Adoption & Attachment Problems: Newborns May Have It, Too

We have two adopted kids: Wheezie, whom we adopted as a 3-month old out of foster care, and Zak, adopted as a newborn. Much to our incredible surprise, Zak is the one with attachment issues. He is the one whose birth we witnessed, whom we slept next to at the hospital, and who has never been with another family. Not his sister, who spent a month withdrawing from drugs in the NICU (without a single visitor), and who then lived with a foster family.

Our drug-addicted foster daughter attached quickly and completely. But not our son, whom we adopted at birth.

Not attaching to your child is exquisitely painful. It is upsetting at a core, visceral level, where few defenses have been built. Parents feel unprepared for the pain of attachment issues, and often blame themselves.

Adoption literature tends to focus on Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which attributes the problem to experiences the child had before arriving at their adoptive homes. Attachment problems, the thinking goes, are a reaction to negative experiences.

Adoptive parents can be led to believe that if attachment problems are a response to some kind of trauma then that trauma must have occurred on their watch. They themselves must somehow be responsible for it.

Because of this thinking, I blamed myself for not holding him more, for not getting his reflux diagnosed more quickly, and for being the “wrong” mom for him. I didn’t know who the “right” mom would be, but it was clear I wasn’t it.

I asked his early intervention specialists to help me figure it out and “fix” it, but even if they didn’t know what was causing it. I was given activities to do — all of which implied that if I were different with him, it would change. I was frustrated and felt lost. And on my bad days, I was resentful. So I started researching.

What causes attachment problems when you’ve had your adoptive child since birth?

It wasn’t until I started to piece together a few things the birth mom said about her drinking, and a doctor somewhat off-handedly referred to our son as “textbook alcohol exposed,” that I slowly begin to understand that I needed to learn more about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). I have access to a university database and researched incessantly, and learned what a long road may lie ahead for him and for us. I also learned that FASD often results in attachment difficulties. Alcohol rewires the brain’s developing neurological system, and many aspects of their personality just are a bit off. The ability to form “normal” relationships is frequently one of them.

I have spoken with other adoptive moms who have struggled with feeling fully attached to their kids. RAD is considered the prime culprit, but FASD is also a cause.

I looked back on two years (and counting) of great pain, and realized, for the first time, that I was not to blame. In truth, my first thought was, “How on earth did no one tell me this could happen?” I would not wish it upon my worst enemy. The second thing I thought was, “Now what?” So I read a lot, talked to people, and tried everything I could think of.

A few things I’ve learned:

  • Fake it til you make it. Even if the feelings aren’t there, treat him as if they are. Not because it miraculously fixes anything, but because the alternative is NOT to try as hard, and that just makes you feel like crap. And Zak definitely notices when I act in a way that looks like favoritism for his sister. Faking it — which is not always easy — is simply easier in the long run.
  • Forgive everyone. Start with yourself. I had a lot of forgiving to do — for my anger at him, my mixed feelings about the adoption, my occasional regret. I had to forgive the practitioners and my spouse, all of whom dismissed the seriousness of it. I had to forgive Zak for rejecting me so often. And I had to forgive his both mom for not taking a pregnancy test until she was six months along, and for continuing to drink even after that. We are all human and make enormous mistakes. A spirit of forgiveness — which I have to choose everyday — has helped take the edge off some of my negative feelings.
  • Find what makes you feel close, and do it as often as you can. Zak loves it when I let him break the rules, and he is truly adorable in these moments. So we sometimes eat dinner on a blanket in the living room. Sometimes we have TWO bananas for breakfast. Sometimes we skip the hair washing altogether. Oddly enough, I don’t feel particularly close to him when we read books or play blocks, but I do it anyway. But it’s the moments where we go off script that I treasure. I don’t know why.
  • Watch him sleep, and pray for him (and you). Of course, his bedroom door sticks, so I have to be super clever around this one. But he is, like all sleeping children, angelic when asleep. Praying for him as I look at him makes me feel like God is close to me and him, and then I feel less alone in the struggle.

Zak has good days when he makes great eye contact and wants to tell me a story. But he has more bad days, when I am invisible to him, or merely present as the person who can prepare meals and turn on the TV. He’s improving, but at a glacial pace. I, on the other hand, have come a long way. But it would have been easier from the beginning had I known it was possible our newborn would have attachment problems.

Parents who struggle with this: what has helped? what has made it easier to cope? Comment below or email us at

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