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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Tina Traster Teaches Us About the Need for Pre-Adoption Education

Tina Traster, the adoptive mother of a child from Russia, has commented a good deal on Russian adoption issues recently (e.g., She describes how difficult she found it to cope with her infant daughter, but assures us that everything finally turned out well. Interestingly, she states that 20 Russian adoptees have died “at the hands” of their   American parents, but that many more have died “at the hands” of Russian adoptive parents.  This is certainly a sensational way to state the problem, but in fact it’s probably much more accurate to avoid that “at the hands” metaphor, with its implications of strangulation and fisticuffs, and to say that these children have died while in the care of American or Russian adoptive families. Although it’s true that some of the deaths appear to have been caused directly by the adoptive parents, in most of the American cases it’s more likely that a combination of preventable factors eventually culminated in the children’s deaths…  however, I grant that Traster’s journalistic instincts are right in terms of the number of people who get excited by “at the hands” talk, whether it’s correct or not.

Traster’s comments have some real value for people trying to understand problems of adoption, because she lays out carefully a whole series of beliefs and interpretations that made it more difficult for her and others like her to develop good relationships with their adopted children. In doing this, she offers us insight into the kinds of pre-adoption education that could have made these families’ experiences less worrisome.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that if you just know the right tricks, the whole thing will be a breeze for everyone. The transition to parenthood is a rocky period of life for almost everyone, and young parents blame their distress on themselves, on the baby, on the in-laws, and on whatever other targets present themselves. Having a baby by birth or by adoption, and “falling in love” with that baby, are events that alter all social dynamics--  between adult child and parents, between husband and wife, between parents and childless friends. What’s more, all those dynamics continue to change as the infant develops rapidly through the first couple of years. There seems never to be time to take a breath and look around for a bit. And in addition, the intense emotion parents feel toward infants and toddlers is astonishing to many who have not experienced it before, especially because it can, and usually does,  include some powerful negative feelings as well as love.  

But let’s look at some of the things Tina Traster thought and is now telling other people they should think, and then let’s consider the realities of infant development.

Here’s what Traster says: “…most, like me and my husband, are caught off-guard when children won’t attach. This condition is called Reactive Attachment Disorder. It is caused by early separation from  a birth mother. Babies don’t get the nurture and love they deserve… They learn, subconsciously, it’s dangerous to attach.”
Looking at Traster’s other publications (e.g.,, we see that she seems to define “attaching” as being cuddly and accepting of an adoptive parent’s affectionate care. She says, for example, that “Nothing is more mind-boggling than trying to rock and cuddle an 8-month-old who pushes you away. I can tell you how hurtful it is when you’re trying to attach to a child who won’t let you.”

Traster, like so many others, seems completely confused about attachment. She thinks it’s only present if the child behaves in a particular way. She also thinks that her own attachment is something she can try to do, and that it is “mind-boggling” when her efforts don’t work in the way she expects them to. And the problem, she suggests, lies in the child, who “won’t let you” have the emotional experience you have envisioned.

 In addition, Traster thinks (and tells others) that the difficulties of creating an emotional relationship from scratch are equivalent to Reactive Attachment Disorder--  which, according to her, is caused by early separation from the birth mother. These claims are highly problematic, first of all because moving into new relationships is always difficult; when the birth parents care for their child, they have many months to work with the child before the child becomes capable of attachment, but adoptive parents may be jumping in feet first with an older infant. The awkwardnesses of the beginning of the relationship are very real, but they are not a matter of pathology. As to the separation from the birth mother, Traster seems to have forgotten that newly-adopted children have also been separated from familiar people, places, and routines, and must accustom themselves to and learn about a whole new world. If they were separated early from the birth mother and went to an institution or a foster family, there is no reason why they would ever have formed an attachment to the birth mother or suffered from the separation from her.    

I want to try to come to terms with a statement by Traster that does “boggle” my mind. This is the idea that infants learn “subconsciously, that it is dangerous to attach”. Traster attributes such an outcome to a lack of experience with being picked up and held, which she believes young babies yearn for. Let me try to parse these beliefs and compare them to more likely outcomes and explanations. First, of course it is true that infants who have had minimal social and physical interactions with adults in the early months are not likely to welcome such attentions with enthusiasm when someone tries to cuddle them or play with them. Babies have to learn how to enjoy being held and loved, and family-reared babies usually have many experiences in which adults “woo” and engage them in affectionate ways, and the baby learns to enjoy and respond to the adult’s advances. But it’s a big mistake to imagine that infants are born with the idea that they want to be picked up. When very young infants are uncomfortable, they communicate this, and a loving (or even liking) caregiver picks them up and goes through a repertoire of soothing actions, until either the baby settles down or the caregiver gives up. Over time, caregivers get very good at knowing what a particular baby likes or needs, and the baby comes to associate being picked up or even talked to by a familiar person with feeling better.  This doesn’t mean that the newborn is lying in the crib thinking  ”OMG, if only someone would pick me up and love me!” The tiny baby doesn’t know what love is, and has only vague ideas about “someone” and “pick up”.   Excellent development is associated with lots of attention from a small number of affectionate, engaged, engaging adults, and poor development with the absence of such attention, but that does not mean either that the baby is seeking “attachment” or that it comes to think “attachment” is dangerous. By presenting this idea, Traster is “adultomorphizing” the baby--  acting as if the baby’s thoughts are similar to an adult’s--  a popular approach, but not one that helps anyone  understand what happens in an adoptive family.

One more comment about Traster’s view of the Russian-adopted babies. She says that because they are “wired” a certain way (another problematic metaphor, in my opinion) they are potentially dangerous and can be “physically powerful”. Let me point out that older babies and toddlers are a lot stronger than we sometimes give them credit for, and all of them, adopted or not, can deliver a hearty blow to the nose or grab an earring and yank or fling their hard little heads back and smack you in the teeth. This not bad-seed-ishness, but a combination of impulsiveness and failure to understand other people’s feelings.

So, given what Traster appears to misunderstand about infants and children, what lessons could pre-adoptive education fruitfully provide? One is that attachment is not an all or nothing event, but a gradual change in a relationship. Another is that anger as well as love forms part of the intense relationship between parent and child. A third is that attachment behavior does not necessarily include cuddling and acceptance of adult affectionate gestures as desired or fantasized by the adult, but is shown by seeking to be close to the adult when frightened, sick, or distressed. A fourth, and an important one, is that an adopted child may not show the wish to be near a parent in the obvious ways the parent may expect, and the parent may have to learn to interpret subtle cues and respond to them--  and understand that when a parent cannot read the child’s cues, this does not mean that the child “won’t let them attach”.  

There has been important research on interventions that will help an adoptive relationship move forward, and Mary Dozier of the University of Delaware has developed a program that I would like to see included in all pre-adoption education. You can read about this at, and see a lecture on it at



  1. Absolutely crucial piece of information that should be relayed to all foster/adoptive parents: "The awkwardnesses of the beginning of the relationship are very real, but they are not a matter of pathology." Thank you! Some good research into how long it takes for (older) children to be integrated into a new family would certainly be helpful---and might prevent disruptions and/or quack treatments in the early life of a placement. If prospective parents knew that it might take 1-2 *YEARS* for that awkwardness to abate (or however long the research shows), they might not be so apt to rush around looking to every Tom, Dick, and Harry for a fix. Sigh ...

    1. Yes, some good research on that is sorely needed, and it may exist, but I don't know of it. I suppose part of the problem would be just to figure out what a given family thought meant integration. I'm just thinking about a conversation between father and teenage son I cam across recently:

      Father: You have to wear socks to church.

      Son: But it looks dorky.

      Father: Don't argue with me.

      Son: But Dad, it's just socks!

      Father: No, it's not just socks. It's rebellion.

      If one's idea of integration into the family is unquestioning obedience-- it might take a long long long time--

  2. Ha! Unquestioning obedience. Wasn't there a movie about that some decades ago---The Stepford Wives?

    I guess the first research issue would be defining and identifying well-integrated, functional, adoptive families as a control group.

    Personally, I don't see obedience being one of the markers. Compassion might be. Tolerance for difference certainly might be. Valuing relationship over appearance might be.

    Just some thoughts ...

  3. P.S. You might like to attend the Rudd Adoption Conference, held each year, at UMass-Amherst. I've gone for the past two years and enjoyed many of the speakers, including Mary Dozier. The conference is somewhat weighted towards international infant adoptions, but there are always folks talking about domestic infant adoptions as well as foster adoptions.

  4. I just came across the existence of that conference recently. I must look into when it happens.