Tips for Encouraging Attachment & Bonding in the Foster Care Setting

For most foster care children attaching and bonding can be difficult especially if they have been from one foster care program to another. However as adults / foster parents there are things we can do to help a foster child develop attachments. To help understand what are some reasons that attachment and bonding in a foster care setting is often difficult to form and for tips on encouraging attachment and bonding, I have interviewed therapist Jon Steimel LMSW, LMFT.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a licensed social worker and licensed marriage and family therapist. For numerous summers, I have lived and trained in the Republic of Estonia. I helped their country develop their foster care and adoption system. Lived in orphanages and gave in-service training to the direct care and administrative staff. I was invited to Estonia one year after their freedom from Soviet occupation. I currently work in schools as a school social worker and have my own small private practice.”

What are some reasons that attachment and bonding in a foster care setting is often difficult to form?
“Attachment and Bonding are indeed hard to form in the foster care setting. There are numerous factors that attachment and bonding in a foster care setting is often difficult to form:

Foster children have often been through multiple transitions and losses (physically or emotionally). The more losses the child has experienced the more difficult it is to trust the foster care family. Many children in foster care suffer from some form of attachment disorder.

Children with attachment disorder often do not easily trust and typically have an internal working model, which may include: A deep-seated feeling/belief that they are bad (the difference between guilt and toxic shame). In guilt one feels bad because he has done something wrong; toxic shame is the feeling that ‘I am wrong’. That adults and caregivers are not responsive and not trust-worthy. Because of lack of trust they typically believe that his/her life is unsafe.

Until the child has permanency, it is very hard to work on the above issues; which would include: Helping the child to feel worthwhile and safe. Feel and believe that adults/caregivers can be trust-worthy and responsive. The treatment process is typically very slow and it involves much work at home.

Children with reactive disorder can be very difficult to parent. Typical discipline techniques often do not work. They have a strong unconscious need to repeat his/her past in the present home setting. The current foster parents may begin to feel that their marriage is not the same as it was prior to this placement. The goal of treatment includes helping the child learn and practice ways to become; respectful, responsible and fun-to-be-around. The goals of chores/work/school work are for the child to do his work; fast, snappy, and done correctly the first time.

Given the constraints of foster care policy, it is difficult to implement the reactive attachment disorder program in the foster care setting. It is my understanding the foster care system allow a child to do 10 minutes of chores/work at a time. In attachment work a child can benefit from more work time. After a foster family has had a foster child for a while, they will get a sense of what the child ‘can do’ versus what they refuse to do (this is often a power struggle with the child trying to maintain control.).

Having the foster care worker come once a month can be very traumatizing for the child. Their fear is that this worker might move him/her yet again. Yet again reminding him of his lack of permanency.”

What are some tips for encouraging attachment and bonding in the foster care setting?
“Get the child to have some eye contact every day. The eye contact needs to be practiced often and not when the child is being disciplined.

For a younger child; get a few balls of cotton, a drinking straw and play a game. The child is on one-side of the table and the parent is on the other. Each of the players is trying to get the ball of cotton over to the other side of the table. In craft stores it is easy to find multi-colored cotton balls. This game typically does not go on very long because one get can winded. Sometimes even older kids like to play this game. This is one way to have fun getting eye contact and for the parents to have a fun time with their child.

Read to the child everyday. While reading with him, allow him/her to eat a few caramels. The sweets and the chewing increases endorphins and may be as soothing as a mother’s milk.

The child really needs to have time with Mom or Dad on a regular predictable schedule. Remember the child often believes that adults are not responsive. This time cannot be used to talk about behavior or issues this time is set aside because the child needs this predictability.

Rock the child everyday. For older kids continue to find ways to have safe physical contact; play ‘thumb war’, ‘pat on the shoulder’, etc.

I would encourage parents to read “Love and Logic”. I would also recommend that all foster and adoptive parents see “Multiple Transitions” by Michael Trout.

Foster and adoptive kids tend to be experts at ‘pushing the adult’s buttons’. Make sure you are well aware of your ‘buttons. In her book ‘When Love Is Not Enough’ Nancy Thomas talks about ways to handle situations where a child ‘pushes your buttons’. This book is an excellent resource for families who have RAD kids.”

What type of professional help is available for someone that wants to improve the attachment and bonding in the foster care setting?
“Of course one of the best ways to find a therapist is word of mouth. See if you have friends or family who might be familiar with therapists who are familiar with RAD.
Another resource is: .”

Thank you Jon for doing the interview on tips for encouraging attachment and bonding in the foster care setting. For more information on Jon Steimel or his work you can check out his website on or HelpPro, or the Psychology Today “Find A Therapist Website”.

Recommended Readings:
Successfully Communicating with Your Adopted Teen
How to Defuse an Argument with Your Teen
How to Handle Your Teens Moody Behavior