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Ask Dr. Sears: Attachment Parenting an Adopted Child

Q: We adopted our son when he was almost a year old. As a result, he didn't experience attachment-style parenting with us when he was an infant. Is there any way to instill a better sense of trust and unconditional love now that he's almost 5 years old?
A: The fact that your son missed out on bonding with you at birth and in his early months doesn't mean he'll be lacking something throughout his life. New insights have discounted the belief that birth-bonding is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Bonding is not always instantaneous -- it's a lifelong process. Catch-up bonding is certainly possible, and this is exactly what you are doing now by loving and caring for your son. In fact, attachment-parenting a 5-year-old or an infant is not so very different: You need to invest time, touch, and attention. Try these techniques for raising a child who feels comfortable connecting  -- the hallmark of attachment-parenting:

Get him comfortable with touch. Hold your son on your lap as much as you can, embrace him, and snuggle with him when putting him down to sleep. Practice infant massages and back rubs. If he indeed missed that extra touch time during early infancy, you can more than make up for it now.

Give him lots of eye contact. If your son is comfortable with being held and making eye contact, chances are he had nurturing caregivers during his first year. If not, you may have more catching up to do. You'll need to use your looks, your touch, and your speech to convey to him that he is a very special person and that you love him dearly. By giving these messages, you instill in him the foundation for attachment. If his eyes tend to wander when you talk to him, simply say, "I need your eyes, I need your ears." Look lovingly into his eyes, but not for too long or too intensely, as this may cause him discomfort. You may have to gradually increase the length of time you maintain eye contact so that he gets used to it.

Help him develop empathy. The attachment-parented children I have observed in my practice more easily develop the capacity to care when they are older. They're able to imagine how another person feels and how their behavior affects others. Try this empathy-building technique: In a playgroup, if another child is a victim of teasing or your child is the one being unkind, ask him to tell you how he would feel if he were the one being teased. This helps him put himself squarely in the shoes of the other child. Teaching empathy is also an effective way to get impulsive children to think before they act.

Help him be a helper. To further build your son's capacity to care, give him jobs around the house. For example, if you (or a sibling) are ill or injured, assign him the role of doctor or nurse. He can put on a Band-Aid or assist in comforting his "patient." There is actually a medical term for the feeling a person gets from helping another: "helper's high." By assigning your son these helper tasks, you'll help foster the good feeling within him.

Get him connected with attachment-parented children. Five-year-olds are highly influenced by behavior modeling. If you surround your son with kind and caring children, he'll grow up believing that this is how people are supposed to act. Attachment parenting (AP) groups are springing up in most major cities. To find a group near you, consult the website www.attachmentparenting.org.

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