During the past twenty years interest in international adoption has significantly increased, as Americans adopt approximately 20,000 children from countries such as Guatemala, China, and Russia, each year.[1] Yet many adoptive parents do not fully research or take into account the former experiences of the child they are adopting. Internationally adopted children, in addition to processing the culture shock of entering new families in new cultures with different languages, caregivers, and friends, also have to navigate the shift out of environments where they experienced limited supervision and care. And they become members of families who have different lifestyles and specific expectations from those the children previously experienced. Because of a strong affirmation of the redemptive power of the gospel, as well as the strong theological themes tied to the idea of adoption (Romans 8:15), Christians often have unrealistic expectations for themselves and for their new family life.

Christian adoptive parents can consistently experience a strong sense of self-condemnation when the child they have adopted does not form healthy bonds with them. Secure attachment develops in infants when they consistently experience their needs being met by their parents or caretakers. Inadequate care, including neglect and abuse, interferes with the development of secure attachment, causing attachment difficulties and disorders in children. Many of the children available for international adoption have experienced abuse in their families and/or environments, and/or lived in institutions, resulting in their having difficulty developing healthy attachments with their adoptive parents.

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Children who have not formed healthy attachments to a birth parent or caregiver in their infancy are likely to exhibit extreme behaviors related to their attachment disorder that the loving adoptive parent has no context to understand. For example, the child may develop mistrust and rage, and if the inner core of the self that normally develops early in life does not develop, a child can become “an empty shell in which there is no discrimination between right and wrong behavior. The child will not develop cause-and-effect thinking and can become a child without a conscience.”[2] Traumatized children may exhibit behaviors that leave adoptive parents feeling helpless and confused such as  “magical or omnipotent thinking, identification with the aggressor, high levels of aggressive themes in play, sexualized play and behavior, role reversal or parentification, and rage and hate towards attachment figures past, present, and imagined.”[3]

Parents reaching out to and helping their child can be extremely painful for both that child and the adoptive parents who are poorly equipped to understand, let alone address the traumas and disorders that have been hardwired by their child’s previous experiences. The message that adoptive parents repeatedly receive when their child fails to respond to their love by forming a healthy attachment with them is that they are failing as parents.

The beauty of Dr. Hickey’s research is that it establishes a clear pattern of attachment difficulty in international adoptions, because the children have experienced abuse and neglect, and have lived in institutions, not due to the inability or failure of the adoptive parent. Focusing specifically on the mothers in the adoption triad, Hickey interviewed eight Christian mothers in the U.S., each of whom adopted one to three children from nations other than the U.S. She demonstrates how nearly half of the fifteen children had an attachment style that was not secure six months after their adoption. Three of the children never became secure in their attachment style, while other internationally adopted children in the same household did develop a secure attachment to their adoptive mothers. Through her research Hickey offers hope that children who have not experienced healthy attachment in their infancy and early childhood can still bond with their adoptive mother. She also offers a realistic assessment of the actual power of the adoptive mother to facilitate attachment.

Understanding the reality of the attachment disorders that their children have developed before they reach their adoptive parents will allow adoptive parents to extend grace toward themselves in the real difficulties of parenting an adopted child. Hickey’s breakdown of the three established attachment disorders, (Avodiant/Detached Attachment, Ambivalent Attachment, and Disorganized Attachment) create the beautiful possibility of opening a new world of comprehension to current adoptive parents as well as counselors and pastors who work with adoptive parents and children. Additionally, parents who are considering international adoption—a trend in the Christian community—can be better equipped to meet the deep needs of any child they welcome into their family and [to] seek the most loving course of action for that child.


  1. Dr. Hickey’s Take-Aways


HickeyDr. Kaylyn Hickey currently serves children, parents, and teachers as a counselor at a public elementary school in Coppell, Texas. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor, and in addition to over twenty years of teaching and counseling experience in public schools, she has five years of experience counseling in a private practice.

Her passion for adopted children and their families stems from her ministry to orphans in Russia and her experiences encouraging people as they navigate the process of fostering and adopting children both domestically and internationally.

Kaylyn graduated from Baylor University with the Bachelor and Masters degrees in Education. In 2003 she graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with the Masters degree in Biblical Counseling, and in 2012 she completed the Doctorate of Ministry degree.


[1] Pat Wingert and Anna Nemtsova, “When Adoption Goes Wrong,” Newsweek 150, no. 25 (December 17, 2007): 58–60.
[2] Kandis Cooke Parker and Donald Forrest, “Attachment Disorder: An Emerging Concern for School Counselors,” Elementary School Guidance & Counseling 27, no. 3 (Feb. 1993): 209–15.
[3] Miriam Steele, Jill Hodges, Jeanne Kaniuk, and Howard Steele, “Mental Representation and Change: Developing Attachment Relationships in an Adoption Context,” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 30 (2010): 28.