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Adoption Blog: My Paperwork Pregnancies

In Denial About My Son’s Attachment Struggles

I never thought my son could have attachment issues because we adopted him as a newborn. I was quite wrong....
While waiting to adopt, I read many adoptive parenting books. There was always a section on attachment, and I always either skipped or quickly skimmed it, as I was adopting a newborn domestically. The little I knew about attachment was always in relation to older children adopted internationally or from foster care. How could a newborn not be attached to his adoptive mother?
When we adopted my first son, I was blessed enough to be present for his birth. He grew to be a sweet, fun, and handsome boy who has always had a few "quirks." For instance, he always had to know where my husband, Paul, and I were in the house or else he'd have an anxiety attack. He would collect items from us, like a sock or a bracelet, and keep them hidden in his room. He would hide food underneath his bed, and we constantly found wrappers in his drawers. Also, he refused to fall asleep unless we stood next to his crib/bed.
We did not think much of these quirks until we adopted two more children, who acted differently. They could easily separate from us, didn't collect our personal items, never hid food, and went to sleep without problems. And still, Paul and I didn't believe we needed to formally address our oldest son's quirks.
Then, in the third grade, his quirks escalated and we discovered that he was being bullied at school. His happy personality turned into that of an angry boy. He would be set off by the smallest thing and respond by screaming, hitting, and biting. Additionally, he began stealing money and toys from us and his friends. He was completely out of control and our entire household revolved around his moods.
At this point, Paul and I sought professional counseling for this drastic change in behavior. We explained how, since being bullied, our son was now unrecognizable to us. The counselor, who had other adopted patients, asked us many questions about what our son was like prior to being bullied. We said how sweet he was, even if he had some odd behavior (AKA the "quirks"). The counselor was very interested in this behavior and eventually mentioned "attachment."
At home that day, I vented to Paul about how inaccurate that was. I said, "Attachment problems happen to children who were not adopted as babies! I carried our son out of the birthing room and we haven't left his side yet! How can WE have attachment issues? She just saw that he was adopted and assumed he MUST have 'attachment issues'!"
I knew my son desperately needed help, however, so I agreed to continue seeing this counselor. Paul took the lead when certain techniques were recommended, such as reassuring our son that he can ask for food whenever he wants and we'll get it for him. Telling him every time we left the room, where we were going, and how long we'd be gone. Rocking him, as you would a baby. Allowing one-on-one "snuggle time" before he went off to bed to create a non-stressful transition to bedtime.
Paul was on board 110% to use techniques designed to reinforce attachment, and I was slowly getting there. As we used them, I began to see a change in my son. He was less high strung. He was falling asleep better. He stopped hoarding food in his room. He could tell us when he felt out of control and needed some extra love from us.
Having moments when my sweet son was back convinced me that, indeed, he had "attachment issues." I then read all I could about this topic, but it still always referred to children who were adopted when they were older. I concluded that if it rarely happens with newborns, then this must be my fault. I did experience post-adoption depression for a few months. Did my son sense that I was having a hard time bonding with him? Despite my caring for him 24/7 as any new mother would, could he tell that I was struggling emotionally?
Another possibility is that my son's body was aching for his birth mother. His memory of her is deep within him and obviously hurting. Was his lack of attachment because he is missing her? It wasn't unusual for him to yell out during his worst outbursts, "Why don't my birth parents try to contact me?" or "Why don't my birth parents love me?"
In an attempt to help my son, I wrote to his birth parents asking if they would be willing to communicate with him. Since a visit when he was six months old, I've continued to send letters and photos, but have not heard anything back. I explained that he was having a difficult time and needed some assurance that they still thought of him. Unfortunately, nothing came of these pleas, but it seemed that just my reaching out brought my son comfort and dispelled some of his anxiety.
It's been about two years since we sought counseling and began treating my son's attachment issues. I look back and am embarrassed that I failed to see the many signs of his struggling. I was hard-headed in thinking my son was immune to attachment problems because we had adopted him as a newborn. I truly wish there were more literature in this area, to help other moms like me.
My son is still overly clingy at times and has an abundance of collections in his room, but he's happy and secure. He tells us when he needs extra hugs or snuggle time. I don't mind it, as I'm not sure how much longer my boy will want to cuddle up with his mom.
It breaks my heart that I don't know why my son struggles with attachment issues. As his mom, I want him to always feel safe, secure, and unconditionally loved. Hopefully, with the techniques I have learned thus far, I can reassure him that I'm never going to leave his side.

Related Posts on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle


We are currently working with an attachment counselor. We adopted our son at 18 months. We also thought everything was going OK, but it really started to fall apart in 2nd grade. The program we are in now is based on the TBRI program of Karyn Purvis from Texas Christian University. She and Dr. Cross have written, “The Connected Child.” One thing I have learned in our classes is that this program is helpful for kids from tough beginnings, not just kids that are adopted later in life.  This includes a stressful or difficult pregnancy. What birth mom contemplating adoption isn’t stressed? A stressful pregnancy will change the neurotransmitter levels in a child, leaving them with difficulty in being able to adapt or react appropriately to stressful situations.

By Country Meadows Mom on Thursday, February 06, 2014 at 10:46 pm.

I would STRONGLY recommend reading The Connected Child by Dr. Karen Purvis if you have not already done so.  My wife and I read it, and it is utilized as a tool at our adoption agency, and it completely changes your perceptions of, “Why won’t my son/daughter attach to me?”, and allows you into the psyche of how an adopted child, whether at birth or at 18 years of age, works.  Children with attachment disorders usually develop this from one thing, according to Dr. Purvis, and that is security.  I would strongly suggest reading Dr. Purvis’ book if you haven’t done so already.  Below is her website and my wife and I found it extremely helpful.  We’ll pray for you in your struggles.

By mightymousebq on Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 3:56 pm.

This seems like your child’s personality. I don’t think its connected to adoption? In essence you are all he knows. I recognize he was in his birthmom for 9 months. However, you are the person he has bonded with. Your smell is what he knows. He may simply be a person who doesn’t attach well to people. I’m glad the birthmom never responded. That could have led to another level of issues. How would you have felt if he attached to her and not you. Be patient and be okay with him knowing you are there for him but that he doesn’t always need it. We all know birth or adopted each child can be very different. Try not to compare him to the others. He knows you’re Mom!

By waiting4ablessing on Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 5:08 pm.

“I’m glad the birthmom never responded. That could have led to another level of issues. How would you have felt if he attached to her and not you.”

From what I’ve seen of Danielle on these boards, I think she is secure enough not to see her child’s bmom as competition, I think she just wants what is best for her child.

By catherinenz on Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 8:24 pm.

Btw I don’t necessarily disagree with waiting4ablessing that the clinginess and abundance of collections may just be his personality.  It is quite possible and probable that is so and on the whole he sounds like a delightful young man.

Then again, it may be that there are many extrinsic facotrs contributing to those personality traits and it is possible that some of those extrinsic factors may or, then again, may not include adoption-related things, either directly or indirectly.  Btw that is not me “blaming everything on adoption”, it is more allowing adoption, like everything else, be allowed to be considered as a possible factor, rather than always have it excluded.  What I mean is that it is allowed to be considered a factor in the same that something like being a middle child might be a factor.  For example, if any of us humans on here read an article about birth order, we might say “hey that does sound a bit like me”.  No-one would then say “OMG don’t blame everything on being a middle child”.  However, if an adoptee reads anything about adoption and says “hey that sounds a bit like me”, they are often accused of “blaming everything on adoption”.  It annoys me because the truth is that, all my life,  I’ve never blamed anything on adoption and I’ve gone out of my way to do so, but after reunion, I have been able to put things into context and have occasionally that that there may be some things may have factors either directly or indiretly related to adoption - however, that is not blaming everything on adoption.

The point of what I’m trying to say is that it is best to keep an open mind - don’t discount anything.  The best thing to do is often to just listen and not invalidate what one’s child might say. 

As for the talk about his bmom, he might have appreciated your actions because they show that you are comfortable with talk about his bmother and thus you are unlikely to invalidate him should he ever wish to discuss anything.  Sometimes it is not necessarily the things that we do but what they represent - i.e. having a talk about one thing might lead the people in the conversation to say “well I can talk to that person about anything”, regardless of what the conversation was about - it is more the timbre of the combination that can give that impression.

By catherinenz on Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 3:31 am.

Years ago, I went to an adoption conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a person talked about THE PRIMAL WOUND (there is a book and a workbook by that name by the author Nancy Verrier). The lecturer REALLY upset and even angered the adoptive parents in the audience and I sensed that they couldn’t believe that, somehow, we couldn’t “fix” or prevent this situation, regardless of how proactive we were or how young our children were at arrival.  He even quoted a study in which breast milk (of the birth mother and another woman) were put on pads on either side of the baby and that the baby ALWAYS turned to the birthmother’s milk ! 

One of our adopted sons (they are now 29 and 26 years old and each was placed with us at 3.5 months of age) has seemingly struggled more with such issues (similar to those described by Danielle) but I now (having read the book and the workbook) have to agree that this “primal wound” is fairly universal among adoptees, despite the adoptive parents sadness and denial about it. 

I also think that some adoptees (as our one son) have, by nature, more vulnerable/sensitive personalities (also from birth) and that those adoptees have more “perceptive/feeling” personalities and those with such personalities think and worry more about such issues.  Our other son is a “typical jock” and thus has not shown his vulnerability but I think it is there, deep in him, as well.

It is one of the saddest realities for so many adoptees and adoptive parents in closed adoptions.  We all can survive the pain, but we surely wish we could fill that inevitable “hole in their hearts”

By Humbled on Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 7:18 pm.

I have not had the chance to read The Primal Wound yet, but from talking to several adult adoptees, they seem to be in two completely different categories. One category has no interest in birth family and is very matter of fact about adoption. The other category is bothered by the concept of adoption and birth parents and adoptive parents. Some that I have talked to are adoptive siblings, so they even grew up in the same environment and have very different feelings about their adoption. Yes, they were adopted as early infants. We just need to remember that all of us are individuals, and have different reactions or issues with different topics, and there are many influences on these issues, not just one cause.

By Country Meadows Mom on Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 7:58 pm.

Thanks, for this article, Danielle.  As an adoption professional, I sometimes struggle with the unwillingness of adoptive families to believe that attachment issues can occur in a newborn adoption.  It’s not a one size fits all diagnosis, but definitely a possibility to consider in any child who has been through some level of trauma in their early life.

By shirleymm on Friday, February 21, 2014 at 5:18 pm.

Country Meadows Mom:  A possible tweak “One category has no APPARENT interest in birth family”.  Our other son claims “no interest” however, several circumstances over the last 29 years have shown that it’s still there and has popped up a couple of times, surprising him enormously !

By Humbled on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 3:47 am.

“It wasn’t unusual for him to yell out during his worst outbursts, ‘Why don’t my birth parents try to contact me?’ or ‘Why don’t my birth parents love me?’”

To me, that says it all. How does a kid process something like that? So glad you went with your gut and sought out help. A real eye-opener article, Danielle.

By Barbara Herel on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 3:49 pm.
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Meet the Author

Danielle Pennel

Danielle Pennel


I have recently adopted or am adopting from...
U.S. Newborn, U.S. Newborn

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