Treating Adopted Teens with Attachment Therapy

Teens who are adopted whether during adolescence or earlier in life sometimes have difficulty forming loving relationships. Although this isn’t always the case, adopted children can have severe emotional and behavioral problems. They are sometimes unable to give and receive love and affection. They may constantly defy parental rules and authority, and they can be emotionally and physically abusive to their peers and siblings.

Of course, not all adopted teens experience this, but those who do may an attachment disorder. In the 1940’s psychiatrist John Bowlby was asked to write about the difficulties that homeless and orphaned children experience. Attachment theory grew from Bowlby significant research on the deprivation of maternal care. Although attachment theory is complex, it’s most essential tenet is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for his or her emotional development and most importantly to be able regulate his or her own feelings later in life. Attachment theory describes the long-term relationships between individuals by looking at the relationship an infant has with its primary caregiver.

Later, in the early 1980’s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth applied Bowlby’s work to developmental psychology and theorized that there are four types of relationship patterns that develop and are present among individuals and their parents. These are secure attachment, avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment, and disorganized attachment. The significance here is that these relationship patterns are generational and can continue to be passed down. If a child, for instance, develops an avoidant attachment with his caregiver and then later has a child of his own, that relationship pattern will continue to be passed down.

Sadly, if a secure attachment is not formed, children can have behavioral, academic, social, and/or emotional difficulties in adolescence and in adulthood. Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Bipolar Disorder (BD), Conduct Disorder (CD), or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example, tend to display attachment issues. Experiences like abuse, neglect, or trauma in early childhood can be the cause, or perhaps that reason that prevented forming a child-parent attachment. On the other hand, children and teens with a healthy self-esteem, strong relationships, and the ability to be themselves with others likely had secure relationships in infancy.

For some adopted teens Attachment Therapy is the answer to healing the inability to give and receive love and their difficulty in forming loving relationships. Attachment Therapy involves creating secure attachment patterns among adopted teens and their parents, implementing relational systems in the family that are loving and respectful, repairing the relational systems of the past, and focusing on all aspects of a relationship between parent and teen including emotional, physical, spiritual, and behavioral. Attachment Therapy is holistic in nature based on the notion that healthy relationships have many contributing factors.

The therapeutic challenge to Attachment Therapy is for parents to take charge in a firm but loving way and gradually form a working relationship with the child. In fact, it is not unlike working with teens with Conduct Disorder who may exhibit lack of remorse, anger, dishonesty, and self-centeredness.

Attachment Therapy is relatively new. However, research indicates that it has been effective in large number of case studies. Meanwhile, the mental health of adopted children is becoming more and more significant, particularly because the number of adoptions in the United States continues to rise. According to the National Council For Adoption, there were 130,269 domestic adoptions in 2002, whereas in 1996 there were 108,463 domestic adoptions.

The United States 2000 Census indicated that nearly 1.6 million children and teenagers under 18 years old in the United States and Puerto Rico are adopted. This is a significant portion of American youth. Understanding the mental health of these children and teens, particularly their early attachment experiences, is becoming essential in supporting their overall well being.

For adopted teens with attachment disorder, therapy is essential. Although traditional therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, has been successful, focus on the parent-child attachment has proven to change lives.


Further Reading