Raising your grandchild (or another relative) brings with it attachment challenges you may not have faced when you raised your children. For example, the bond between you and your child grew organically beginning in utero and continued to develop from the first day of their life. It eventually evolved into the relationship you have today. But if you are suddenly raising your grandchild, you don’t have time to create a natural bonding experience. In addition to this your grandchild/relative, most likely, experienced several Adverse Childhood Events (ACE's), and this can be an obstacle when trying to create a healthy bond. It helps to remember that this is a long process, and a process you most likely did not go through with the grandchild you are now responsible for raising. Don't expect for bonding to happen overnight.
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. Attachment is the bond that has been created, over time, between a parent and his/her child. 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 issues can escalate, disrupting the bond even more.
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 grief and longing for their biological parents. The child might grieve for the family they wish they could have. Because of this, it is helpful to participate in bonding activities with your grandchild or relative in your care so they can start the attachment process with a healthy adult. Even though raising your grandchild may be temporary, it is still beneficial to participate in bonding activities.
Six Types of Bonding to Increase Attachment:
Emotional - Provide empathy; put yourself in their shoes. Validate their feelings and experiences; tell them it is ok to be upset/scared/angry. 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 communication, honesty, the value of money, etc.
Physical - 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.
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. Give them the time they need to build trust through the bonding activities described in my blogs on www.bethtyson.com. I wish you a peaceful Grandfamily journey!