From Adoptalk 2022, Issue 1; Adoptalk is a benefit of NACAC membership

Attachment. This word has a very significant space in our child welfare system, and lots of time is devoted to improving how children who experience foster care learn to attach in ways that meet social and familial expectations. As I reflect on the idea of building attachment, I am reminded of my experience navigating this complex process in my adoption.

Before coming into foster care when I was 10, I lived with my birth mother (Mary) and four siblings. Although we didn’t have many tangible resources, we still had each other, which was more than sufficient in the early days. Through Mary’s efforts, I developed some of the necessary pathways in my brain that we know are important for bonding and attachment. Since she responded to my needs positively, I developed a sense that the world was safe and thus felt that I could navigate it with a relative amount of ease.

However, as I got older, the dynamics in my home began to shift. I found that the once safe and nurturing environment that allowed me to feel that the world was not dangerous had become a place filled with fear and uncertainty. Mary suffered from severe mental health challenges, which became more pronounced as we got older and as she continued to struggle to provide for our basic needs. Unfortunately, she did not know how to manage her various challenges and soon turned her rage toward those who depended on her for survival—her children. As the intensity of our abuse increased, I found myself conflicted on how I should feel, and I could not make sense of what was happening. After all, this is the person who supposedly loved me unconditionally. Why would she do this unless we were really doing something wrong? Eventually, we were taken into foster care, but only after losing two of my brothers to extreme physical abuse.

Fast forward two-and-a-half years, and I find myself in an adoptive placement. While I was fortunate to receive a lot of support and services to address academic and mental health challenges, I did not receive preparation for being parented differently. My adoptive parents had different life experiences and genetics from my birth mother. As a result, they had different ways of thinking, behaving, and interacting with the world. This naturally affected their philosophies on parenting and how they interacted with me.

Simply put, they were different from what I was used to.

Eventually, I learned to adjust and assumed that I had a unique experience that resulted from having memories of my family of origin. However, as I began working with teens and young adults who experienced foster care, I realized others had similar stories. I discovered two thought-provoking avenues for exploration as families are brought together through the foster care system: the impact of personality traits and the confusion of unconditional love. 

Who Do I Get This From?

“We just don’t get along!” Working with young people over the last decade, I have heard some version of this phrase numerous times, accompanied by a list of examples of conflict or annoyances. Exasperated parents usually echo this sentiment after multiple failed attempts at bonding from a trauma-responsive lens. In reflecting on these statements and my experience as an adoptee, it occurs to me that an overlooked barrier to positive relationship dynamics involves the role of personality development. This is not to say that behavioral health and trauma should not be assessed when identifying reasons for conflict. Addressing personality differences does not negate the need to consider such core issues, but rather helps inform how we do that and how we support the entire family.

Typically, when we talk about personality development, we think of the great debate between nature versus nurture and which one has the most significant impact. Through continued research into human behavior, we’ve learned that both factors play substantial roles in forming personalities. Nature refers to the biological or inherited traits passed down through our genetics. These inherited traits become the foundation of our temperament, shaping how we view and respond to the world. It is important to know that although a trait may be inherited genetically, its expression may not occur if not triggered by environmental factors.     

Nurture refers to our environment and the people around us whom we use as reference points for how to solve problems and use interpersonal skills.

Considering Personalities as We Build Attachment

As I work with children and parents, I help them walk through assessing the various personalities in their families and how those personalities complement or conflict with each other. With an awareness of how each member responds to situations and views the world, we then work on how to communicate so that each person is validated and can understand someone who is different.

Below are some ideas to consider:

  1. Find a fun and helpful personality quiz to get started with the family. The True Colors personality assessment has always been one of my favorites and can be used for understanding temperament and communication styles in a variety of settings. Whatever you choose, it should provide results that address areas where you might experience communication or attachment challenges in your family. The goal is to learn about each other and engage in conversations around the results, so don’t worry about how clinical the assessment is.
  2. Acknowledge differences and similarities in personalities. Open and honest communication about the impact of our thoughts, behaviors, motivations, and temperament on our interactions with others can lead to positive gains in problem-solving and deepening the relationship. If you are experiencing a disconnect based on differing personalities, talk about it. The chances are that your child has experienced similar feelings but doesn’t know how to communicate them.
  3. Pay close attention to your child and the way they handle situations. Are they more likely to withdraw from interactions, or are they the center of attention? Do they take a long time to think before responding, or do they say the first thing that comes to mind? There are many ways that children display their personalities. As you gain examples, you can better collaborate on improving the relationship.
  4. Remember that we each have a personality and most adults have developed skills to navigate the world and its differences. We have all interacted with people who had personalities that seemed to conflict with ours. Either they were too different from us, or they shared too many of our worst qualities. Still, most of us have learned to adapt to such situations to deepen our connection, build team unity, complete tasks, or simply avoid unnecessary conflict. Reflect on the skills you use in these situations and look for opportunities to model them for your child. As they see you adapt to their style, they will learn about adapting themselves.
  5. Practicing attunement will help you prepare your child for interactions that you know will be challenging. Attunement refers to a caregiver’s awareness of and empathetic response to their child’s verbally and nonverbally expressed needs in ways that help the child feel understood and connected. It allows you to choose when to avoid situations altogether if they are too complicated. The deeper your understanding of your personality and your child’s, the better you can adapt your parenting approaches in ways that complement their temperament, providing the best possible support.
  6. Remember that although you cannot and should not try to control the inherited traits that make up your child’s personality, parents still play a critical role in helping with its ongoing formation. Understanding your child’s nature lets you know how they respond to situations, enabling you to anticipate barriers and opportunities to mitigate significant problems. It also helps you teach them based on who they really are.

The Complexity of Unconditional Love

“They said that they would love me unconditionally, but they lied.” As I talk with teens experiencing difficulties attaching with their families formed through foster care, the topic of unconditional love is a prominent reason listed as the source of conflict. When we dive deeper into their reasons, key themes frequently center around receiving disapproval, judgment, consequences, or correction from caregivers without feeling understood or validated.

But we know that this is a tricky balance. As parents, one of the critical responsibilities is to keep children safe and help them prepare for thriving out in the world as adults. This cannot be done without a certain amount of correction and conflict as rules and expectations are set. As I consulted with friends and colleagues about the concept of unconditional love, I discovered that the problem is that it is tough to define and articulate. The breakdown begins when unconditional love is understood as an expression of feelings for some. In this context, it sends a message that one will have positive feelings toward another no matter what happens or how it affects the wellbeing of others. While this is a very noble philosophy, it isn’t easy to live up to. As soon as we challenge our children to address untreated mental health, express disapproval of their choices, or enact restrictions on the ways we interact due to boundary violations, we might inadvertently send a message that we, in fact, have conditions for our love.

The abstract nature of the term unconditional love does not match the cognitive development of many children. This leads to a perception that being reprimanded, receiving consequences, or hearing statements of disapproval for their actions is the same as having love withdrawn or becoming conditional. For many children, their brain development is still in the all-or-nothing stage of viewing the world, and this makes it difficult to understand that two or more things can be accurate at the same time. So it  can be difficult for a child to understand that a parent can love them while also rejecting the way they handle situations. Or that a parent can believe in them but still provide honest feedback about the dangers or impracticality of certain choices. For children who have experienced the loss of loved ones, especially in the context of abuse and neglect, unconditional love becomes even more challenging to understand and believe.

Because of the complexity of the phrase unconditional love, I encourage families struggling with attachment and bonding to stay away from using such language and instead put into action their intent. Many of us do better with concrete examples and reference points, and this also provides practical ways to engage in conversations to ensure that needs are being met.

When demonstrating love for children who have experienced the loss of significant relationships, it is essential to demonstrate what it looks like to care about another person. This includes:

  • Choosing the relationship first. Make sure that you need to fight this particular battle or make this correction. Honor requests as long as they are reasonable and do no harm. Remember that your child may have different beliefs or values than you. By respecting their reasonable choices, you are helping them better understand who they are and what they believe.
  • Being attentive to feelings, while also reminding children of boundaries and expectations.
  • Demonstrating that you can say no and still love them.
  • Refraining from responding to conflict in ways that belittle one another and remembering to compromise and collaborate to find solutions whenever possible.
  • Remaining assertive about boundaries and staying committed to finding ways to achieve the best outcomes to barriers or conflict.
  • Communicating what you mean by love, such as:
  • Being present for life events.
  • Supporting their dreams and aspirations.
  • Setting limits to ensure their safety and wellbeing.
  • Committing to resolve conflict and strengthen the relationship.
  • Committing to maintaining a relationship even when feeling angry, resentful, sad, or tired.

Remember that Children Learn by Example

Anyone who has spent time with me knows that I am a big advocate for providing children with exposure to ways of thinking and behaving that promote health and wellbeing. Yes, children need access to mental and behavioral health supports and services to address gaps created because of abuse or neglect. But we should not underestimate the power of modeling and practice for our children within the context of family. Within this context, children are provided with consistent opportunities to put into action what we expect them to be able to do when they reach adulthood.

How can a child learn to adjust to the personality differences of others if not shown how at home? How do they learn to demonstrate love and compassion without compromising their safety and needs unless they are provided reference points from consistent caregivers? Positive exposure requires intentional communication around difficult topics and includes showing children how to invest in getting to know another person and adjusting oneself to acknowledge the other’s experience—within the boundaries of remaining healthy. Through exposure and practice, every challenge becomes an opportunity for growth and connection, which benefits everyone.