Becoming a Trauma and Attachment-Informed Church
Adoptive and foster parents know about trauma and attachment, so their churches should too.
But what does that mean?
Attachment is the act of bonding, usually focused on the child bonding to his or her adoptive or foster family but also applicable to new parents bonding to their family’s new child. Children who have been adopted or who are in foster care don’t have the typical attachment process of biological children. Even a child adopted at or soon after birth spent months in the womb hearing a different voice than the mother they went home with, and research has shown that bonding of a child to mother begins with those first sounds and smells in the womb and soon after. For children who have learned not to trust adults (for example, if trusted adults have abandoned them or died or lied or hurt them), attachment can be even harder. This affects behavior, nutrition, learning, self-worth, and more.
Trauma includes a constellation of previous experiences a child has that could have a negative effect, including abuse, neglect, loss, grief, starvation, medical mistreatment, and being witness to violence. That’s a long list, isn’t it? And it’s not comprehensive. Every child is different, and so are the responses of each child to their own trauma histories. That said, research shows that trauma can impact children’s developing brains. Research indicates that childhood trauma is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD, early trauma leads to changes in brain chemistry and development, and institutionalization of children leads to higher rates of lasting sensory processing issues. And that’s just the tip of iceberg on what experts have to say about the effects of childhood trauma.
So, church leaders, what can you do to become trauma- and attachment-informed and to then use that knowledge to serve adoptive and foster families well?
- Just say no to romanticizing adoption and foster care. Can there be beauty there? YES! But is it borne out of hard places? YES! God calls us to care for unparented children, so we should be willing to say, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” but we aren’t serving anyone well if families dive in after being presented with a glamourized version of the realities of adoption and foster care.
- Give high fives instead of hugs. Okay, that’s not a firm rule, but please resist the desire to shower our kids with affection. Ask us first. That might sound harsh or like we’re helicopter parents, but the reality is that our kids might not understand who to trust or how to know what love is. God designed children to learn about love for the first time in a family environment: the womb, then their parents’ arms, and so on. Those moments of early feedings and middle of the night soothing develop a child’s brain to know that mom and dad are their secure sources of affection. Sometimes well-meaning folks forget that many kids in adoptive and foster placements never learned that. One of my children showed this to the extreme with what experts call “indiscriminate attachment.” In layman’s terms, she would willingly go with any adult, with no preference for me or my husband. For her to learn healthy attachment, she needed us to be the main sources of affection.
- Same goes for food and gifts. Once again, ask us first. Kids learn to trust and attach to caregivers through nourishment (i.e. food) and provisions (i.e. gifts). Getting those from us and from others can be confusing, especially at first.
- Let us enter children’s ministry on our timetables. In other words, be flexible. Understand that our kids might need to be with us more and in the nursery or Sunday school less, and please help us navigate that reality for the season in which it applies to us. Be willing to change some rules if they don’t make sense for us. For example, the nursery program for our ladies’ midweek Bible study program is run by a precious woman who gently pushes moms to go to their own small groups instead of lingering, and that works for most kids. But when our youngest cried so hard she ruptured a blood vessel in her eye when we finally started putting her in the nursery? We both knew that wasn’t working for our family, and we adjusted accordingly.
- Don’t say, “Oh, every kid does that.” We feel dismissed by those words, and they show that you don’t get it. Let’s return to the previous example. Did my daughter’s reaction look like typical separation anxiety? Yes. Was it? No. Many of the attachment- and trauma-related behaviors for kids in adoptive and foster families might look like the usual kid behaviors, but they’re different.
- Respect our children’s privacy. To love our family well, you don’t need to know the specifics of our children’s history with attachment, trauma, and life in general. Some families choose to share limited information, but most of us consider our children’s stories to be theirs to own and share on their own timetables.
- Finally, understand that every family is different. Every adoptive and foster family deals with attachment and trauma differently, so this entire list might not apply to all the families in your church. So be willing to listen and learn from us before acting based on assumptions.
By reading this post, you’re already showing great love for the adoptive and foster families at your church because you care enough to learn a little about how child development might differ for our kids. Thank you for that.