Sarah K. Stephens

Sarah K. Stephens


Attachment is an important topic in my field of developmental psychology.

The term refers, in its most traditional sense, to the emotional bond that develops between a caregiver and an infant. There is strong evidence to indicate that our first relationships with our caregivers lead us to form an attachment style, which serves as our model for later relationships, including friendships and romantic partnerships. As a result, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the need for caregivers to provide consistent and nurturing care, in part, as a foundation for a healthy attachment.

Where the concept of attachment becomes problematic, I’d argue, is when the focus is placed on the importance of healthy relational experiences when we are infants, and the detrimental effects that occur for a child when caregiving goes awry in infancy. A variety of research demonstrates that abuse and neglect in early infancy increases the probability of cognitive, emotional, and relational difficulties in children, but there is also strong evidence demonstrating the resiliency of children coming from maltreating environments.

Unfortunately, though, the popular press often shows a strong preference for dramatic stories confirming the falsehood that abused children are permanently damaged, usually with a nod to the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which remains a controversial condition in my field. Although studies indicate that RAD is a valid diagnosis, data also suggests that it is relatively rare and that it is often misapplied to children in the foster care or child welfare system who are struggling with other more common developmental difficulties, such as emotional dysregulation or hyperactivity.

I am the mother of three children who were adopted at the ages of 11, 8, and 7 years old. Our children are biological siblings and my husband and I adopted them together, over 6 years ago. It was a true adventure for us as a family. In one moment, we became parents of essentially triplets (who were all capable of independent behavior and were fully mobile, unlike infants!). Because we adopted our children from Latvia, we also became parents in a foreign country where we did not speak the language and our children did not speak English.

It was a chaotic, beautiful, and challenging experience—and, aside from a few details, not all that different from becoming a parent via the ‘traditional’ route of pregnancy and birth. Sleepless nights, fussy eaters, and lots and lots of joy.

Prior to completing our adoption, we encountered family and friends who were subtly condescending, telling us that we should try X, Y, and Z fertility options or a domestic adoption of an infant, not at all understanding that we wanted to become parents this way and that we wanted our children as they were. There seems to be this fantasy that an infant is somehow a clean slate, upon which you as the adoptive parent can impress your own influence without contest and thus raise the best child possible.

My husband and I valued the opportunity to understand who our children were before we became a family, and we greatly appreciated the fact that our children had a say in whether they wanted to have us as their parents. This is not to say that I feel the pathway we took to form our family is any better than the myriad other paths, but I would argue that adopting older children has its own advantages that are often overlooked due to our cultural focus on the idea of children becoming permanently damaged in the child welfare system.


One ‘legend’ in our family—it’s been told so many times by us and our children that it is indeed ‘legend’, as important family stories often become—relates to when we first saw pictures of our children. Our agency provided one photograph each and a brief paragraph to describe children who were available for a 3-week foster program, which could eventually lead into a permanent adoption. My husband and I set the photos of our children at the kitchen table and admired it each day, often guessing with each other about what our children were like.

When we finally met our son and daughters, it was fascinating to see what we’d guessed correctly (the energy, sweetness, mischievous, and independence) and to discover the other unique parts of who our children each were that a photo couldn’t capture. By the time we brought our children home permanently to the US, we’d spent 6 weeks total with them. Though that’s not enough time to know a person in their entirety, we had the unique opportunity as new parents to actively commit ourselves to our children with knowledge (at least in part) of their strengths and challenges.

In this month where, as Americans, we focus so much on love, I’m here to argue that familial love possesses no expiration date.

 Families are deterred from adopting older children due to fears that their child will not ‘attach to them,’ which honestly translates into the very natural fear that their child will not love them. Families are also worried by the stories of children who’ve become violent as a result of abuse or neglect in their lives, or of children who cannot adjust to family life after living in an institution for so long. This is despite the fact that these cases are far outnumbered by the children who are adopted at a variety of ages and doing incredibly well in their families.

I can distinctly remember the point in our family’s life where I felt certain our emotional bond to each other was fully formed. Perhaps 3 months after bringing our children back to the US, we were in a hardware store looking at carpet samples for a living room remodel (because why not take on a huge do-it-yourself construction project immediately after your adoption—In hindsight, it seems insane, I agree). My husband and I moved a bit away from our kids to look at some carpet tiles such that we could still see them clearly, but apparently they couldn’t still see us. A few minutes later, our 3 children rushed over to us, breathless, to say, “We couldn’t find you!” We assured them that we could see them the entire time, but the relief I saw on our children’s faces when they’d found us was a precious moment for me as a mother. Here were my children, using me as a source of comfort in a big, blooming, buzzing world. We didn’t buy any carpet that day, and we eventually abandoned the remodel, but that moment is forever imprinted in our family’s story.

Parenthood is synonymous with fear because it is by definition a leap into the unknown, whether you are adopting an infant, giving birth to your child, adopting an older child, conceiving via surrogate, or fostering a child prior to adoption. No parent can know everything about their child and where the path of life will take them, and to try to delude ourselves otherwise is a fool’s errand.

So for those readers who are in a place to consider building their families, I encourage you to think about the variety of ways people become parents. Adopting older children brings with it a unique parental journey still full of the potentials all parents encounter: for love, fear, challenge, and joy.

Although attachment work so often focuses on infancy, there is also extensive work on the experience of “earned securists”—these are individuals who’ve encountered neglectful or hurtful caregiving when younger but who later learn to emotionally connect and love through a later relationship. I love this phenomenon because it embodies all that the adoption of older children offers: to teach our children to trust in love, and for us to learn how to love more fully in return.

Rutter, M.L., Kreppner, J.M., & O’Connor, T.G. (2001). Specificity and heterogeneity in
children’s responses to profound institutional privation. British Journal of
Psychiatry, 179, 97-103.

Woolgar, M. & Scott, S. (2014). The negative consequences of over-diagnosing attachment disorders in adopted children: The importance of comprehensive formulations. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 19(3), 355-366.

Share Article:
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on PinterestBuffer this pageEmail this to someone

More About Sarah K. Stephens: Sarah K. Stephens earned her Doctorate in Developmental Psychology and teaches a variety of human development courses as a lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories have appeared in Five on the Fifth, The Voices Project, The Indianola Review, and the Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, will be released in Winter 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her writing on her blog.