When I was a new foster parent a few years ago, I was introduced to an analogy that has changed the way I think about vulnerable children. The analogy is simple: Children are like duct tape. It’s a lesson that has taken me through seven years of parenting children who have been hurt, and five of those years as an adoptive parent.
I’m sure you are familiar with duct tape—the shiny, multi-purpose tape that people keep on hand for odd jobs.
Duct tape is a serious tool. It’s not for gift wrapping or arts and crafts. When you’re using duct tape, it’s not for temporary purposes. Once it’s on, it’s there to stay. That’s because duct tape was made to do one thing: to stick.
Yes, children are like duct tape. They are created to stick—not physically, but emotionally. The process of “sticking” that occurs between a parent and child is called attachment. Children quite naturally get attached to their parents, and vice versa.
Attachment is defined as “the deep and enduring connection established between a child and caregiver in the first several years of life.” Attachment happens over time, almost imperceptibly, in a child’s early months and years of life. If you have had children, you might not have even realized it was happening. When you consistently responded to your child’s needs for feeding, diaper changes, comfort, and stimulation, you were causing your child to attach to you.
Why is attachment so important? A child’s most basic attachment to a caregiver carries her through life. Attachment teaches a child to trust. It helps her to develop the ability to handle her emotions, to explore her environment knowing she’s safe and secure, to protect her against stress, and to form the basis of every other emotional relationship she’ll face in her life.
We learn about attachment in Scripture. Psalm 68:5 says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”
In other words, God protects us, nurtures us, and attaches to us as a father. The very first place He nurtures us is through human attachment. In the same passage, verse 6 goes on to say, “God sets the lonely in families.” The way He takes away our loneliness is through the care of a family.
Through the parent-child relationship—through human attachment—God first shows children His love.
Children are designed to attach like duct tape. They stick to their parents emotionally, and they don’t let go.
You can imagine why attachment is such an important concept for foster parents and for anyone who cares about vulnerable children. Healthy attachments early in life have an impact on every experience a person has. The reverse is also true. If a child does not experience healthy attachments, every other life experience is impacted.
Whether they are in foster care, in an orphanage, or on the street, children removed from the care of their parents suffer from broken attachment. Here, the duct tape analogy becomes painful.
Let’s imagine for a moment that I took a strip of duct tape and stuck it on your arm. The tape would attach to every hair on your arm. Can you guess what’s coming next? Imagine that I suddenly ripped the tape off your arm. How would that feel? Of course, it would hurt.
In the same way, when a child is removed from the care of his or her birth parents, it’s a blinding pain. As a foster parent, I’ve cared for many children who were living with the pain of broken attachment. In every case, losing the deep connection to a parent had left wounds of sadness, anger, and detachment.
The situation is even sadder for children who move around in foster care, or for orphans in institutions where they do not have a consistent caregiver. To continue with our analogy, let’s imagine that the same strip of duct tape was placed on person after person. After a while, the duct tape would stop hurting, but that’s because it would stop sticking.
When children don’t have stable caregivers, they (consciously or unconsciously) stop trying to attach to anyone. No wonder we see so many behavioral issues in vulnerable children. Without a foundation of healthy attachment, children do not trust adults, so they may run away, lie, steal, or find other ways to stir up chaos.
My husband and I adopted our two daughters from foster care. They had lived with seven different families before they came to our home. On the day I met my daughters, they were calling me “Mommy” before even an hour had passed. It warmed my heart, until I realized that they called every woman “Mommy,” and they didn’t actually trust any of them! It took quite a while before they realized that I was the Mommy who would stick around. It took longer for them to begin to believe that they would not move anywhere else, and even longer to behave as if they would not move anywhere else.
I told you that children and duct tape have a lot in common. However, there’s one big difference between them. Children can get sticky again! They can learn to attach to people, even after a history of trauma.
The scripture that tells us “God sets the lonely in families” implies that lonely children can stop feeling lonely. I have seen this to be true. My daughters, who probably didn’t sense a reason to trust anyone ever again, actually became “sticky” again! Over time, their trauma-related behaviors decreased. They began to demonstrate a real connection to me and my husband. Today, they are thriving.
Though children may always feel deeply the sadness of losing their first parents, they can learn to love again. It takes time, and it takes an understanding that God has created children to live in families.
It’s not easy to parent children who have been hurt. It takes perseverance. My parenting journey has certainly been the most trying experience of my life. However, it’s also been the most rewarding experience of my life. After having no reason to ever trust an adult again, my daughters chose to trust me. What a gift!
If you have ever thought about adoption, foster parenting, or otherwise caring for troubled children, be aware that it will be difficult, but don’t be scared. The same God who “sets the lonely in families” can help children to stop feeling lonely—to attach in your family.