubting themselves and their adequacies as the new carers for their child: “Does this child really like me? Am I the wrong choice to parent this child? Will I ever feel close to this child?” Often the children will be behaving in a way designed to test the‘staying powers’ or commitment of their new carers, who are left wondering whether the child really cares for them.

Another difficulty may be that some children with attachment difficulties may behave in a completely ‘normal’ and even ‘charming’ way with everyone but their new adoptive or foster parents, leaving the carers very isolated when no-one outside witnesses the more challenging behaviour of their child. Or they may attach to one carer but reject the other, which can create some difficulties within the relationship. It is important for carers to accept that the feelings of frustration or anger they may feel towards their child when he or she displays behaviours linked to attachment issues are normal.

Get support

If carers feel something is ‘not quite right’ in the behaviour of their child, it is important that they trust their instincts and seek help and support. Once the problem has been recognised, there is a lot that can be done to make a difference.

You could start by contacting your local authority or the agency who assessed you for support. Under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, the authority where the child came from is responsible for the assessment and provision of adoption support services for three years after the adoption order. After this period, the local authority in which the family lives, if different, is responsible for support.

Increasingly, local authority and voluntary agencies have post adoption support specialists dedicated to providing services to adoptive families. There are many well-established post adoption services for adoptive families throughout the UK including After Adoption.

It can be vital to have support from other carers in similar situations. Organisations such as Adoption UK (helpline 0844 848 7900) and the Fostering Network (information line: 020 7261 1884) are a great resource for positive help and advice, and for sharing stories and ways of coping with attachment difficulties with other families.

For a list of organisations offering support to adopters and foster carers please contact Be My Parent on 020 7421 2666/5/4, see our Useful resources or download an information pack.

Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in May 2006.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 04 December 07

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