Written by Lisa Qualls
My husband and I stepped through the door into a yellow kitchen where a nanny was feeding three toddlers. The little boys sat side-by-side as she spooned food into their mouths moving from left to right, one little mouth opening at a time. Gesturing toward the children, the orphanage social worker said, “That’s your son.” After months of staring at his face on our computer screens, we immediately recognized him by the small scar in the center of his forehead and his big brown eyes.
Minutes later a nanny handed me our baby boy. I held him close, feeding him a bottle, and didn’t put him down again for hours. That day we also met our five-year-old daughter, who leaped into our arms, dug for treats in our pockets, and didn’t stop moving the entire day.
We returned to Ethiopia a year later to adopt one more daughter. With the addition of four children to our already large family, we were plunged into the real-life challenges and joys of parenting children who had experienced early adversity.
Connection and trust are the keys to building bonds of attachment. While we knew this, we didn’t fully realize what it was going to take. With more education, the help of professionals, support from people who loved us, prayer, and more than a few tears, we created a foundation for attachment that we’re still building on thirteen years later.
Three Ways to Prepare for Connecting with Your Child
To build connection you must lay a foundation, one decision upon the next, that will stand firm as you parent your children.
1. Prepare your mind
Any child joining your family through foster care or adoption will have experienced trauma. Even a newborn has suffered the loss of her first mother. The lesson of the first year of life is, “I can trust.” No matter the age of a child joining your family, your first goal is to build trust by meeting her needs over and over again. Many children have not had safe adults caring for them, so we need to prove ourselves trustworthy again and again.
We must learn to be curious about our children’s behavior rather than reactive. This means preparing yourself to look for the needs of your child behind their behavior. This required us to learn an entirely new way to parent. The ability to be flexible is essential for adoptive and foster parents.
Prepare your mind by learning all that you can and adding new tools to your toolbox. My new book, The Connected Parent, co-authored with Dr. Karyn Purvis, as well as her first book, The Connected Child, are great places to start. Join local and online support groups to learn from parents ahead of you on the journey. Lastly, listen to the voices of adoptees by following them on Instagram or Facebook.
2. Prepare your heart
Intentional connected parenting will take more time and energy than you can imagine. I urge you to simplify your schedule cutting out anything that is not necessary unless it is truly life-giving. After our kids came home, life was so full I dropped out of my book group, Bible study, and just about everything else. I wish I had taken a planned break rather than having to make changes in the midst of an already challenging time.
Your brain will be tired, so create routines now to eliminate extra decision making later. Establish a rotating menu, get familiar with ordering groceries online, hire a house cleaner if you possibly can.
Find an older, wiser adoptive parent, a parent coach, or a therapist to walk alongside you as you parent your new children. Parenting with connection takes emotional strength. You need someone pouring into you as you pour into your child.
If you’re going to have a strong heart, you also need a strong body. Take care of your health. Get caught up on medical and dental care. I had a tooth that was bothering me when we left for Ethiopia. It continued to worsen when we returned home but I was swamped with the needs of my children. It finally grew so painful I went to the dentist and learned the tooth had to be pulled. I wish I had gone before we brought the kids home!
3. Prepare your home
This is the time to create a home that serves the needs of your family. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful or truly beautiful to you. If something is precious and irreplaceable, put it away. Likewise, if you have other children, they should put their treasures away for a season. Create a home that is comfortable and simple.
My favorite tool for building connection is a rocking chair. If you’re adopting older children, make it a big one so you can sit side-by-side. Russ and I spent hours rocking our children. It became our spot for nurturing little ones, calming a child who was upset or dysregulated, reading aloud, and providing sensory input. A big rocking chair may not be the look you love in your home, but trust me, it will be worth it.
Create a home where your child will feel safe. One of my little ones slept in a small pop-up tent in his room because he felt safer in an enclosed space. Another felt safest when I wore him on my back while I worked. When children feel safe they being to trust which builds connection.
Prepare your heart, mind, and home for connecting with your child. Make way for connection by clearing space in your life, learning new skills, and being flexible. The investment will be tremendous, likely more than you can imagine, but the rewards will be great.
Lisa’s website and blog: One Thankful Mom
Check out her new book, The Connected Parent, that she co-authored with Dr. Karyn Purvis.
Follow Lisa on Instagram.