Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cocooning and Attachment

Brad and I have used our time waiting for Eli Lingo to learn as much as we can about parenting children from hard places.  We've attended the classes, read the books, watched the videos, talked with other parents. I'm sure those of you who know me well can easily picture this, haha.

I feel that we are as prepared as new adoptive parents could possibly be, and yet . . . .

Brad and I know what we are about to undertake will likely be difficult.  And it could be very difficult.  But we also know that if we do this well the rewards will be tremendous.  So please support our efforts to do this well, and don't be offended if it doesn't look like how you parented your children.

When Brad and I first bring Eli home, we'll be doing our best to "cocoon" with him.  We will not be scheduling any outings with other people, nor will we be accepting visitors.  From a practical standpoint, we don't know how long we will be able to do this because Eli will be heading to pre-school and then Brad and I back to work.  But for as long as we can, and to the extent we are able, we will be keeping Eli's world very small and devoting our attention entirely to helping him feel safe in his new family.
At our agency's picnic in June, we received what sounded like very good advice from our friend Craig.  He said that while we'll want to get Eli out and about to learn about his new community, we should stick to places where Eli won't know anyone and so won't be fussed over.  For instance, he said they stayed away from their church for a long time because, although everyone would mean well, their adopted children would receive too much attention.  It's overwhelming to them.

Over-stimulation is a big concern.

Although we know some families enjoy having a welcoming crew at the airport, we have chosen to make Eli's trip home as calm as possible.  We have spoken with families whose children were traumatized by too much excitement at the airport, and we don't want to risk that happening with Eli.

We are very excited for Eli to meet the many wonderful people who will become part of his life, and that will come.  What we'll be focused on when we arrive home is comforting and soothing our boy who has just flown halfway around the world with people he doesn't know.

When he boards that plane in Ethiopia he won't know where he's going and, considering he just spent the past few months among people who don't speak his language, he may understand very little about why we've taken him away.  He won't feel "grateful" for us removing him from everyone and everything he's known in his life; when we land he won't likely be excited to have arrived in America.  He will be grieving.  He will be anxious and scared, and as his parents it will be our primary focus to calm and reassure him.  And by doing this, we begin to build his trust that we will always be there for him. 

Always.  Forever.  Not easy concepts for a boy who has already lost one family. 

Having others there for this initial transition home would take our focus away from him, and his focus away from us.  For the time being, we need to be focused only on each other and becoming a secure family of three.

Which brings us to the subject of attachment.

Attachment between a parent and child occurs over time when a baby has a physical or emotional need and expresses that need, and the parent meets the need and soothes the child. This repeats between a parent and child over and over to create trust within the child for that parent.  The baby is hungry and cries in distress, and mom nurses and calms the baby.  This teaches the baby that this person is safe and can be trusted, and it makes the baby feel that his or her world is safe. By God’s very design, an emotional foundation is laid in the tiniest of babies, which affects their learning, conscience, growth and future relationships.

Adopted children have experienced interruptions in this typical attachment process. 

Each one has experienced some type of break in the process - the loss of a parent, a parent who was unable to meet their physical needs (child went hungry), multiple caretakers, etc.  Because of this, Eli will most likely struggle with feeling safe and secure and may lack the ability to trust that we will meet his needs.  We will need to rebuild attachment and help him heal from his emotional wounds.

The best way for us to form a parent/child bond is for us to be the only ones to hold, cuddle, instruct, soothe, and feed him.

As this repeats between Eli and us, he will be able to learn that we, as his parents, are safe to trust and to love deeply. Essentially, we will be recreating the newborn/parent connection. Once Eli begins to establish this important bond, he will be able to branch out to other healthy relationships.

When we come home, Eli will have what may seem like a lot of structure and boundaries. Although it may appear we are spoiling him at times, attachment is best fostered if we need his every need quickly and consistently.  He may show his grief and confusion in many ways, including anger and temper tantrums.  We will be helping him through these difficult emotions and proving to him that we are his forever family.

It is critical that Eli attach to us before he bonds with any other family or friends.

While some of this may seem like overkill or even sound a little bit crazy, we pray that you will understand and trust that we are doing this to give Eli the absolute best shot at becoming a secure, well-adjusted, and confident adult. We can't give an exact timeline to know at what point we'll say that Eli is "attached" to us.

And while it may appear that he is well-adjusted and attaching to us, adjusting to life here and being affectionate with us does not necessarily mean that he is attached to us.  This process will more than likely take some time, and every child is different.  We will be looking for progress in the days, weeks, months, and even years ahead. And when Eli's ready to expand his world, we'll let you know.

When you do meet Eli, it's important for everyone to set physical boundaries.

It will help us immensely if the adults around Eli will limit what is typically considered normal, physical contact with a young child. This will (for a while) include things like holding, hugging and kissing.

The reason for this is children from orphanage settings are prone to form insecure attachments to anyone and everyone, which hinders the important, primary relationship with parents.  Orphans often have so many caretakers that, as a survival mechanism, they become overly charming toward all adults. A child struggling with attachment may exhibit indiscriminate affection with people outside of their family unit. It may appear harmless and as if they are just “very friendly,” but this is actually quite dangerous for the child. Please understand that we want nothing more than to have our son hugged, cuddled, and cherished by all of our friends and family. But until we feel that he has a solid attachment to us, we would be grateful if you limit such physical interactions with him.

Waving, blowing kisses, and high fives are perfectly appropriate and welcomed.  And Eli loves a good fist bump!

Another way that you can help us is by redirecting all physical and emotional needs to us.

If you see that Eli needs a drink, is hungry, needs his hands wiped, has fallen down, etc., please allow us to respond.  While we know it is so natural and loving to want to meet that need yourself, it is in Eli's best interest that you redirect him to Brad or me.

Finally, we are grateful for all of the love and support you have shown us.  It truly is a blessing that so many people are genuinely happy and excited for us, and we look forward to each one of you being able to spend time getting to know this amazing boy.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and for being understanding and respectful of our needs right now.


  1. This is so important. I hope everyone around you is able to help with these things and understands the reasons behind what might seem odd to them. I can't wait to hear all about your adventures with Eli! You and Brad are going to be great parents, and I know it's going to take time, but you've got God on your side, so you'll make it in the end!

  2. Such good points that so many of us would never think about or understand without this instruction. It all makes perfect sense Kathleen.