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​​​1.5.2 Behavioural and Attachment

Children who have lived in an institution are highly likely to demonstrate developmental and growth delays.  Children who have been deprived of a normal family environment which includes lots of affection and stability may demonstrate behavioural problems (some children can become hyperactive, whilst others may become silent and withdrawn).  They may express difficulty in developing a normal degree of affection and intimacy and have a lack of social skills which have never been taught to them.  

Some children, especially those who have been abused, may need special counselling. 

Careful monitoring will be required if the child is adopted into a home with existing birth children.

It is impossible to determine whether a problematic child will or will not attain learning levels, behavioural levels, attachment levels that are considered “normal”.  Usually treatment can solve most problems over time, unless there are serious underlying issues which treatment can improve but not correct, e.g. foetal alcohol syndrome.

Care should be taken not to associate all misbehaviour that is common to almost all children (e.g. temper tantrums, teenage issues) with intercountry adoption.  Sometimes common sense is called for.

Applicants should also join a support group for applicants / adoptive parents and attend before and after the adoption. The people in these groups will have an immediate empathy for other applicants or adoptive parents and can advise, support or provide details of professionals if required.


Attachment is a term used to describe a person’s ability to form intimate and trusting relationships with other people. The older the child the more damaged is the ability to attach.

Factors which lead to the development of secure attachment include whether:
  • The child has had a constant care giver or small number of consistent care givers over an extended period.

  • A change of caregiver occurs only after a reasonable time of introduction of the new caregiver.

  • The caregiver consistently responds to the child, taking care of the child’s needs for food, comfort etc.

  • Any pain or discomfort which the child experiences is remedied by the care giver. 

The development of attachment occurs when the child’s needs are consistently met.


Repeated successful completion of the healthy cycles help the child to develop trust, security and to become attached to his/her primary carer.

Symptoms of psychological or behavioural problems that are commonly seen in children with attachment problems1 include:

  • Conscience development
    • May not show normal anxiety following aggressive or cruel behaviour
    • May not show guilt on breaking laws or rules
    • May project blame on others
  • Impulse control
    • Exhibits poor control: depends upon others to provide
    • Exhibits lack of foresight
    • Has poor attention span
  • Self-esteem
    • Is unable to get satisfaction from tasks well done
    • Sees self as undeserving
    • Sees self as incapable of change
    • Has difficulty having fun
  • Interpersonal interactions
    • Lacks trust in others
    • Demands affection but lacks depth in relationships
    • Exhibits hostile dependency
    • Needs to be in control of all situations
    • Has impaired social maturity
  • Emotions
    • Has trouble recognising own feelings
    • Has difficulty expressing feelings appropriately, especially anger, sadness and frustration
    • Has difficulty recognising feelings in others
  • Cognitive Problems
    • Has trouble with basic cause and effect
    • Experiences problems with logical thinking
    • Appears to have confused thought processes
    • Has difficulty thinking ahead
    • May have an impaired sense
    • Has difficulty with abstract thinking
  • Developmental Problems
    • May have difficulty with auditory processing
    • May have difficulty expressing self well verbally
    • May have gross motor problems
    • May experience delays in fine-motor adaptive skills
    • May experience delays in personal-social development
    • May have inconsistent levels of skills in all of the above areas

Ways to encourage attachment include:

  • Responding to the Arousal-Relaxation Cycle
    • Using the child's tantrums to encourage attachment
    • Responding to the child when he or she is physically ill
    • Accompanying the child to Doctor and Dentist appointments
    • Helping the child express excitement over his/her achievements
    • Helping the child cope with feelings about moving
    • Helping the child cope with ambivalent feelings about his/her birth family
    • Responding to a child who is hurt or injured
    • Educate the child about sexual issues
  • Initiating Positive Interactions
    • Making affectionate overtures: hugs, kisses physical closeness
    • Reading to the child
    • Playing games
    • Going shopping together for clothes/toys for child
    • Going on special outings: circus, plays, or the like
    • Supporting the child's outside activities by providing transportation or being a group leader
    • Helping the child with homework when he or she needs it
    • Teaching the child to cook or bake
    • Saying 'I love you'
    • Teaching the child about extended family members through pictures and talk
  • Claiming Behaviours
    • Encouraging the child to practice calling parents 'mum' and 'dad'
    • Adding a middle name to incorporate a name of family significance
    • Hanging pictures of child on the wall
    • Involving the child in family reunions and similar activities
    • Involving the child in grandparents' visits
    • Including the child in family rituals
    • Holding ceremonies that incorporate the child into the family
    • Buying new clothes for the child as a way of becoming acquainted with child's size, colour preference, style preferences, and the like

A solid and healthy attachment with a primary caregiver is associated with a child developing a secure identity and understanding of their place in the world e.g. having the capacity to form and maintain other emotional relationships. It is highly recommended that the primary caregiver should be one of the adoptive parents.  If a child is placed into full time day care or with a nanny too early on the return to New Zealand the adoptive parents will miss the opportunity to develop attachment with the child. This could also have a detrimental impact on the child.  The child would have experienced a major transition from an institution into a new family, new country with a different language and different culture and will require much one on one attention rather than being placed in another institution type setting. ​

[1] Fahlberg, Vera I 11994) A Child's Journey Through Placement, British Agencies for Adoption & Fostering, London. UK, pp. 44-52