This post is long over-due. I intended to share this information with everyone before Theo came home but with two weeks in Ethiopia, then barely two weeks home before Theo arrived, time slipped away from me. The dynamics of cocooning and attachment are incredibly important in adoption so I’d like to take some time to explain how this pertains to our family and what things will look like for us in the coming weeks, months and even years.
After over 4 1/2 years in the adoption process, and a year of knowing his name and face — Theodore Samuel Roba is finally HOME. If you are reading this letter you have, in some way, supported, loved and prayed for us. You are our village and we are so grateful to you! Because we know your care for Theo and our family, we want to be honest and open about what our life looks like right now and some boundaries we need to set up to help Theo cultivate a strong, healthy and lasting attachment to us.
Cocooning is an adoption term that refers to the period of time after a child comes home that the family hunkers down and focuses on intense bonding and attachment. It is quite intense at first as we attempt to make Theo’s world very “small” by not leaving our home (except for his doctors appointments) and not allowing people to come over and meet him, even close family members. Be doing this we can create a predictable, stable environment where Theo can learn who his family is, what parents are, learn to trust us and begin to attach.
Adoption is a beautiful, miraculous thing. But before this beautiful thing can happen to a child and family, extreme loss is experienced by the child. Theo has already experienced more loss and trauma than every member of our family combined. For nearly 5 years we have researched bonding and attachment in adopted children, especially those coming from a traumatic background including living in an institutional orphanage setting, exposure to malnourishment, starvation and neglect, loss of biological family, and much more.
Although we know Theo has been raised in less than ideal circumstances, to him the orphanage in Ethiopia was home. The children and nannies were his family and all that he has ever known. Coming home to us meant leaving everything that was familiar to him:
~ familiar faces (and skin color)
~ routine (even if it’s a lack of one)
~ environment (his room, his friends, his bed, his clothes)
~smells and sights
Everything around him is new and he has learn not just about his new environment, but also about love and family. Culture shock is real, and it deeply affects internationally adopted children of ALL ages! Theo has not experienced God’s design for a family in an orphanage setting. It is all quite overwhelming for anyone to take in, especially a little guy!
Attachment is a critical concept in parenting any child successfully. But attachment is THE critical concept in successfully parenting an adopted child. Attachment is TRUST building. In a healthy biological family, secure attachment and trust forms when parents consistently meet the child’s physical, mental, emotional and social needs. Baby cries, his needs are met and he learns trust through this cycle. Over time as this expression of need by the child and nurturing response from the parent are repeated, attachment and trust are formed. Children who come home through adoption have experienced interruptions in this typical attachment process as well as other traumas. The loss of a biological mother at an early age can be a major trauma on their little hearts. In response to these traumas/neglect/abandonment/hunger/etc, their brain has developed in a way that causes them to see the world around them as a dangerous place. They have actually been “wired” to operate their daily life in the brain stem, or “fight or flight” mode. The science behind it is very fascinating, albeit devastating to read about. The best way for us to form a parent/child bond is to be the ones to hold, snuggle, instruct, soothe and feed Theo-basically to meet all his needs. As this repeats between us, he will eventually be able to accept our love and return it, and learn that parents are to trust. We are, essentially, recreating the newborn/parent connection. Once Theo starts to establish this important bond with us, he will then be able to branch out to other healthy relationships.
Theo is coming to us after two years of life experience and multiple losses. This is a pattern that he will likely expect to repeat itself. Building attachment with an adopted child is slow, hard work. It takes years but we are confident that God’s Spirit will be working in and through us to bring healing to Theo and knit our hearts with his.
Children who have lost or never experienced the love of a parent can often have difficulty trusting that their needs will be met. The part of the brain that is attacked by early childhood trauma is the same area of the brain that is responsible for attachment in human relationships. That means we literally need to retrain Theo’s brain toward healthy attachment. We’ll need to help him relearn the real role of a mom and a dad. Parents provide food and shelter. Parents provide comfort and security. Parents don’t leave you (and if they do leave for a short time, they will always come back). He needs to learn that Josh and I are the ONLY ones who will meet his needs, and that he doesn’t need to look to other strangers or even other family members because we will never leave him or let him down in that area. We get it, but for a former orphan, the concept is hard to fathom. Even if he was old enough to have a decent conversation with, these are not things you can simply explain to a former orphan or traumatized child. The brain literally has to be rewired through the hard, monotonous and faithful work of connected attachment parenting.
He’ll need time to develop a connection to our family and to trust that we are safe. He’ll need extra patience and love as the Lord heals the wounds of his past.
So what does cocooning look like for the Timmer family?
In these first weeks home, we’ll stay home with Theo as much as possible, attempting to create an environment that is calm, predictable, and comforting. I do not know exactly how long this will last. Adoption experts suggest one month of cocooning for every year the child spends in an orphanage. So that would be 2 months in our situation. We plan to be pretty strict in our cocooning practices for the first 2-3 weeks, then to slowly widen Theo’s world by introducing close family and friends in small groups at a time and venturing out of the house for errands, shopping, church, etc.
Cocooning looks like this…
- We’ll avoid parties and large gatherings.
- When we do return to church, we won’t put Theo in the nursery for quite some time.
- We’ll introduce new people in moderation and only when he is comfortable with us. When we introduce new people, we’ll do so in small groups of one or two.
- Only Josh and I will pick up, hold, hug, or kiss Theo. In the beginning, these displays of affection are reserved for Josh and I. This will last for much longer than 2 months. Possibly the first year? I plan to re-evaluate every few months.
- Only Josh or I should give things to Theo, ESPECIALLY FOOD. This will also last for MONTHS.
- Only Josh or I should meet Theo’s needs (baths, putting him to bed, change diapers, etc). And again, this will continue long after we return to “life as normal”.
This all might sound over-protective or paranoid, but please understand that we’re following the advice of adoption professionals, experts and medical doctors. We want nothing more than for you to be able to hug and love on Theo the way we have your own kids, and the way you love on Giselle. We just need to give time for this most important relationship – the one he has with Josh and I – to form a solid foundation.
We are incredibly blessed to have such a supportive and loving family and community around us. If you have any questions about the attachment process or this season of cocooning, please don’t hesitate to ask! And continue to lift us all up in your prayers. We love you all so much!