Bonding: The journey of the mother who adopts older children

If a child for some reason has missed all those early years of bonding and attachment, is it ever too late, especially for an older adoptive child?

Never, writes Laurie A. Couture


Parenting a child with one’s heart, soul, and spirit is the most beautiful life journey a person can ever undertake. When little girls and prospective mothers fantasise about motherhood, many envelope themselves in tender thoughts of cradling an infant, delighting in the innocent sounds, scents, and images of tender breathing, soft skin, and the oneness of the infant’s dependence.

Beginning when I was nine years old, my fantasy was quite different. I envisioned myself as an adult with two beloved nine-year-old children who had not been born to me, but whom I had adopted. I remember when the Cabbage Patch Kid craze hit in the early 1980s, with its emphasis on adoption certificates and older looking dolls, my fantasy was given hope and validation. At twelve, I devoured the TV sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes, the story of a Caucasian Park Avenue tycoon who adopted two African American boys from Harlem. In my teens I was fascinated by a magazine article about an exceptional family who had adopted over ten severely disabled children, one of whom was born without a cerebrum, arms, or legs. Although I lit up when I held infants, my mothering fantasies throughout my adolescence and twenties revelled in the wonder of parenting older children who had been in need of a loving mother.

As a young adult, I embarked on a journey of working with traumatised children and adolescents in various childcare and professional capacities, also researching and studying the effects of child trauma on physical, emotional and cognitive development and researching and studying attachment parenting, unschooling, child development, and the severe psychological and attachment difficulties of adoptive children. During that time, my life was blessed with a precious nephew who I cared for regularly. When I turned thirty, my desire to adopt a child was all consuming. I was ready to allow my heart to seek the child whose heart was also searching for mine; the child who would become my son.

I knew from my professional work in the foster care and mental health system that children ages 7-18 are the ones who languish in foster care and group homes waiting for ‘forever families’. With each passing year as these wards of the state grow older, more depressed, rageful, attachment-deprived and despairing, the less likely it is that adoptive families will choose or commit to them. Boys, teenagers, and African Americans are the children least likely to find loving, permanent adoptive homes. In some cases, state agencies will brand teenage boys ‘unadoptable’ and push them onto the ‘independent living’ track as early as fifteen years old.

Keeping in mind that I wanted an adequate generational difference between myself and a child I would adopt, I knew I had the skill and the spiritual desire to adopt a child deemed ‘difficult to adopt’ and my heart sought out a boy between the ages of ten and thirteen. Within two months of serious networking, unexpected turns and uncanny synchronicity, I found him! Little did I know that this exceptional, creative, resilient ten-year-old boy had decided that year to give up hope if Santa Claus failed to grant his wish upon a star for a forever family that winter.

Is the deep love I feel for every fibre, smile, and giggle of my now fourteen-year-old son just the private rapture that only passionate adoptive parents of older children understand? Is the joy of him allowing me the honour of savouring the ‘littleness’ and innocence still mingled in with his growing, changing self something only I can appreciate? When I read attachment parenting literature and I reflect on how I cherish every moment, every hug, every snuggle, and every thought and idea from him in the way parents of infants and toddlers cherish their young, I wonder, would anyone else share that sentiment for older children? When he calls out to me, ‘Mommy!’ excitedly beckoning me to see his latest building creation, would anyone else know there is no greater joy?

Few people, even some adoptive parents, realise that parenting an older adoptive child can bring many of the same joys as attachment parenting an infant or toddler. However, it is important to be brutally realistic before I proceed further: Adopting a child who has suffered neglect, abandonment, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, and multiple foster and group home placements necessitates that parents persevere despite the severe and relentless behavioural and psychological problems that many older adoptive children exhibit. In this regard, the comforts of raising a biological child from utero to adulthood might be the best choice for those who cannot make a lifetime commitment to tenaciously, patiently, and unabashedly nurture such a child. If a parent knows spiritually that such a journey is their passion, then pursuing and practising the right type of trauma and attachment healing will help any one of these children reciprocate their joy and love in time (please see resources at the end of this article).

When people look at a four- or five-and-a-half-foot-tall hardened, weathered soul in front of them, they generally see the chronological age of that child and all of the assumptions and stereotypes that go along with contemplating a child at that age. However, deep beneath the growing body, the developing face, the immense size in comparison to the infant, the worldly vocabulary, independent air and challenging behaviour, is a child who is emotionally and spiritually an infant crying out for the same in-arms nurturance as the day he or she was born.

Many adoptive mothers of older children spend years of angst-filled struggle trying to punish, manipulate, or coerce their children into compliant reciprocity. They scaffold this nightmarish dance with years of ‘therapies’ with ‘experts’ who either fail to consider the imperative attachment needs and trauma damage or who go to the extreme of perverting attachment needs with abusive, controlling and concentration camp-like strategies to force children to ‘attach’ to parents subsequently trained in those tactics.

However, there is an empathic way that can help adoptive mothers connect to the true needs of their older children, and indeed non-adoptive mothers to retrace attachment steps with their own older children who might have missed the early years bonding. The empathic way is the path of looking past their children’s chronological age, transcending the desire to force their children to meet the adult’s emotional needs, and listening to maternal instinct rather than to the experts who are quick to diagnose, drug, and force children to fit into the mould of society’s expectations.

Many mothers can imagine fondly cradling, rocking, and cuddling a tiny infant or innocent-eyed young child. An adoptive mother who lives and breathes natural attachment parenting, who cherishes her child, can look past the long body and cradle her twelve-year-old son or daughter, rocking him in a large chair, stroking her face, whispering beautiful words of mother-baby love to him, holding her tightly, caressing hands through his hair and singing her lullabies. This must be done respectfully, at the child’s own will, when he or she is ready, after the adoptive mother has made it clear to her child that she is open to meeting any early needs the child wishes so that the child can ‘fill in the gaps’ of early development.

In the first moments that I met Brycen, the world around me fell away and this precious, dishevelled, heavy-hearted angel before me was illuminated by white light that cast intensely all around us. From the moment his too-small, too-thin form climbed down the steps from his room at his tenth foster home, our eyes instantly and intensely locked and he walked so fast over to me that I nearly embraced him. Despite his unkempt, neglected appearance, my new son was, to me, the most beautiful wonder my eyes had ever seen.

I instinctually put my hand out and touched his pale cheek. Seven months of waiting to meet, see, and touch my new son swelled in that caress and his little face smiled. I was speaking to him, and he was speaking to me, the words were flowing, but I couldn’t fully hear. I was awash with the ecstasy that biological mothers describe after they have given birth and the newborn is at their breast, and they are gazing into those brand new eyes, and feeling rapture. For me, the labour was the long seven months of bureaucratic process and waiting for the day I would meet Brycen in person, beginning our three weeks of visitations before he could come home with me permanently. The birth was walking into the brown, dimly-lit foster home with the social worker, having the foster parent call upstairs to the just-turned 11-year-old boy (who had been told about me the night before), and seeing him rush down the stairs and climb over the baby-gate in his mismatched clothes. And the rapture, when the oxytocin pours through the veins of the biological mother, was when I saw Brycen’s face, his messy, wispy blond hair, and his eyes magnetised into mine. This ‘newborn at the breast’ state lasted until finally the social worker spoke after several minutes of Brycen and me gazing and smiling.

I let my him know immediately that I would meet his emotional, physical, and spiritual needs and that part of that would include meeting any early developmental needs he longed to have satiated. As his trust in me began to take root, I offered him, at his pace, more and more gentle physical and emotional affection in addition to fun, structure, and teaching him the early stages of family principles and cooperation. After a few months and lots of behavioural and emotional purging, Brycen was cuddling up to me at bedtime and allowing me to read him stories as I held him, caressed his skin, and hugged him. One night, he requested that I feed him juice or water from a sports bottle. This was one of those few moments in adoptive parenthood when I was reminded that I was not his biological mother. If I had given birth to him, I would have absolutely carried him in-arms in a sling and breastfed him through toddlerhood. Obviously, however, given his age, the sports bottle was the closest option. Brycen felt so nurtured by this that he asked to be fed with the sports bottle nightly for nearly a year while I cradled, rocked or held him in arms.

The speed and depth of his healing was awe-inspiring. Almost immediately, he gained weight and began to develop a sense of body awareness. As the months passed, he gained muscle mass, his height caught up, his skin and eyes glowed and the remnants of the foster-care buzz cut disappeared as his hair grew out soft and natural. When he first arrived, he had little sense of his bodily needs, as they had been neglected by the foster and school systems for so long. He didn’t have a healthy sense of awareness of temperature, hunger, thirst, need for elimination, or sleep. His awareness of hygiene, feelings, social cues, body language, and emotional needs were also very disconnected. Over the next year, his development in these areas was rapid and phenomenal.

When a biological child is raised from utero with the cherishing of natural attachment parenting, a way of life of freedom and joy in learning, children develop naturally and progressively as whole, intact human beings. The parent-child relationship naturally evolves and matures over time. An emotionally intact six-year-old doesn’t need to be carried in-arms in a sling, an emotionally intact twelve-year-old does not need to breastfeed and a similarly intact sixteen-year-old does not need to be rocked in-arms on a nightly basis.

When children are harmed by the faddish parenting practices of ‘civilized’ cultures, deprived of in-arms holding, breastfeeding, parental attention, and loving, nurturing nonviolent guidance, they develop holes in their spirit and emotional development. When children are harmed by the imprisoning educational institutions of these cultures, deprived of free time, creative play, exploration, wild physical activity, curiosity, joy, freedom, and enriching socialisation, they develop holes in their lust for learning and in their cognitive development. When those ubiquitous, albeit poor, childhood conditions are compounded by the extremes of sexual abuse, severe neglect, severe physical and psychological abuse, and foster care, the damage done to a child’s spirit, emotional and cognitive development (as well as to society) is deleterious.

Women who adopt children at birth can optimise attachment, and soothe and heal the soul-trauma of being separated from the birth mother by carrying their new daughter or son in-arms or in a sling at all times, breastfeeding through the toddler years (contact the Le Leche League for information), maximising skin-to-skin contact, practising nonviolent child guidance, homeschooling or finding a developmentally appropriate educational environment when her child is older. The natural attachment approach will prevent further trauma from being heaped upon the already harrowing trauma of losing the birth mother. Natural attachment-minded parents understand that children adopted at birth may need many more years of cuddling and in-arms experience to heal birth trauma.

What about the child adopted at six, eleven, thirteen, or seventeen? Do we just assume that the larger, developing body is evidence that early attachment and developmental needs were magically filled by the neglect, abandonment, and abuse these children suffered? Or that the eye-to-eye, in-arms, skin-to-skin paradise that infants experience with birth parents was somehow replicated by a few good foster homes or the occasional exceptional group home staff person? When we empathise with the horrors our older adoptive sons and daughters have suffered, we can look past their older exterior, their cry-for-help, challenging behaviours and dishevelled social and emotional presentation and develop a longing to nurture the infant and small child inside them.

When we convey to our older daughters and sons that we are open to helping them meet their early developmental needs without coercion, shame, distaste, or disrespect of their privacy, they will begin to allow our nurturing and affectionate gestures and may learn to reciprocate. When we let them know that having their early developmental needs met is a basic need of all children, regardless of age, our older adoptive children may even begin to show small signs of wanting to ‘act little’ with us. A seven-year-old may want to be carried around on your hip during the day. A nine-year-old may want to play with infant toys while you both exchange baby talk. A twelve-year-old may want to be bottle-fed as you gaze into his eyes and caress his face, arms, and hands. A fifteen-year-old may want to be rocked in your lap in her favourite chair. An eighteen-year-old (who has one last shot at being a child if he or she is fortunate enough to find a forever family so late) may want to spend an intense amount of one-to-one time with you or cuddle up to you at night on the couch.

When older adoptive children are treasured, nurtured, and cherished as ‘babies’ for a sustained period of time, they emotionally and spiritually begin to fill up and heal inside. Ironically, this allows them to ‘grow up’ and begin to approximate the natural development of their chronological age. As my son once explained to me, ‘I need to be respected for whatever age I am at the moment.’ When older adoptees are deprived of attachment and ‘babying’ because of an adult’s shame, distaste and stereotypes about independence, consequently adoptees remain fixated and crippled at earlier developmental periods, despite their chronological age. They may likely exhibit their insatiable emptiness with a host of destructive behaviours and patterns directed towards themself or against others.

How precious our older adoptive children can be to mothers who see the innocence, ‘littleness’, and vulnerability that is still visible in even the oldest of them! A tender sleeping face, a smaller hand in ours, their sweet scent, soft skin and hair, innocent thoughts about life, adorable antics, brilliant ideas and cherished conversations—we can delight in our older children’s essence, growth and healing as we delight in the newborn infant.

When Brycen had been with me for six months, my second nephew was born. The birth inspired a lot of birth-related questions and an opportunity for us to deepen our attachment and his healing. Brycen wanted me to tell him how I would have nurtured him had he been born to me. He curled up in my lap and told me he wanted to ‘be born’ to me. After we discussed with honour the sacredness of the birth bond he will always share with his birth mother, he asked me to drape a thin sheet over him as he remained curled up in my lap. After a moment, I pulled off the sheet and delighted in the beautiful ‘newborn’ son I ‘just gave birth to’! Brycen adored this game, and he asked for me to repeat it several times that night. As I held him, I told him about how I would have held him in a sling all day long, how I would have nursed him with mother’s milk, kept him secure all through the night at my side and responded to all of his needs. I read him the adoption book, Why I Chose You by Gregory E. Lang as well as the beautiful book On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier.

When I reflect upon the phenomenal emotional and spiritual growth my son has made, I am awestruck. After three years of natural attachment parenting, a child-centred educational environment, and later, unschooling; after participating in the community service work that I do, being an active member of the homeschool community and playing with enriching homeschooled friends, Brycen has developed into an empathic, loving and sensitive human being. He is a humanitarian, a caretaker of trees, insects, animals, and plants, a loving family member, a caring friend, a co-mentor to another child I mentor, and a peacemaker. He is a brilliant and creative connoisseur of the musical arts, theatre, literature, comedy, science, politics, imaginative play, and Bionicle building. Brycen is also a public speaker and started his own business making and selling stuffed animals in two local shops.

Like most traumatised children, he still struggles with cycles of emotional overwhelm after periods of stability. The neurological effects of severe trauma are tenacious and the old terror of loss and pain runs deep. He probably will spend the majority of his youthful years healing and practising the tools he’s learned for emotional stability (such as relaxation breathing, changing irrational thoughts to rational thoughts and expressing his feelings in a safe manner). Traditional mental health models are not effective with children who have experienced severe trauma and attachment disruption.

In addition to attachment parenting and unschooling, my son has been involved with two brain-based trauma treatments, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) and neurofeedback. Both of these treatments, although both very different in application, help his brain re-wire from the psychological and neurological damage done in those early years when his brain was in critical stages of developing. Additionally, we have focused on doing our best to eat nutritious, organic foods and seek out alternative forms of healing, including energy work. I have never allowed anyone to give my son psychiatric drugs, nor have I taken him to any therapist who does not believe that parent-child attachment is the primary therapeutic goal. Often, Brycen’s moods reflect my own, so often the best way to help him remain emotionally stable is to be sure that I stay emotionally healthy and stable!

People marvel at his engaging personality, sometimes not knowing that just a few years ago it was hidden deep behind a defensive, disconnected wall. People are impressed with all of the enriching choices he is making in his life, not realising that at his last foster home, he was glued to a TV or video game screen for upwards of six hours per day after spending just as much time just sitting at a desk in school. I beam with happiness for my son when I hear these compliments, but I know that every child is capable of reaching spectacular potentials if they are honoured with the basic instinctual nurturance and care that is simply the natural and more mammal way of parenting.

Natural attachment parenting and self-directed learning isn’t ‘progressive’; it isn’t a philosophy, a viewpoint, a technique or a lifestyle; it is simply the natural way that mammals thrive, the natural condition that each human is born equipped to respond to and be satiated by. Anything else just simply doesn’t meet the needs of the human mammal. Brycen is thriving not because I am using any techniques or philosophies termed ‘progressive’ or ‘political’, but because I am simply meeting his most basic attachment, physical, emotional, spiritual, and learning needs. It is as simple as that, although fighting against my own childhood damage and our society’s constant anti-life roadblocks causes it to not always be that simple to emulate.

As I contemplate Brycen and the possibility of adopting another older child in the future, I realise that adopting an older child is one of the most challenging yet wonderful ways a woman can express her motherhood. In my heart and spirit, I feel that beholding, salving and cherishing the innocent and the precious inside of an older child may be the most beautiful thing that an adoptive mother could ever imagine.

Published in Kindred, Issue 25, March 08

  1. Linda says

    This is really interesting! We are going to be starting the adoption process in the next year, and like you our heart is to adopt an older boy from foster care. You made a small comment about homeschooling- would you recommend doing homeschooling? We have been back and forth on this- I always planned on homeschooling, but felt like I needed to consider the wants and needs of an older child, and if he wants to go to school, we would let him. We have been looking at cocooning recently and want to make sure that our son feels completely at home with us. Do you recommend homeschooling in general, and do you have any resources about what that dynamic is like in the beginning?

    1. Laurie A. Couture says

      Hi Linda,

      How wonderful that you are considering adopting a child, especially an older boy! Older boys wait the longest in the foster care system for forever families, so your act will be truly humanitarian. Please understand, however, that as rewarding as your journey will be, the trauma that older foster and adoptive children have usually suffered will be profound. Expect a lifelong journey that may include your future child suffering some moderate to extreme behavioral and emotional issues.

      I absolutely recommend unschooling if you adopt a son; in fact, I highly recommend against putting him in public school or any type of traditional school, as I believe these environments to be traumatizing to children. Please consider reading my first book, Instead of Medicating and Punishing for more information about attachment-focused parenting and educating. Also, I am in the process of writing my second book specifically about the needs of boys. I will be addressing the needs of adoptees in Nurturing and Empowering Our Sons as I did in the first book. For more info on my book about boys, please search for my name on Patreon.

  2. Romina says

    I just read your article and you have articulated, described and validated everything that I have been doing and going through. I recently “adopted” a 17 now 18 year old boy who came from a very troubled childhood. He’s flourishing. Sadly no many people understand attachment parenting. It came naturally to me. When I looked at him, I saw a 10 year old little boy who needed a lot of nurturing. He has come a long way and overcome a lot of psychological trauma in a short time. I couldn’t be more proud. Thank you for your article.

    1. Laurie A. Couture says

      Congratulations on the adoption of your son! I am glad to hear that he is flourishing– He will need a great deal of nurturing for many years to come, and you gave attuned natural instincts to understand that. Trust your son and trust your instincts to continue to guide you as to his needs. My best to you both!

  3. Virginia says

    Thank you for this article. My husband and I adopted our son when he was 5 months old and I bonded strongly to him, which I was so thankful for. It was bliss loving him, delighting in him and caring for him the first 12 years. We are Christians and it was beautiful to see him love Jesus with all his heart. He was a very happy openhearted vivacious boy, full of life. But particularly after he graduated from high school, it was like his personality changed. He became inward. Now he is 28 years old, still single, living again with us and for some years he doesn’t open up to us about anything concerning himself. It’s been very painful, but my husband and I are committed to keep loving him.

    1. Laurie A. Couture says

      Hi Virginia, I am so happy to hear that you and your husband, as your son’s parents are fully committed to him, in spite of his depressive symptoms. It sounds like those early attachment wounds began to surface and get triggered after the security of the high school years ended. I would highly recommend my recent book, “Nurturing and Empowering Our Sons”. It is packed with info about how to help your son. It sounds like some EMDR on his early break with the birthmother and perhaps attachment-focused family therapy would be worth looking into for him if he is open to it. Here’s the link to my book:
      My heart goes out to your family and I hope you will look into these resources to help your son and the family unit. Take care.

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