Understanding and Treating Attachment Problems in Children: What Went Wrong and How Problems Can Be Fixed

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.

This somewhat complex article reviews the basic tenets of traditional attachment theory and describes both its strengths and weaknesses. Revisions to attachment theory are suggested and detailed explanation is provided of both the causes and treatment of various types of attachment problems. It is both a technical road map and a practical guide to the journey.  Although complex, It has been written to be understandable to professionals and parents alike. (31 pages)   Link to full article here.


Adoption and Attachment

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.

 The Adoption Courtship Model

Out of necessity, Jasper Mountain Center (JMC) staff have attempted to isolate why some adoptions worked during the first five years of our program and why most didn’t.  The result of two years of considering this question has been the development and implementation of an adoption model for children who

  • are emotionally disturbed;
  • are hard to place; and/or
  • have single or multiple adoptive failures

The operating principles for our Adoption Courtship Model are the following:

  • Standard adoptive procedures are insufficient for special-needs children and their prospective families.
  • The odds are often against a successful adoption with these children, without preparation, training, and professional support.
  • The child and the family must be prepared for the reality of this adoptive relationship.
  • The adoption commitment must be made by both the child and the family and can only be made based on a relationship, not on information or interest.

The model has three phases:

  1. Phase I.  The child is prepared for the adoption by understanding his or her role in making it work or not work.  The child’s considerable power in the situation is made clear.  The family goes through the regular certification steps and is selected by the adoption committee.  The family meets with the caseworker and JMC staff to learn what to expect from the initial meeting.  The child is also prepared for this meeting.  The two sides meet with the caseworker and family therapist.  The child begins to build trust by getting to know the family as a unit, then the family members as individuals, and finally in the home environment.
  2. Phase II.  This is where the reality must begin to come in.  Both sides have an image of what they are doing and who they are doing it with, but it must become very clear and very real.  This phase is characterized by extended visits and family counseling.  The process starts with a focus on the strengths and positive attributes of both sides, moves to the faults and flaws of both sides, and finally underscores the realities of the combination of strengths and weaknesses of the adoption.
  3. Phase III.  There are three necessary commitments for the adoption to work.  The initial commitment on the part of both child and family is a commitment of interest, time and effort in regard to adoption.  The second is a commitment to relationships with the child, and the child to the family.  The final commitment is to family for life.  The last commitment is the final step in a successful adoption of special-needs children, not the first step as in regular adoptions.  This commitment must be made to a person, not a concept.  This is important for these children because the reality of how difficult adoption is with disturbed children must be stronger than the commitment to the adoption as a concept.

Suggestions and Techniques


Preparation.  Phase I starts long before the family and the child meet.  One of the keys here is preparation.  There is an important question to ask before the specific adoption work begins:  “Has everyone received some preparation for the adoption?”  Too often the family receives more preparation than the child.  Preparing the child for an adoptive placement should ideally begin a year prior to meeting family, with specific counseling on the issues that will come up.  Along with adoption classes, it is valuable to have the prospective parents meet with the adoption worker or counselor who will work with the transition process to prepare the family for the probable struggles that are ahead.

Initial meeting.  After the adoption committee gives its blessing to a match and the Adoption Courtship Model is decided on, it is then important for the family to meet with the adoption worker(s) and the counselor who will provide the transition counseling and discuss the model, the process, and the goals.  Keep in mind that most adoptive families are in a mild to huge rush to have the child.  A rushed courtship is almost always problematic.  Gain the family’s agreement and commitment to the process or don’t use this model (in general, the bigger the rush the family is in, the more concerns there are about their readiness).

The initial meeting of child and family.  Again the suggestion is for the worker(s) and counselor to be actively involved.  Often for this population, meeting the parents alone before children are involved is less complex and overwhelming for the adoptive child.  There should be informal time between the child and the parents, as well as the worker and counselor outlining what will be happening over the next few months and why.  Keep the meeting from being stuffy or too formal.  Make it clear that the goal is to see if in the long run this is a good match for everyone concerned.  All sides will have a voice (empower the child to influence his or her future and you will have a much better response).

Process.  Start with meetings in counseling to get to know each other.  Have the whole family come the second time.  Use techniques to rapidly point out the different personalities in the family (who is the clown, who is grumpy in the morning, etc.)  A technique here is to have the members of the family write on a sheet of paper the things they like and dislike about the family member to their left and right.  The counselor reads the items and has the family guess whom it was written about.  Start with afternoon visits away from the family home.  Go to daylong visits and then an overnight visit, again away from the family home.  This is to equalize the playing field.  In the family home only the adoptive child is unfamiliar with the environment.  In a park, restaurant, or motel at the beach, the focus is on the relationships, not on getting used to the family’s turf.  The adoptive child should have a chance to get to know all family members at least a little, both individually and together, before going to the family home.

Counseling.  The initial meetings and discussions should take place in the counselor’s office.  After each visit there should be a session.  The counselor plays the role of bringing the family and child together and facilitating the process so both sides know that the situation is organized and under control.


Counseling.  Counseling continues to be frequent but not necessarily occurring each time.  Involve foster care providers to help make the child’s strengths and weaknesses clear.

Process.  GET REAL!  Arrange extended visits, primarily in the home environment.  Get away from special events and get down to everyday life.  The goal of this phase is to make it clear what this adoptive combination will really be like.

Techniques.  Stress the strengths and weaknesses of the match, the family, and the child.  It may be difficult or embarrassing, but it is time to air everyone’s strong points as well as dirty laundry.  Use techniques like having everyone answer such questions as “When I get really angry, I …,” “I show sadness by …,” “When I am grumpy, the best way to deal with me is …,” etc.  Role-play some of this.  Have children act like Mom in the morning before coffee.  How do the parents fight with each other?  Have the adoptive child act out some of his less impressive qualities, such as being rude, disrespectful or hurtful.  Whatever family members will see later should be talked about, even acted out, now.


Process.  Now that everyone has met and should know a lot about one another, the emphasis shifts to commitments.  There are three levels of commitment:  (1) time and effort, (2) relationship, and (3) life commitment.  Commitment 1 should have long since been made and operationalized.  It will be important to review and evaluate how everyone has handled this commitment because it will be an indicator of the next two.  How interested is everyone in a commitment to relationship?  In the case of attachment-disordered children, this must be reviewed carefully to have realistic expectations.  It is clearly time to begin putting out on the table the issue of life-long commitment.  Again, the commitment must be to people, not to the concept of adoption.

Counseling.  Here is where the skill of the counselor is most needed.  There is much complexity in commitments.  There may be resistance on everyone’s part to addressing this.  If things are going smoothly, why upset the apple cart?  No one really wants the final analysis to be halting the adoption because it is not overall a good match, but this may be the case.  The counselor must be firm and willing to be the bad guy.  The capacity of the child to commit himself may be problematic, and the parents may have better intentions than abilities.

Ritual.  If the adoption gets a green light, then some have found a formal recognition of the adoptive commitment an important step.  Consider having a ceremony.  Invite friends and throw a party.  Our culture does this for most important events.

A Final Thought

Adoptions can work with special-needs children, but the work is never completed (yet when is any parent’s job done?).  Despite an excellent placement for both the child and the family, the work has only begun.  The transition into the home will set an all-important tone, but don’t fool yourself that the job will get easier.  Our experience is that new struggles come up with each physical and developmental stage of the child.  But that just makes adoption like life—a new challenge around every corner.

Surviving and Thriving in a Difficult Adoption

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.

Adoptions can be much like marriages:  Too many dissolve with pain for everyone; others stay together but everyone is unhappy; some get by with everyone lowering his or her expectations; and too few are a wonderful experience of loving, learning, and growing for all concerned.  To foster success, adoptions need as much care, thought, and skill training as marriages.  Marriages and adoptions fail partly because those involved do not know what they are actually saying yes to and discover they don’t have what it takes to handle the reality they find.  The goal becomes not only how to survive the reality of the adoption but how to thrive with the challenges involved. 

Maintaining More than Your Sanity 

Maintaining a healthy adoption can be compared to maintaining an automobile.  There are issues that need attention, and, as the ad goes, “You can pay me now or pay me later.”  Here are some comparisons:

Check the radiator                      Keep it cool, don’t overheat              
Check the steering/brakes       Stay in control at all times                   
Keep the battery charged         Keep your energy                              
Tune up for performance          Maintain your power                         
Check the plugs                         Keep your spark                             
Check wear on tires                  Realize you are wearing down before you burst. 

Contained in each of these suggestions is all you really need to know about maintaining health in an adoption.  The best truths are simple ones.  A recent best seller tells us that we learned in kindergarten everything we need for a happy, fulfilled life.  Well, some of us may have gotten it all the first time, but most of us could use a refresher.  If you got it all at first, then stop here.  But if you need to hear a bit more, read on. 

Why Do Adoptions Fail? 

There are many reasons for disrupted adoptions, but they all boil down to one overall issue.  Families choose to adopt for many reasons, but they want to do a good thing for all concerned.  Although they know there will be struggle, they do not adopt to put everyone through great pain.  Adoptions fail when a commitment to a child begins to harm commitments to other loved ones.  If it gets to the point that something has to go, it will probably be the adopted child.  There are two important perspectives here: 

The family.  There may be many reasons to adopt, but in the end a family decides it has room in its members’ lives and hearts for a new family member.  But what are they to do if their offers of love and affection are met with lack of interest or even hostility?  The family can understand that life may have been difficult for the child but believe all that can change if the child simply accepts the loving care of this new family.  After weeks and then months of a child letting the family know that he or she wants neither their home nor their heart, all that the adoption seems to be bringing everyone is pain.  Maybe the child would be better off somewhere else, and clearly the family members were better off before all this started.  This often becomes the final chapter, one filled with failure, guilt, and grief for everyone. 

The child.  All adopted children have experienced deep loss or they wouldn’t need a family.  Most special-needs children have experienced much more than loss.  Fearful and adrift in the foster care system, the child is informed that he will soon get a new family.  But do people realize what family may mean to the child—the ones that were supposed to always be there for you but weren’t?  To the child, Mom and Dad may mean someone who didn’t care, or worse, someone who was very abusive.  The child has probably been in numerous homes and schools.  Such children can’t put their heart on the line again unless they know it will be safe, so they test the family.  Sometimes their testing is misinterpreted by the family, and a negative cycle begins.  The worse it gets, the more fear arises and then more testing occurs.  The child begins to see the family stop trying and waits for the caseworker to appear and once again move the child from a home that was supposed to always be there for him or her but wasn’t.  This confirms again that the world is a cruel place where you have to fight to survive and avoid being vulnerable at all costs.  And the world has another antisocial personality. 

How can these traps be avoided?  How can the process not only last but be a good experience for everyone? 

What Successful Adoptions Look Like 

Successful adoptions involving a child with special needs tend to have a lot of TLC.  Tender loving care, you say?  Absolutely not!  Tender loving care is almost always in abundant supply in failed adoptions with these children.  That just may be one of the principal problems.  In this case TLC means something very different: 

T = Translating correctly what is really going on with the child in order to understand where the child really is.  It is commonly known that manipulative teenagers (and aren’t they all) talk in opposites.  It is often a safe bet to retranslate what they are saying to get closer to the truth.  Practice by retranslating the following:  I don’t want rules; I’m not worried about my future; I am all caught up on my schoolwork; I’ll be home early tonight.  This same principle works with special-needs children. 

L = Learning from the challenges of adopting a difficult child becomes one of the indicators of success, not how smooth it’s going for everyone.  If you want smooth, get some Jell-O.  But adopting is not smooth—it is trouble or challenge, depending on your point of view.  The more you see it as a challenge to learn from, the better the candidate you are to adopt a difficult child.   

C = Stay in control at all times in all situations involving the child.  These children did not get difficult on their own; they had lots of help from chaotic, abusive, and neglectful families that could not provide a safe or secure home.  Constant control sounds pretty heavy, but if you adopt one of these children, he or she will constantly test to see just how in control you are.  If the child is able to gain control, everyone loses; if the child can’t, everyone wins.  It’s that simple. 

TLC – Translating, Learning and Control – is easier said than done.  But here is part of the point – what does a difficult adoption offer you?  It offers an opportunity to grow yourself, as you give a deserving child a fresh chance to be part of a family. 

Seven Strategies for Success 

1.  Understand the real needs of the child.  It is not often helpful to listen to the child’s words or even to accept the child’s behavior at face value because of the opposite issue.  If the child has had an abusive or neglectful past, then his or her needs are pretty straight-forward despite the way the child acts.  These children need the following:            

  • Safety.  Will I be safe in a nonviolent environment where my basic needs will be met?           
  • Security.  I need a structured situation where a parent is in charge and I can just be a kid.           
  • Acceptance.  I need people who can accept me as a person even if they don’t like or accept my behavior.           
  • Belonging.  I need to belong to someone; I need to be connected to others and learn to give and receive affection.           
  • Trust.  I need to learn to trust and be trusted; I need to be treated fairly, with honest, to respect, and firmness.           
  • Relationship.  I need to be in relationships with others in a way that no one is victimized and both sides are enhanced.           
  • Self-awareness.  I need to learn how to make changes in my personality and behavior by self-understanding.           
  • Personal worth.  The final indicator of my being a success as a person is, Do I believe in myself and my own worth? 

2.  Positive discipline is the quickest route to your control and to the child’s personal worth.  Techniques include separate the child from the behavior; don’t punish—discipline (which means to teach); don’t let “time-outs” become a disguised punishment; use logical consequences; don’t ask the child to lie by asking questions you know the answer to; avoid power struggles; have the child fight with himself/herself, not with you; keep your sense of humor and don’t let the child decide what you will feel; and allow the child to change and be more responsible by not always locking the youngster into past behaviors. 

3.  Learn to win the manipulation game.  Don’t let the child use your rules against you.  Don’t be completely predictable to a manipulative child; you’ll become an easy target.  Keep the child off balance when he or she is trying to beat you.  In general, if the child is manipulating to get something, do your best to prevent the child from getting his or her way or you will get more manipulation (because it worked).  Stay a couple of steps ahead by predicting what the child might do and what you will do in return.  Don’t respond emotionally; you won’t think very creatively then.  Parenting is best done by a team; talk over your next move and get advice and ideas.  If the child has you on the run, the child will win the manipulation game and both of you will lose. 

4.  Get the help you need from the right source.  Quite frankly, some counselors who don’t understand these children can make the situation considerably worse.  It is not much of a challenge for a manipulative child to be “perfect” an hour a week in someone’s office.  If the counselor starts looking at you like you must be the problem, get someone else.  Ask prospective counselors about their experience with adoption, abused children, and kids with attachment problems.  Or better yet, go to a counselor who comes highly recommended for his or her skills with a child just like yours.   

5.  The only given is that this type of adoption will be difficult; it does not have to be terrible.  The difference is something you have complete control over – your feelings and sense of humor, the world just isn’t funny anymore,” and adoption is like that. 

6.  Make sure you are more than a parent.  If you are a parent twenty-four hours a day, you have become pretty dull.  Be a wife, a student, a hiker, a volunteer, a square dancer, an artist, a husband, or whatever, but don’t get stuck in the parent role where there is a whole lot more giving than receiving.  Batteries don’t last long if they never get recharged. 

7.  Don’t get in a hurry.  The saddest failed adoptions are the ones where the child is desperately testing and the parents call it off.  If only they could understand that the desperation is an indicator that the testing is nearly over and that they have almost passed the test.  It has taken a long time for these children to be hurt; it takes time for them to be vulnerable again.  But don’t continue down a road that is clearly leading nowhere.  Get some good help from a counselor who has a good road map – there may be a much better road to get where you want to go. 

Final Thoughts 

So what do you think?  If it sounds like a lot more work than you thought, don’t feel alone.  Just consider – if parents knew all they would have to endure with their birth children, would they be so eager to go through with it?  Make no mistake – parenting is the world’s most complex and difficult job.  It is even more challenging if you have to pick up the pieces that someone else has failed with.  If all this is more than you can imagine, then get a pet.  But if you want the ride of your life, if you want to be the most substantial influence in a young person’s life, and if you want to learn more about yourself than you thought was possible, then boy, does CSD have a deal for you!  

So You Have a Challenging Child in Your Home?

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.

Dave Ziegler is the founder and executive director of Jasper Mountain, a nationally recognized treatment program for traumatized children.  Dave is a psychologist and holds four professional licenses and has been a foster parent for many years.  In addition to his work at Jasper Mountain, he speaks throughout the country as well as internationally to parents and professionals.  Dave is the author of five books, including Raising Children Who Refuse To Be Raised, Traumatic Experience and the Brain, Beyond Healing: The Path To Personal Contentment After Trauma, and Neurological Reparative Therapy: A Roadmap to Healing Resiliency and Well-Being.  This article is drawn from his 2005 book Achieving Success With Impossible Children, Winning the Battle of Wills.

If you have a challenging child in your home, you are not alone.  With the numbers of children in foster care, the increased number of domestic and foreign-born adopted children, and children in biological homes that have experienced divorce and other domestic problems, parents today are searching for answers to the increasing challenges presented by troubled children.  Some of these children can make parents crazy, because parenting approaches that work for other children don’t help at all; and even worse, what worked with the child yesterday, doesn’t work today.  Sound familiar?

I know what you are thinking, “another one of those articles about being a good parent-with an expert saying: be consistent, stay calm and make sure the child gets plenty of tender loving care.”  Not so fast, in some cases this advice is a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.  And if you haven’t already asked this, I will do it for you, “So what makes this guy an expert anyway?”  Good question.  There is only one thing that makes someone an expert in parenting difficult children and that is to have actually done it, and done it successfully.  Starting as a foster parent with one child at a time, my home has evolved into one of the top treatment centers in the United States. The type of children we go out of my way to help are those that refuse to ask for, or even accept, our attempts to help or to parent them.  Perhaps I have a screw loose, but I see these children as my best teachers.  So if your child is happy to see you when she comes home from school, if he volunteers to help out around the house for free and can be found on weekends cleaning his room while singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” then this article is not for you.  I hear stories about such children, but I have never parented one.  My foster home turned into a group home, and then into a treatment center over the years.  But my family is still here 23 years later getting children who are grumpy (and worse) off to school each morning, and seeing if we can introduce each of them to a world they don’t believe exists-one where they can come out a winner.  Do they eventually get it?  Yes, in nearly every case.  But before they learn to touch the stars, they have to learn to firmly plant their feet on the ground.  If you are with me so far, then let’s get to work on parenting difficult children.

What I have found that works with troubled and difficult children is a combination of staying focused on the goal for each child, and knowing what I need to be doing more of, and what I need to be doing less of.  My goal is a progression of having each child experience the following and to do so in the correct order-experience safety, security, acceptance, belonging, trust, relationship, self-understanding and personal worth.  These critical components of being a successful human being must come one at a time as in stair steps, and rely on the foundation of the step that came before.  Without safety you can’t have security, without acceptance you cannot feel like you belong, and without trust you cannot have a successful relationship.  I ask myself what step I am on with each child I am working with and keep focused on the goal to get to the next step-one child and one situation at a time.

What I need to be doing more of can be broken down to the following: 1. Translate the child’s behavior and energy to understand what is going on inside of him (don’t get sucked into his words, works are seldom helpful), 2.  Give attention to things I want to see more of (don’t spend your day giving most of your energy to misbehavior, because what you give attention to, you get more of), and 3. Lead with thinking and not with emotions (don’t let the child decide how you are going to act or feel, remember that feelings are easy targets for children who want to wound others).

So what about being consistent, staying calm and tender loving care?  I find consistency overrated.  This is not the case with responsive children, because they need your consistency.  With troubled, angry and/or manipulative children, they will use your consistency against you.  To disrupt a child who gets stuck in the same negative behavior habits, I suggest creative inconsistency.  What this means is you must first disrupt the cycle between you and the child.  He is used to doing his thing (misbehavior) and waiting for you to do your thing (correcting the behavior).  You don’t like this cycle, but your child does like it because he feels in control of you and the environment.  If you are tired of this dance, then change it.  First short circuit the behavior pattern, and then intervene more effectively.  For example, if your bundle of joy has a habit of not liking dinner each night and colorfully sharing her culinary review, then start the dinner by saying, “Jessica, you only get dessert tonight when you have found something wrong with every aspect of tonight’s dinner.”  After the child looks up at you wondering, “Has she finally lost it?” she then has a dilemma (that I love to put children in)–do I follow directions and criticize, or do I refuse to criticize and break my pattern.  You win either way.  We call this prescribing the symptom, and it can also be called putting the child into a therapeutic bind.  The goal is not to frustrate the child, but the goal is to frustrate the behavior.

Most parenting classes will tell you to stay calm.  That is fine most of the time.  However, when I get ignored by children (this is frequent in the early stages), or if the child wants me to repeat essentially everything I say, I might try yelling my thoughts and directions.  I don’t do this in an angry way, just a loud way.  Troubled children do not like yelling in the house if the yelling isn’t coming from them, so they always ask me, “Why are you yelling?”  I tell the child that I am saving us both the time of either repeating or having them miss what I have to say.  When they ask me to stop it, I offer them a deal that I don’t need to yell if they listen and don’t need things repeated.  Welcome to the world of reciprocity.

As for tender loving care, the quickest way for a child to put a parent in the funny farm is to reject every overture of caring and love.  Love may have been all the Beatles needed, but they were not raising troubled children.  Difficult children need love all right, but it needs to come in the form of teaching the child the lesson that life and relationships are two-way streets, what we put out to others has a lot to say about what we get back.  So save your tender loving care until the child has moved beyond manipulation, self-hate and perpetual rudeness (yes, with the right steps they can move beyond these).  In the meantime give them a different type of TLC-Translating what is going on with them, Learning from every situation to be a better parent to this child, and staying in Control of your behavior, your emotions and the energy in your household.

With those basics as a foundation, let’s look at a number of strategies for successful parenting:

  • Take care of yourself-if you don’t do it, who will?  We all have rechargeable batteries, but like a flashlight, if we don’t take the time to recharge, our light becomes dim in a hurry.
  • See below the surface of behavior-what you can see is only a small part of the problem.  Behaviors are the result of what a child thinks and how he or she feels.  We must go deeper than managing behavior.
  • Be firm in a loving way-if we are too firm the child links us with past abuse, if we are too loving they may not respect us.  Strike a firm and friendly balance.
  • Never stop working on yourself-we all make mistakes parenting?  I use my mistakes as a model for children.  I admit the mistake and take personal responsibility, and then I take the necessary steps to repair any damage done.  How can we ask a child to do this if adults have not taught the child how by example?
  • Make sure the child feels your support-don’t wait until things go badly before showing your support.  When things do go badly, with every correction give the child the message you believe that he or she can do better.  “We don’t grab things from others just because we want it in this house.  I want you to think about this and I know you can come up with a better way to handle it.  When you do, let me know and you can have your turn.”
  • Always give more praise than criticism-criticism fits the child’s negative self-image, praise does not.  If you want the child to be more positive, he must hear more positive messages from you.
  • Practice the “New Day”-just because the child has been doing poorly in the past, start over each day and give them a chance to improve.  If the child is ready to move beyond misbehavior, make sure you are ready to let them.  This is one reason why extended consequences, such as grounding the child until age 21, are not recommended.
  • Don’t let the child lower your expectations-you generally get somewhat less than you expect from a difficult child.  If you expect a lot or a little, you will get somewhat less.  High or low expectations, its your call (by the way, the child prefers lower expectations).
  • Practice “No-Lose Parenting”-do your home work, use your superior mental skills, do your best, don’t give up, don’t expect an immediate return on your investment in the child, and remember, your responsibility is what you have become more so than who the child chooses to become.  If you do all this, how can you lose?

OK, so I haven’t told you everything you need to know to be successful with your difficult child.  Fair enough, so the little challenge in your home is going to take some extra study and work?  That is why this parenting approach has two textbooks with very appropriate titles:  Raising Children Who Refuse To Be Raised and Achieving Success With Impossible Children.  The ideas in these books can change the whole game with your child.  Working with tantrums, sexual behavior, lying and stealing, and teaching responsibility, positive discipline, are all covered in the style of this article. Obviously I believe the ideas will help you.  I believe this because the ideas were all taught to me not in graduate school but by the children I have parented.  Did I forget to say, parenting a difficult child can even be fun?  You will have to read more to find out about that (I warned you about my loose screws).  Happy parenting!