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Apr 06, 2018

Q&A with Angela Magnuson, MSW, MA, Post-Adoption Contact Center Lead Staff

Because attachment fears and misconceptions are so common, this post dives deeper into attachment—what healthy attachment looks like, how to spot signs of insecure attachment, why attachment matters in foster care, and how to encourage secure attachment. 

What does it look like for a child to have a healthy attachment with a parent or caregiver?

When a child is hurt, hungry, worried, sick, or scared, they seek out someone they trust who can meet their need. Most kids know where “safe” is, and they turn to those people for help. This demonstrates that a child has secure attachment.

If a child doesn’t have that “safe” person in their life, they’ll look to someone else (or even to themselves) to meet their physical and emotional needs, sometimes in inappropriate ways. This demonstrates that a child has insecure attachment.

What are some behaviors that signal insecure attachment?

Kids with insecure attachment struggle to discern who is safe. They may show behaviors that suggest they see everyone as safe or insist on acting independently, perhaps believing no one is safe. Some kids struggle with receiving affection, and their bodies become stiff or noodle-y when hugged. They don’t know how to respond to a hug because they don’t understand what that touch means. They may prefer a sideways hug, or they may refuse all help or comfort when they’re hurting.

Sometimes kids will be too trusting, which can lead to boundary issues. They have no fear about crawling up into a stranger’s lap, or they’ll greet everyone equally with a hug and kiss, including the cashier at the grocery store.

Parents tend to interpret touch-related behaviors as signs of previous sexual abuse, but that’s not necessarily the case. Complicating matters is that many of these behaviors can be explained by other things. The behaviors could be attachment related. An overly affectionate child could be affected by a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. A child who doesn’t want to be hugged could have sensory issues.

When parents or caregivers Google their child’s behaviors online, all results tend to lead to an attachment disorder. Yes, kids who have trauma histories have trust issues, and they often have attachment-related difficulties, but this doesn’t mean the child has a diagnosable disorder. Parents and caregivers must look at all the pieces of the puzzle before jumping to conclusions.

How important is it for a child to form a secure attachment with a foster parent?  

There was a time when foster parents were encouraged not to bond with a child temporarily in their care. The thinking went, if the child returned to the biological family or moved to an adoptive family, the child would be harmed if they had attached to a foster parent. Today, we understand that a child’s healthy attachment with anyone is a good thing. If they are attached to their biological parent, they can also be attached to a foster parent.  

If a child’s instinct is, “I am better off taking care of myself,” they may consider attaching to a caregiver to be unsafe, and display behaviors that push people away. If a child’s instinct is, “Any and all adults can meet my needs,” they may display behaviors that indicate poor boundaries.

How can foster parents encourage a child’s secure attachment?

  • Talk with the child about appropriate boundaries: “Come and ask me if it’s OK to give hugs.”
  • Talk with your friends and family about how they can reinforce safe boundaries. Coach Grandma to ask you, in front of the child, “Mom, is it OK if I give Susie a hug?” The child will learn to take cues from the foster parent about who is safe.
  • Don’t prompt a child to hug anyone, even if you know the person is safe: “Susie, give Grandma a hug goodbye.” A child who doesn’t want to hug may be willing to wave, give a high five, blow a kiss, or give a fist bump.
  • With kids who struggle with affection, control, or personal space, ask the child first if it’s OK for you to hug them: “You look sad. Would it be OK if I gave you a hug?” If they say no, say, “That’s OK. Is it OK if I sit here next to you?” Stay close, even if they don’t want to be touched.
  • Some kids will use hugs/affection to end the discomfort of discipline or correction. A parent’s gut reaction may be to resist the gesture as manipulative; accept the affection and give affection but get right back to the teaching moment: “I love getting hugs from you. This doesn’t mean you’re getting cookies before dinner. If you’re hungry, you may have some grapes.” Never withhold affection as a punishment.

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