“Many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation of attachment relationships. The formation of a bond is described as falling in love … ”
John Bowlby in The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds.
I had been standing in the kitchen nervously wiping down already clean counters, when my son shouted from the living room to tell me they had arrived. For me It was a huge occasion, I was about to meet the child I hoped would become my new daughter, but for her it was just a visit to another foster family who would be looking after her for a few days. Even as I anticipated her arrival, the roots of the love a mother has for a daughter were forming, but it wasn’t straightforward.
Social workers had been telling Katie since she was six that they were looking to find her a family. Five years later, after living with temporary foster carers, they were still looking. This visit would give us an opportunity to meet Katie and begin the process of becoming her permanent foster family.
As I reached the front door a small figure jumped out of the car looked up at me over the top of her glasses and with an expression I would come to know so well, shouted, ‘Hiya, I’m here!’ My heart melted and I just wanted to scoop her up and give her a huge hug but I restrained myself. With an overly formal handshake, I introduced myself.
‘I’m Katie,’ she said cheerfully, ‘and I saw a house with lions just before we got here.’ I couldn’t think where there was a house with lions nearby, but I didn’t get a chance to ask any more questions as Katie’s foster family was just behind her and there was a flurry of introductions.
The rest of the visit passed with our children, their children, and Katie running in and out the garden playing and the adults drinking coffee. I managed to prize Katie away from the fun to take her upstairs and show her the room she would be using. I was planning to give it a fresh coat of paint, and I wanted to find out her favourite colour. I couldn’t tell her but I wanted this room to be hers.
❝While we all know that simply loving a child is not enough, it is certainly the best place to begin. Without it a child simply cannot thrive.❞
Anyone who has ever given birth will tell you that one of the many worries that comes along with pregnancy is the fear, ‘Will I love my baby when I see him or her?’ Fortunately, most new parents fall in love instantly when they meet the wee one or at the very least over the first few hectic sleep deprived days and weeks of life. What is much less understood is the process of starting to love a child who is not part of your family by birth. Very little is written about falling in love with an adopted child and even less about loving a fostered child. It sometimes feels like that word is taboo and does not usually figure in the children’s reports given to the potential adopter or carer. Perhaps every report should have a section asking ‘Who loves this child and whom does the child love?’ While we all know that simply loving a child is not enough, it is certainly the best place to begin. Without it a child simply cannot thrive.
Looking back on my initial dealings with Katie, I am sure that the process of starting to love her began with that first ‘Hiya’ and grew stronger even while I was decorating her room. My husband could see what was happening and reminded me several times that this was early days and many things might still prevent her joining our family. Despite all his warnings, I couldn’t help myself. I was falling in love with her.
She has now lived with us for several months, she is very much part of the family and I love her wholeheartedly. I do not begin to understand all the biological and psychological processes that have made this happen but I am grateful for them. Over the last few months, this determined, stoical, and immensely practical child has taught me many things. Most importantly, she has taught me the value of allowing myself to love, and how to be aware of my surroundings. I now know that the house at the top of our road has large stone lions in the garden and I had never noticed them. She saw them on her first visit. I saw a little girl that needed the love of a family.
As parents of teenagers with attachment difficulties, we may need an extraordinary sensitivity and resilience to stay connected and engaged with our children. It is something we can’t do on our own, and yet finding help for adopted teenagers and for those who are in foster care can be difficult. We see our children struggling, but we can’t get others to recognize they need help. Sometimes help comes in an unusual form, even from a couple of rabbits.
Have you ever had an experience like this? “Mr. Woodier, what you are describing about your daughter* sounds like any other fifteen-year old.”
I feel a wave of despair wash over me. Perhaps this teacher is just trying to reassure me, but it has the opposite effect. My daughter is struggling. Why can’t the teachers hear what I am trying to say? I have been trying to get them to understand for years.
In my experience, parenting an adopted teenager is different. I have four children, and my youngest is adopted. All four of them experienced the teen years differently. Although they all faced challenges growing up, my adopted daughter’s struggles are more intense. She gets knocked back harder by failure and rejection.
One of the most important things I learned as a youth worker, teacher, and parent is the importance of staying connected, of not letting my children become alienated during those turbulent years.
But that’s not so easy because good parenting is a two-way thing. Dan Hughes and Jonathan Baylin, authors of Brain Based Parenting, describe this as a kind of reciprocal relationship, “When a mother and her infant feel mutual joy in each other’s presence, the infant experiences herself as capable of eliciting Mom’s joy, and the mother experiences herself as capable of eliciting her infant’s joy1.” Feeling I have helped my son with a problem or shared a joke with my daughter helps me stay positive, open, and engaged with my children especially when they are struggling. But too often, with my daughter, I am drawn into a conflict, and I am made to feel that I have nothing to offer.
In addition, when I was going through a difficult time with my sons, I could go back and remember what they were like before they became teenagers, the cute and cuddly years. But that is not so easy with my adopted daughter. It has never been easy for her to show love. There isn’t so much of a good ‘before teenager’ time to refer back to.
I try to imagine what life is like from my daughter’s perspective. She wants her friends to accept her, but she doesn’t want to stand out at school. She wants her parents to respect her as an adult, but she still hugs a teddy bear. She worries what the future will look like and whether she will pass her exams. She can’t stop thinking about a boy at school, but she lives in dread that he will find out she likes him. No wonder she seems stressed when she gets home from school.
So as a parent I have to work even harder to stay connected to my daughter. I don’t want her to feel alienated or alone. In order to do this, my daughter and I recently became bunny rabbit foster parents. (Yes, there is a charity in Scotland for homeless rabbits). The rabbits also come with strange names. I remember one particularly difficult day, and we were both upset. I said, “Come on. You hold Hey Diddle and I will hold Nuts in May.” We sat there in silence for a few minutes. As our stress levels dropped, we began to talk about the rabbits. The angry words were quickly forgotten and life looked more hopeful again.
Parenting my daughter takes every ounce of creativity, patience, and hopefulness I have and then some more. I hold on to every good moment because I know that somewhere in there is a young person who may just need a bit longer to sort out her life. When I get little back that helps me feel like I am a doing a good job as a parent, I need affirmation from friends and family.
So, on behalf of all those parents of troubled teenagers, we know you can’t fix everything, but don’t minimize what we are going through. We need as much help as we can get during this really important time in our children’s lives. Finally, I love my garden but if it helps me stay connected to a very special daughter, I am willing to share it with a couple of rabbits.
*My daughter has given me permission to publish these details. “Dad, none of my friends read your blog anyway.”
I am taking a break over the summer, but look for future blogs on why inclusion matters, how understanding attachment helps build resilience in young people, and an interview with Helen Minnis, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Glasgow University.
1. J. Baylin, and D. A. Hughes, Brain Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010).
The latest posts from David Woodier our chief blogger, and the SAIA Team.