How adoptive parents can love biologically and parent therapeutically

How adoptive parents can love biologically and parent therapeutically

Adoptive parents like to believe that parenting their children is no different from parenting biological children. As adoptive parents, we cherish, treasure and love our children as passionately and deeply as if they were birthed from us.

Parents who adopt their children as infants and toddlers may enjoy many years of family harmony before their children begin to signal unmet needs. Parents who adopt their children between the ages of four and eighteen will often be shown very quickly that biological parenting will be overwhelmingly inadequate to their children’s needs.

Some families intuitively know that the behavioural challenges, emotional distance, physical defensiveness and spiritual depression in their children are related to adoption, but many families push that instinct out of their minds, assuming that it is taboo to consider. In my work with adoptive families, I see a disheartening pattern of families consulting with multiple therapists and providers only to receive several diagnoses, years of talk therapy, psychiatric drugs, treatments and advice circling everywhere but on the issue of adoption... and still no relief.

The truth is that our adoptive children need something deeper from us than the developmental chronology and expectations that come with biological parenting. Adoptive children need attachment parenting on a level that soothes their deepest fears, heals their deepest wounds and satiates infantile needs regardless of the body’s age. This intensive, therapeutic attachment parenting focuses greatly on the physical, emotional and spiritual needs and less on the chronological developmental expectations of the child.

Adoption is a beautiful gift, a wonderful, humanitarian way to create a family. Our children are precious, our families are exceptional and our love is deep and enduring. It is important for parents to understand, however, that adoption always means loss for our children, whether they were adopted at birth or in their teens. The first nine months of life in utero is a time of spiritual and cellular attachment to the biological mother. No matter how well-meaning they are, adoptive parents cannot wish the pain of loss out of their children’s hearts with the happiness they feel when the child joins their lives.

The human attachment cycle As attachment parents, we are well aware of the circular human attachment cycle:

  1. Child has a need
  2. Child expresses the need
  3. Parent meets the need as soon as possible
  4. Child feels relief, calm, happiness, joy, trust and homeostasis... And then the cycle begins again.

The warm feelings of satiation and stability result in attachment and bonding and are the seeds of empathy and compassion.

When a child has a need and expresses that need and the need is not met, his distress intensifies to the point of overwhelming pain. Depending on the length of the delay in meeting the need, the resulting feelings will be terror, depression, rage, mistrust and distress. These feelings result in a disrupted or broken attachment and are the seeds of emotional, mental and behavioural problems.

When a child is separated at birth from the mother that she knew intimately for nine months, there is an extreme break in the attachment cycle, resulting in trauma to the infant. In the case of an older child, if abuse and neglect were committed against the child by the biological parents, and the child waited for adoption, the trauma and emotional damage will be greater. The more caregivers the child lost, the more severe or chronic the trauma; and the longer a child waited for adoption, the more severe his emotional and neurological damage will be.

These are very depressing facts to face. To consider them is difficult; for a child to live them must feel unbearable. It is this realisation that helps us as parents to understand that our adoptive children have very different needs than our biological children because their experience of having their needs met was initially traumatic and painful.

Adoptive children can heal at a rapid rate when they and their families are open to intense physical affection. One of the most fulfilling ways to ‘get back on track’ with the parent-child attachment cycle is with physical affection that meets infantile skin stimulation needs, regardless of your child’s chronological age.

If you have adopted an infant or a toddler, intense skin stimulation and affection are crucial to healthy physical, neurological and emotional development. Your baby’s brain requires intense skin-to-skin contact and stimulation in order to wire and develop all areas of the brain optimally. If your child is aged between four and adolescent, physical affection is critical to the parent-child attachment cycle and your child’s emotional health and stability. The quality of the parent-child attachment cycle is the blueprint for your child’s lifelong ability to negotiate healthy social and emotional relationships and maintain emotional stability and happiness.

Regardless of their age, our children need us to follow the attachment cycle with them like a train riding along a track. They need us to respond quickly, empathically, compassionately and fully to the needs that they express to us. As children grow older, they often signal unmet needs to us in concerning behaviours. Little ones might whine, tantrum or hit, and adolescents might withdraw from us and show symptoms of disrespect, anger, rage, depression or anxiety. Some traumatised adoptive children may show extreme acting-out behaviours that require support from the community. Although they often aren’t consciously aware of their unmet needs, children are hoping that we will help alleviate the distress they are feeling.

Understandably, the deepest fear of nearly every adoptee is abandonment. As parents, it is vital that our commitment to our children be as deeply rooted as a tree and as firm as iron, regardless of the challenges. Traumatised children will often repeatedly test parents to discover the extent of their commitment to them. Adoptees may also have deeply ingrained beliefs of being worthless, defective, unwanted or ‘bad’. It is important to understand the hearts of our adoptive children so that we can understand the roots of their distress.

Infants and toddlers: replicate mammal parenting If your adoptive child is an infant or toddler up to the age of three, it is ideal to breastfeed immediately. Breastfeeding organisations such as La Leche League can assist adoptive mothers in learning how to share this natural, healing, bonding gift with their child. Sharing the family bed each night, carrying your infant or toddler with you in a sling throughout the day and frequent caressing and massaging of her bare skin will replicate the natural mammal attachment cycle. It is critical that your infant or toddler be with you or another close family member all day, and not placed in day care or preschool. For children who have suffered the extreme attachment break and traumatic loss of the biological mother, being placed in day care can trigger trauma, resulting in terror, anxiety, tantrums and regression.

Age four to eighteen: foster physical connection and intimacy While most adoptive parents find it easy to provide intimate physical affection and intense skin stimulation to younger children, the older or larger a child grows, the more parents withdraw physically. Western culture’s pressure on parents to rush young people towards emotional independence has cost all children in our culture greatly. Both biological and adoptive children miss out on critical physical nurturance and soothing intimacy with their parents as a result of this fear. This affects the ability of young people to maintain the connection with parents necessary to make good social judgements, maintain emotional stability and move naturally towards healthy autonomy and freedom.

There are many ways you can foster attachment and loss healing through physical intimacy with your older adoptive children. Massage your child’s skin and caress his face, hair, hands, back, arms and feet. Hold, cuddle and rock your child, regardless of her size, by holding the upper part of her body while her legs comfortably rest on the couch or over the arm of the chair. Eye gaze, talk sweet talk to your child and tell him how beautiful his eyes are and how happy you are to have her in your life.

If your child pulls away from touch or doesn’t want to be touched, start with less intense affection, such as a touch on the shoulder, and gradually build up his comfort level. Always respect your child’s tolerance level and personal space and never force touch against her will. Play active games with him that require eye contact and touch.

Older adoptive children are often haunted by the voids and unmet needs from the extreme attachment break from the biological mother and any resulting abuse, neglect or other losses. Even if you adopted your older child at birth, the attachment break and loss wounds will have been festering. The dilemma of many older traumatised children is that of wanting to grow up while also fantasising about returning to the safety and security of the womb. They may not be consciously aware of these thoughts, but regressive, immature development or emotional instability signals this internal paradox. Ironically, if parents allow their older adoptive children to regress to early, infantile developmental stages, their children will be able to grow up chronologically more fully.

A sign of healing in traumatised children is a sudden regression (around the parent) to an early developmental stage. Some parents can become frightened of this and extinguish this behaviour, often on the advice of a misguided therapist who believes the behaviour to be “inappropriate”. For example, your nine-year-old may talk in baby talk and want to be carried. Your twelve-year-old may want you to feed her. Your sixteen-year-old may sit in your lap and want you to lie next to him in bed until he falls asleep. As long as appropriate physical boundaries are respected, trust your child’s direction and respond to these early attachment needs as if she were very little.

Your older child or adolescent should ideally be with you, in the community, with family and friends during the day, not isolated in school all day with further time-consuming homework at night. Playing and learning together in the community, especially alongside family members and friends, will repair attachment breaks, foster security and allow your child to learn naturally at his own pace. It is the natural state of all mammal children, humans included, to learn everything they need on their own, in their own way, by following their interests, with guidance and resources from their families, friends and community members.

Being separated all day from loved ones can trigger trauma and feelings of loss in adoptive children. Traditional school environments can have the same effect due to the neglect of children’s basic physiological needs built into the system. Punitive, insensitive teachers and tormenting peers can cause new traumas and exacerbate old ones. Traditional school environments pile stress, anxiety, developmentally inappropriate demands and pressures on older children that can lead to emotional instability, behavioural problems, learning ‘disabilities’ and parent-child rifts. Fragile, hurt, healing brains, hearts and spirits need soothing, creative, loving, joyful, compassionate environments. Consider unschooling your child or finding a democratic, play-centred, Nature-based or art-focused alternative school for her.

Love biologically, parent therapeutically

Ideally, the love we have for our adoptive children is as passionate and unconditional as if they were birthed to us. However, healing attachment breaks and meeting early developmental needs requires a deeper level of parenting than biological parenting. We must consider with empathy and understanding the deeply rooted pain and the special needs of adoptive children. We must connect with our children in a manner that will mend the biological attachment break, grafting and weaving the mammalian attachment cycle securely, strongly, together, between our child’s heart and spirit and our own.

When our children need more

Almost all adoptees struggle with intense emotions, painful anxieties around loss and abandonment, and confusion around identity. Many of our children will require professional healing in addition to attachment parenting. It is critical to know the types of help, treatments and services that can meet the special needs of adoptive children.

Here is a list of tools and skills to help handle painful emotions:

  • Relaxation breathing
  • Rationalising thoughts that are negative and harmful
  • Mindfulness and grounding in the body
  • Meditation
  • Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication

The following therapies can help adoptive families heal:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Attachment-focused family therapy
  • Theraplay
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
  • Neurofeedback with complementary biofeedback
  • Homeopathy
  • Testing for food sensitivities
  • Diets free of gluten, refined sugar, dairy, soya and other allergens

These can be used complementarily: 

  • Herbal remedies, flower essences and vitamins
  • Body-centred therapies such as occupational and physical therapy, sensory integration therapy, yoga, Reiki, reflexology, acupuncture, Rolfing and martial arts
  • The Alpha-Stim device


Laurie A. Couture is a licensed mental health counsellor and the author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing and the best seller, Nurturing and Empowering Our Sons. 


  • Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin by Ashley Montagu, HarperPerennial
  • Attachment, Trauma and Healing: Understanding and Treating Attachment Disorder in Children and Families by Terry M. Levy and Michael Orlans, AEI Press
  • The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adoptive Child by Nancy Newton Verrier, British Association for Adoption and Fostering
  • Attachment-Focused Family Therapy by Daniel A. Hughes, W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
  • No Disposable Kids by Larry K. Brendtro, Arlin Ness and Martin Mitchell, Solution Tree Child Trauma Academy
  • Neurofeedback
  • Theraplay
Photos: Ketut Subiyanto


First published in Issue 21 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 


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