Increasing Attachment in Grandfamilies and Kinship Care
While working as a family therapist with kinship families, also known as grandparents raising their grandchildren, I came across families who were struggling with the ability to rebuild broken trust.
Raising your grandchild (or another relative) brings with it attachment challenges you may not have faced when you raised your biological children. By “attachment” I am referring to the safety and comfort that develops, over time between a child and caregiver. For example, the bond between you and your children probably grew organically, beginning in utero, and continued to develop from the first day of their life. As you met your children’s needs for love, food, and protection on a consistent basis, they learned to feel safe in your care. It eventually evolved into the relationship you have today. But if you are suddenly raising your grandchild, you will not have time to recreate the natural bonding experience.
In addition to this, your grandchild/relative, most likely, experienced several Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s), and this can be an obstacle when trying to create a healthy bond with a child. If your grandchild was abused or neglected, he/she will have difficulty feeling safe with any adult, including you. You may also be going through your own feelings of loss and grief, as life as you knew it has drastically changed. But there is good news, you can increase trust and attachment between you and the child with the following bonding activities. It helps to remember that this is a long process, be patient with yourself and the child, don’t expect for bonding to happen quickly.
Because you are family members, you might assume you know the child better than you do. You might expect the child to be warm and friendly towards you automatically. However, removing a child from their immediate family causes a break in the attachment to their primary caregivers and can be experienced as a traumatic event. This loss of attachment is compounded by the loss of the child’s home, neighborhood, school, and friends. These multiple losses can make it difficult to bond to new caretakers, including family members to which they are already familiar. From here, behavioral problems can escalate.
To solve this problem, we need to get to the source of the pain — the loss of significant attachment figures and ACE’s. Biological parents are typically the primary attachment figures for children. If Mom and Dad are in and out of their lives, unreliable, unstable, or unavailable, a child can experience considerable symptoms of trauma, grief and longing for their biological parents. Because of this, it is helpful to participate in bonding activities with your grandchild or relative in your care so they can recreate the attachment process with a healthy adult. Even though raising your grandchild may be temporary, it is still beneficial to participate in bonding activities to increase trust.
Six Types of Bonding to Increase Attachment:
Emotional – Provide empathy; put yourself in their shoes. Validate their feelings and experiences; tell them it is okay to be sad/scared/angry. Acknowledge their pain, don’t shy away from it. Let them cry as much as they need to.
Talk with them about their feelings and explain coping techniques. Learn how to help the children cope. Be curious about their inner world. Provide empathy for their experiences.
Prepare the child for every day transitions such as going to school, going to the doctor, visiting with birth family. Pay attention and prepare them for anything they may perceive as a loss, such as moving from one teacher to a new teacher or changing babysitters/daycare facilities. The child may be attached to these professionals and others. You may see an increase in negative behavior during this time, and this is reasonable.
Intellectual – Read books together. Teach children about nature and academics. Watch educational shows together. Answer questions about the world. Teach developmental skills like tying shoelaces, brushing teeth, riding a bike. For older kids you can teach them about friendship, communication, honesty, and the value of money.
Physical – Respect the child’s personal space. Ask a child for permission before engaging in physical bonding activities. Pay attention to cues from the child as to whether or not they are comfortable with physical bonding. Respect their boundaries and do not force them to participate if they do not want to.
Show respect to a child’s body by telling them what you will be doing. For example, with young babies say, “I’m going to pick you up now,” or “My hands are cold, and they might feel uncomfortable on your skin.” Preparing the child for what will take place can help to increase trust. Show affection, hold, rock, hug, massage, swim together, and comb their hair if they are willing. These are all examples of physical bonding activities.
Cultural – Be curious about the child’s culture and history and how it impacts their life. Talk with the child about their family of origin in a positive way. Teach the child about their cultural background if they feel identified with it. Incorporate their traditions into your new family if they are different from yours. Educate and prepare the child ahead of time for your family rituals, even if it seems obvious to you. Discuss how culture affects your belief system.
Relational – Be open and honest with the child as much as possible in age-appropriate terms. Support the relationships they have with others outside of your family. For example, previous foster families, or family members they are still in touch with, friends from other schools, siblings in different homes. If possible, be supportive of their decision whether or not to communicate with their birth family. Do not speak negatively about the child’s birth family. Try to find positive statements to make or stay neutral.
Spiritual – Be interested and supportive of their religious and spiritual beliefs, even if they differ from yours. Pray together, attend church, meditate. Be curious about their spirituality and how it affects their decision-making process. Share your spiritual practices with the child. Let them know it’s okay if they have different beliefs than you do. Allow and encourage them to continue their spiritual growth; how they see fit.
Play – If you are raising a young child, get on the floor and play with them. Sit back and observe them playing before engaging in their play. Stay positive and do not criticize or try to influence the child’s choice for play. This will help the child feel seen and heard. Pretend play is one way a child exposed to trauma can safely express their emotions. Provide the child with opportunities for pretend play with dolls and figurines. Encourage them to act out any upsetting events they have been through.
For older kids, you can play with them by attending their sporting events, doing puzzles, board games, riding a bike, kicking the ball around at the park. During this time together they may open up and share their emotions with you. Although it may be painful for you to hear, ignore the impulse to take the pain away. Let them feel and express it, this will increase attachment, and help them heal.
This list is not exhaustive; there are many more ways to bond with the child in your care. Pay attention to what the child enjoys to find more opportunities to connect.
*Always remember, bonding and attachment is a process that needs time, care, and consideration for what the child experienced. Do not expect to have a bonded relationship with the child right away. Often children are removed from their birth parents due to abuse and neglect. Violations like this can make it difficult to trust adults. Put your expectations aside and consider things from their perspective. I wish you a peaceful Grandfamily journey!