The Attachment Cycle and Breaks in Attachment

Where Attachment Issues Begin

Children who struggle with attachment issues need time to attach to one or two parents. Otherwise, they will remain unattached yet be superficially engaging to strangers. They may look like happy-go-lucky, well-adjusted children in public, but in the privacy of the home, they demand control. They are miniature terrorists (or large ones, depending on their age), ruling the household with anger, violence, and battles choreographed over insignificant things in order to control their environment. 

It is a sort of self-soothing. These children had to meet their own needs early on. No one was there for them. They need to know their needs will be met, and they believe they must meet them themselves — so they do. However, the way they accomplish this goal is painful in a family. 

In an orphanage, stealing food may be acceptable as a means of survival. In a family, stealing is definitely frowned upon. In an orphanage, lying may be the norm. In a home, it is not. Beating up other children to get things from them may be just another Tuesday afternoon. In a home, beating a sibling to get a toy or any other item is absolutely unacceptable. Sneaking into the staff kitchen to eat their sugar may occur on a regular basis in the orphanage, but in a home, sneaking into Mom’s room and taking her possessions is not. 

It is not that these children want to be hoodlums. They aren’t even trying to be difficult. They just have some faulty presuppositions leading the way. In their early life, someone failed to meet their needs. They did not attach to anyone. Because of that, early on, they learned to meet their own needs. It started with them losing the ability to communicate — they stopped crying. Crying is a baby’s only form of communication, but babies will eventually stop crying if no one ever responds.

“An infant born into neglect learns slightly different lessons. For him, the bonding cycle is short circuited. Instead of experiencing need, high arousal,  gratification, and trust in others, he experiences need, high arousal to the point of exhaustion, self-gratification, and trust in self/self-reliance. Eventually this child develops less need, less arousal, more immediate self-gratification, and no involvement with others. He is likely to develop habits to gratify himself that may include rocking, head banging, sucking on his hands, hair pulling, etc.. He may grow up detached from others, appearing vacant and empty. He has few emotions and desires no interaction from others, even acting if no others are present in a room.

He has effectively learned that he can —  and needs — to trust himself.” – Adopting the Hurt Child

Humanism tells us that everything is done by the power of a man. It teaches that man is able to sustain himself without God, without the Spirit. Studies on attachment beg to differ. Man is not sufficient on his own. He can not sustain body, soul, and spirit alone. The spirit of the child vacates when there is no attachment. He is like Cain, roaming the earth with no meaningful connection. Cain tried to meet his own needs rather than accepting the mercy and love of His heavenly Father. He was unattached and demanded his way. In the last chapter, we discussed the end result of that.

“Infants deprived of their mothers during the first year of life for more than five months deteriorate progressively. They become lethargic, their motility retarded, their weight and growth arrested. Their face becomes vacuous; their activity is restricted to atypical, bizarre finger movements. they are unable to sit, stand, walk or talk.” -Rene Spitz M.D.

Children who have been traumatized in infancy and early childhood cannot be expected to behave or respond to stimuli in the same way as children who have not. As an example, consider two cases that were presented in my adopt/foster class. 

There are two babies: Baby A and Baby B.

Baby A has been celebrated since the positive on the pregnancy test. She has listened to symphonies, classic children’s books, and poetry in the womb, as well as mommy and daddy’s reassuring, loving voices. When she was born, the video camera captured her debut. Mom, Dad and Grandparents cried joyful tears. She rode home in a padded car seat, wrapped in fuzzy lamb’s wool. 

At home, Mom and Dad talked and cooed to her every waking hour and told stories of her latest feat to anyone who would listen. Baby A took her first steps into daddy’s outstretched arms, waiting to receive her. Baby A had it all — a clean, loving, secure environment with loving parents to cheer her on.

Baby B, on the other hand, was called a mistake from plus sign showed on the pregnancy test. In utero, he heard only negative words about the rotten luck of being pregnant. Sometimes, he got knocked around or felt a little weird and woozy after mom drank. He was born premature, too small, and with numerous health problems due to Mom’s hazardous life habits. 

Baby B spent months in the hospital due to his health issues. Mom didn’t come back, and Baby B became a ward of the state, to be placed in an orphanage after his release from the hospital. He spent three months in the hospital being poked, prodded, examined. The nurses loved him, but they didn’t have the time to hold him the way a mother should. 

At first, he cried, hoping someone would comfort him, but eventually he gave up crying and understood that logical consequences don’t exist. He must fend for himself. When he is picked up, he experiences pain — a new IV, a new test, surgery, etc. He begins to associate touch with pain. When he is released to the orphanage, the conditions improve, but he has too many responses to relearn. The staff tries to comfort him and feed him, but he is lethargic and unwilling to attach. He does not thrive, remaining underweight and behind physically and emotionally. 

This is when the adoptive parents step onto the stage and enter the play.

From the beginning, these two babies have had two different worldviews. Baby A thinks she is the best-loved baby in the world. Everyone loves her. She is secure, and she knows that if she has a true need, it will be taken care of. Baby B feels lost and alone. He feels it is up to him to meet his own needs.

Child A has attached to her parents, while Baby B remains in a detached state. This diagram demonstrates the cycle of attachment:

When this cycle is broken in infancy, the baby is not able to attach to a parent/caregiver and may develop some form of RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), depending on the severity of the neglect and the extent to which the parent did not respond to the baby’s needs.

“By mere definition of neglect, it is undeniable that children placed in orphanages at birth or at a young age are, in fact, victims of neglect. This is not because the orphanage staff doesn’t care for and love the children. Instead, it is because a child’s individual needs cannot be met in a group situation.

Out of necessity, children living in orphanages are forced into a routine, without the freedom to respond to physical and emotional cues relating to hunger, discomfort, bathrooming, pain, thirst, or a desire to be nurtured. The result is a pseudo-independence that mirrors the self-parenting label attached to neglected children in America.” – Parenting the Hurt Child

Three of my children came from a loving and secure environment, and four of them came from the environment described above. As I parented all seven together, I received different responses based on their past experiences. 

As I mentioned before, Baby A and Baby B respond differently to stimuli because of their vastly different introductions to life. It only makes sense that an adopted child may respond differently than a biological child. His response today is based on his past rather than his present experiences. This does not mean that the child is bad or that the situation is irreparable; it just means that the child needs retrained.

The Work of Helping Kids Attach

I’m running out of time. I need to hurry. That is the language of our culture. It is not the language of the hurt, unattached child. It was not the language of my daughter Ania. Like the women in The Music Man, her way was pick a little, talk a little — or, actually, talk a lot. 

The incessant chatter of an unattached child can be unsettling, frustrating or wearing if you are hurrying. It was for me. The clock ticked loudly in my head, but Ania didn’t hear it. As we headed out the door and I helped Ania put on her coat, boots, and gloves, she talked, offering me little assistance. As I cooked, she talked. As I cleaned, she talked. When I folded laundry, she talked. When I bathed her, she talked. 

When I was schooling her and required her to answer a question or repeat something, she shut down. Tears streamed down her chubby cheeks, and her glasses fogged over. Why?  I required it of her. It wasn’t on her terms. It was on mine. She was not in control. I was. 

Children with attachment issues do not like things to be required of them. To them, that feels like giving up their power and the control they have over their environment. That control is important because it’s how they ensure that no one hurts them again and no one starves them again — no one. Giving in to a phonics lesson is painful. Bombarding Mom with incessant chatter is power.

I took Ania’s chatter as an invitation into her world. As she chartered while I loaded the dishwasher, I gave her dishes to put in. When I set the table, I gave her silverware to set. While I did laundry, I let her stuff the washer. It wasn’t long before she was working and talking about the work. “Now, I am setting the forks on the table, momma — you see that?  I put the forks on the table.” 

She slowly moved from meaningless chatter to chronicling her day. From there, she developed the ability to have a conversation. Much more slowly, she started answering questions during schooling — albeit with tears running down her cheeks.

Attachment is so much more than physical needs being met. It is an emotional connection. In the 1940s and 50s, doctors were discovering through research (that I do not condone) that a baby needed his mother and longed for his mother not just as a food source but as an emotional connection. 

Love. Spirit. A person is not made whole by their physical needs alone being met. We each have three parts: spirit, soul, and body. A baby recognizes his mother by her smell, the sound of her heartbeat, and her voice, and he can be calmed by these factors alone. Yes, he wants to be fed — but his emotional state is just as important. Rene Spitz’s research confirmed this definitively. 

Babies need that connection to their mama for physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. When separated from their mothers, children’s physical development halted and regressed. We call those development delays. The “vacuous” face mentioned in the quote above signifies a loss of spirit. No emotion is visible. David describes his loss of spirit over and over again in the Psalms. It is a dangerous place to be. It is a pit. It is dark. 

“He drew me up out of a horrible pit [a pit of tumult and of destruction], out of the miry clay (froth and slime), and set my feet upon a rock, steadying my steps and establishing my goings.

And He has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many shall see and fear (revere and worship) and put their trust and confident reliance in the Lord.” (Ps. 40:2-3)

The difference between David and these unattached children is that He had a relationship with the Lord. When all was said and done, he cast his cares upon God. 

It is my job as a parent to help my child out of the horrible pit of unattachment. Ania developed new habits and patterns as she did these “beside me” jobs. Incessant chatter turned into real conversations. Although she was learning great life skills, those were a secondary benefit. The attachment was the real prize. Today, she feels confident in sharing real thoughts and feelings with me, and she respects my input, even when she doesn’t agree with it.

*This post is an excerpt from:

Want to hear more about attachment? Listen to:

Episode 106-The Attachment Cycle

The attachment cycle is as simple as it is profound. The infant expresses a need, the parent meets the need. This happens thousands of times and the child becomes attached, secure in the expectation he will be cared for. Kids who come to us through adoption/foster care often have had breaks in attachment. Join Kathleen as she shares what this looks like in this episode of Positive Adoption. Grab a cup of coffee and be sure to share this episode!


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