Eye Contact and Adoption
Kelly's daughter's early dimples
Bonding with adopted children can present parents with a challenge. MomSpeaker Kelly Raudenbush knows this firsthand, and here she shares practical tips to make the process easier by encouraging the most basic of human interactions — eye contact.
We received a surprise gift the day we received our daughter 4 years ago.
Not just any dimples, the most adorable little dimples. The kind that show up even before the smile breaks, giving away that she’s about to lose the staring contest. I love them.
While we got to see them that first day and most every day since, we didn’t always get to see them for more than a quick glimpse. The hundreds of pictures I took of her in our first months home are a bit deceiving. They capture one split second of a moment; they do not reveal how her gaze directly at me may have only lasted for that split second of a moment. I longed for that closeness of gazing into each other’s eyes as I did while I nursed our other three. But, her loss of that closeness for the first year of her life made her fight it with me. She fought the closeness by looking away a second into the gaze and physically turning her head or whole body away. Her seeming rejection — through eye contact and in other ways — made my attachment process harder, which made her attachment process harder, which made my attachment process harder and on and on . . . you get the idea.
Four years into this adoptive parenting thing and a few years into connecting well, I now know things I wish I had known in those first days to encourage eye contact and move us both towards a better connection. Here are a few…
- Make it easier. It is a whole lot easier for a little person to look at a big person if the big person isn’t so big. I realize that to get better eye contact, I need to come to her, lower myself to her height while not making her feel like I’m all up in her grill.
- Simply touch my nose. The simple movement of me moving my hand toward my face drew her attention and made her look in the right direction without the intimidation of looking up into my eyes on her own. As she looked away while we were interacting, repeating it again brought her back to my face again.
- Use verbal cues. I’m a fan of simple scripts. Saying something every time I need to like, “Lemme see those brown eyes” served as a verbal cue for her that she could expect and depend on and kept me on track when I could have felt more frustrated and spiraled elsewhere.
- Ask a seemingly silly question. I confess that the suggestion of spontaneously asking “What color are your eyes?” seemed odd to me when I first learned about that tool. But, you know what? It totally works. She looks at me; I admire her eyes for a few seconds and then continue speaking while I’ve got her right there with me.
- Guide the glance. Without touching her face but using the same motion as if I were, I can direct my daughter gently into eye contact by cupping my hand near her cheek a couple inches from her face. The gentleness of this tool helps us both.
- Be a cheerleader. Positive reinforcement goes a long way. When she would look right at me and we’d lock eyes for longer than was natural for her, my job was to notice those moments and cheer her on: “Oh, I like that! Good job looking right into my eyes!”
They’re tools for the toolbox, tools that were my go-tos in some seasons in particular over the last four years. But there’s nothing magical about them; they don’t “fix things” on their own; there’s no if-then guarantee about them–and I so want if-then guarantees. But, there was something to the intentionality of using them, the pursuit itself of tools to use and then celebrating little successes that moved us forward. And the hope and joy in that forward momentum has been nothing short of life-changing for all of us.
Kelly Raudenbush is a mother to four children and cofounder of The Sparrow Fund, a nonprofit committed to encouraging and equipping adoptive families. Learn more about her family's adoption story, how she's been changed by it and what life for as a parent to four children with all sorts of unique needs and gifts at My Overthinking.