With the flood of information regarding the extent of bonding in utero and shortly thereafter, it may influence adoptive parents to believe that they are going to struggle to create a bond that's as strong as that of a biological parent. While there definitely is a loss here, a loss of almost 10 months of physical closeness before birth and possibly weeks, months or years after birth, there are still many ways that adoptive parents can increase and deepen the bond they have with their adoptive children. So let's quit whining about that loss until you have done these concrete things to continue to strengthen the bond you do have to your children.
Bathe less and hold more. If you do wear scents or need to bathe every day, use the same, gentle smelling soap or lotion every time. Hold off on perfume if you can avoid it and go for lotions or skin creams that use non-irritating ingredients to create a mild scent. Then mash your body against your young child as much as you can! Let them nap with direct skin to skin contact. Hold them more than you feel comfortable doing, even after both legs area sleep. Wear them more than other parent's wear their children. Hug them longer, and sleep closer to them than other parents do. When they take a bath, spend time drying and intentionally applying oils, lotions or other balms to their skin, not because their skin needs it (which it may) but because it let's you gently touch them more. This also goes along with the next bonding tool.
Increase eye contact with your child. Spend time on the floor with them, in bed next to them and when feeding them. Especially as a baby, make sure you are combining gentle touch and care with compassionate and intentional gazes and eye-smiles. Also, don't stop this even as they get older and will not lock on to your eyes for as long each time. Make it into a game or into a special way you greet each other. As babies turn to toddlers and toddlers to kids, find ways to be silly but also meaningful, paying attention to their interests and making an effort to be imaginative.
Let them hear you tell others their adoption story, but make sure you're not objectifying their story, them or exoticizing the concept. As the child gets older they should be able to control, limit or help share their story. From the time they join your family, it's important to let your child hear you tell others about how they came into your family and how it was intentional, sad and also very normal. But it's also important to consider what and how you say things. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself: Is this the kind of intimate detail I would share about myself or a friend to a perfect stranger? It's easy to accidentally objectify children in general (they're small, they don't talk much themselves yet, you know more than they do and everyone asks prying questions you feel obligated to answer just to be polite), and it's extra important not to. It's just as important for your child to hear you say things like, "You're curiosity makes sense, because our family is amazing, but we're not up for answering lots of personal questions right now. Just trying to get some shopping done!" Remember that interactions like these are more about your child and your relationship with your child than the lady in line at Meijer. Let your children hear you tell someone else about them, but make sure you state everything with the objective of making that narrative be the one you want your child to have throughout their life. It should not be simple and should not be without loss. It should be accurate and emotional. And above all, it should be appropriately placed and timed, just like intimate details about anyone else's life. Basically, don't gossip about your kids. But do engage in mutually intimate and mutually sharing conversations with those you know and trust.
Toddler to Pre-Teen
Play physically. As children get older, it may be harder to spend a lot of time holding them. Reading books, helping with baths and bedtime routines may increase this, but one great way to continue to build attachment is to play physically. Mothers are not usually socially conditioned or supported in doing this but it is very important for both parents to choose to actively engage physically with your child. Chase and tackle your kid; knock them over; hold them down; let them throw you down too. This is one of those interaction patterns that can become very helpful as you struggle with connection later on, so make sure you set up safe boundaries and always stop when someone says "stop" but also keep things very aggressive. Yes aggressive. Children should feel okay grabbing you and jumping on you and tossing a blanket over your head only to pull you around the house. You can argue with me here about tactics, but I think the strategy is fair: get your children used to trusting that you are going to both be physically dominating and yet gentle with them and that they have power to control you too. This may look different than other parenting styles, but you have a different task than many other parents so we need to use different skills. This will pay off when your 15-year-old child expects you to grab and wrestle them when they come in the house from school.
Paint faces. Paint your child's face for sure, but make sure they get a chance to paint your face and / or body. It gives them a sense of creation and manipulation that helps them feel like they are able to influence you, not just be influenced. Also it's another great way to spend a lot of intentional time very close with your child. Look at their eyes while they paint you and get them to look into your eyes by asking them questions, making weird faces or just by trying to give them sloppy, painty kisses.
Give your child more control. How much control do you give them now? Can you double it? Do they get to make choices about clothing, bedtime stories, bath toys, breakfast foods, the order of chores, what room to pick up first, how long it's okay to leave toys lying around? Don't worry, being a child means being constantly reminded about who is really in charge. This is not to say that you should let your child change your mind about things, because they also need to believe that you really do have a good grasp on this life thing. Adopted children are especially susceptible to feeling a lack of control or direct responsibility for how their life is unfolding, so make sure you aren't part of that problem by building up their sense of efficacy.
Remember your goals. Is it to force them to bed at promptly 7pm or is it to make sure you continue to build your attachment? Have your priority hierarchy set up and written down. Even put it right on the fridge or somewhere your child can see it. Make sure they know that your highest priority is to be a secure family and that the other things you do are facets of this. Remind yourself of this when the times get tough and you are going to be late to work, late to school, or are just seemingly not at the same place that other parents or children are. Daily responsibilities will get you to defocus unless you find a way to continually remind yourself of these priorities.
Find ways to share something special. Your favorite ice cream flavor is now your child's. Learn to love it. Don't be completely false, but be strategic. Creating ways that you can have special similarities between you and your adopted child is a powerful way to remind them emotionally that they are part of you and they belong right where they are. Does your child come out of her room with a red sock and a black sock? Go change your socks to match if you can. Wear those socks all day and giggle to each other about it. Imagine how happy a six-year-old would be if you show up to pick them up from school wearing the same shirt as them or with a set of matching hats for you both to wear. It matters.
Adolescents and Young Adults
Continue your touch. This is why you made family hugs, holding hands, kisses, all-smashed-into-one-chair book reading, and goodnight snuggles the norm for years. Your child and your child's friends should know that you are the touchy-feely parents. Play soccer, basketball, water tag, sardines, and other physical games to keep your kid expecting your closeness and touch.
Reverse Roles. Let your child cook for you or pick your clothes out or take care of you when you are sick. Ask for hugs because you could use one. Figure out a way that your child can teach you something and ask to have them help you learn it and then ask them how you are doing later. Ask for their validation and approval sometimes.
Join with them about the things they value. Going vegan, saving water, watching videos of Minecraft, whatever it is, figure out what you can do to not just encourage them but to join with them in this meaning.
Make a big deal out of family traditions. Try to set this up earlier of course, but set your traditions and keep them. I'm not sure what direction to go on forcing children to participate, but part of the utility about it is that your child should know to rely on them regardless of whether or not they choose to participate. It could be the way you make pancakes, the way your family delegates responsibilities when you go shopping, or how you celebrate holidays.
Stop your routine to bond with your child. Children need to be reminded about what is important and even as a young adult they need to see it directly. If possible, take a day off and take your child(ren) out of school to just do something together, maybe as a response to a tough time for them or to recognize their development. Maybe it could be for no reason at all.
Be more and more honest as your child can accept it. Your child needs to know that they belong, even if the reasons for why they came to join your family were messy. Maybe a three-year-old can't fully understand choices about infertility, religion, opportunity, beliefs at the time, or even happenstance; but a fifteen-year-old chult (child/adult) can handle it and needs to understand it because if you don't share with them they will fill in the gaps with their own, possibly negative guesses.
Adult Adoptive Children.
Be honest about your failures. Maybe you should have sought to have a doctor that looked like them, or to find out more about their birth father before he died. Maybe you wish you were better at talking to their teachers while they were growing up. Don't say "I did the best I could" because that is bullshit. We do the best we do, not the best we can.
Help them with their search for meaning, belonging and fulfillment. Comparing them to others' achievement may be helpful or it may just be damaging. This is not to change expectations, but, instead to base them off of a person's own abilities and past successes. Kanye West's new album should be compared to his last albums, not what I can do with a saxophone and two hours in a studio.
These ideas were adopted from the tons of ideas and lists in Parenting the Hurt Child by Keck and Kupecky. They are made to be informative but not declarative and may not work for every situation. Individual experience, such as a history of abuse or other trauma may bring about a need to have other, specific skills. The one thing that is very universal is that when raising a child through adoption it is important to only slightly glance at what other parents are doing to raise their children. As an adoptive parent, you are working overtime to learn not only the nuanced layers of basic parenting, but also all of the adoption-specific nuance and skills. You are learning, potentially, to get comfortable sharing, but not oversharing; appreciating and celebrating your child's race while not objectifying or exoticizing it; wrestling with mental health issues while not letting those struggles define your child or your relationship to them; and a whole lot more.