Bonding And Attachment

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bonding and attachment

Refers to the mutual affectionate connection that is cemented between a child and a parent, whether the child is a biological child or an adopted child. The process of establishing this connection includes a growing feeling of ENTITLEMENT to family life, love, responsibility and a variety of other emotions normally experienced by a parent and child. "Bonding" is the process and "attachment" is the result.

Some people extend the "bonding and attachment" concept to apply to any two individuals who fit certain parameters. For example, psychologist Tiffany Field defines attachment as "a relationship between two beings which integrates their physiological and behavioral systems."

Some experts believe the terms "bonding" and "attachment" are far too loosely used. Said Jean Nelson-Erichsen, LSW, M.A., codirector of adoption at Los Ninos International Adoption Center in The Woodlands, Texas, in Is Adoption For You? The Information You Need to Make the Right Choice (John Wiley & Sons, 1998) "this overused word 'bonding' sometimes drives me wild. You don't usually just fall in love with people and become all warm and cuddly in days! And a lot of people whose babies are born to them don't immediately love their babies. The way you bond with children is to hold them and play with them and read to them. All the holding and caring things are important."

Most adoptive parents and adoption experts are concerned about the timing of bonding in relation to the age of the child who is adopted, whether the child is six months old or six years old.

Psychiatrist Michael Rutter provides some information on this point. Rutter found that the idea that there are "sensitive periods" when environmental factors are critical does have some validity although the upper age limits of the sensitive periods may be at an older age than originally postulated by scientists. His study showed that children who were adopted before the age of four bonded well with their parents while children who were over age four experienced many of the same problems as children who remained in an institution.

Yet Rutter also supported the idea that even children adopted after the age of four years could bond with adoptive parents. He concluded that the "sensitive period" was either wrong or the timing occurred at a later age than previously thought.

The First Meeting

The first meeting with the child is a very dramatic moment for most parents, be they biological parents or adoptive parents. If they are adopting an older child, the parents usually will have seen photographs or a VIDEOTAPE of the child and will also have received information about the child as well.

Many adoptive parents have reported that they bonded to the child based on his or her picture alone, especially in the case of an INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION, when the decision to adopt was based solely on the photo, a sketchy description or a videotape or Internet web site introduction. In fact, when such an adoption has fallen through for some reason, adoptive parents actually experience a grieving process, even though they have never met the child.

If the child is an infant, the adoptive parents will have virtually no idea what the child will look like until they first see her or him, although they will know his or her racial and ethnic background and have general information about the birthparents' appearance.

The time when they first view the baby or older child is very important and unforgettable to most adoptive parents, as if it were imprinted in their brains along with other important scenes of their lives. Both adopting parents should be present at the first meeting along with older children and, if possible, the rest of the family.

The Bonding Process

Part of bonding is physical touch, and because infants require much touching in the course of their care, most adoptive parents bond more rapidly to infants than to older children. Some research indicates that when parents are adopting siblings, they appear to bond more rapidly with the younger child, probably because of the greater amount of care needed by that child.

Parents bond to older children by teaching them how to cook, taking them shopping and performing other similar activities with them as a parent and a child.

Some older children do not respond to affection at first and, if they have been abused, may shrink from hugs and kisses. Adopting parents learn to "go slow" until the child is ready to accept love.

Studies indicate that parents seem to bond the most quickly and with the most lasting bond when they perceive the adopted child is similar to them in physical appearance, intelligence, temperament or some other aspect. As a result, adoptive parents will see "Uncle Bob's nose" and "Mom's smile" in an infant, even though they realize the child is genetically or even ethnically unrelated to them.

Strangers may point out apparent similarities, and the adoptive parent may respond with embarrassment, confusion, pride or a mix of all of these emotions.

Bonding is not always instantaneous, even when the child is a newborn baby (nor is bonding always instantaneous between a biological mother and her child) and rarely occurs immediately when a child is an older child.

Often the bonding process is a slow evolution of a myriad of tiny events in the course of days, weeks or months, for example, the older child's first visit, the time when he comes to stay, registering him for school, taking him to the doctor.

Many parents of older adopted children report the first time they really knew they were parents was when they felt someone had threatened their child by speaking harshly to him or pushing him. The rush of parental anger and protectiveness is a clearcut sign that this parent has bonded to this child.

The support of the extended family is very important to the bonding process and helps legitimize the feeling of closeness the adoptive parents are developing with their child.

Unfortunately, sometimes extended families are distant or negative about the adoption, which causes considerable anxiety and may affect the bonding process. Adoptive parent support group members can help such families with their need for a feeling of importance and belonging.

Negative societal attitudes about bonding can sometimes make adoptive parents feel inferior. Author Patricia Johnston writes, "A romantic mysticism has developed around the physical process of motherhood and the mother/child relationship that has confused and upset many people .?.?. [who] are allowed and encouraged to feel guilty, disappointed and painfully second rate."

Others agree that the inability to parent a child in the first days of infancy (because the child is in the hospital, a foster home or someplace other than where the adoptive parents are) should not make adoptive parents feel they are less valid parents. Certainly professionals hardly claim that early contact at birth is essential to attachment.

Author Ellen Galinksy points out, "The idea that early contact is important for bonding has been incorporated into the mainstream of images of parenthood. And those parents who have a less than ecstatic first meeting or who have to miss that early time with their child because of the circumstances of their birth usually feel as if they have failed, feel that they are already remiss in their relationship with the baby."

Galinsky further states that fears and concerns about bonding can contribute more to a problem with bonding than does the actual timing of the placement.

Johnston identifies certain "claiming" behaviors common to both biological and adoptive parents that lead to bonding with the child, such as stroking the body of the infant, kissing the child, counting toes and others.

In a study of infant bonding that compared adoptive mothers to nonadoptive mothers, researchers Leslie M. Singer, David M. Brodzinsky, Douglas Ramsay, Mary Steir and Everett Waters studied infants ages 13 to 18 months. Some of the parents had adopted children of another race.

According to the researchers, they found "no differences in mother-infant attachment between nonadopted and intraracial adopted subjects or between intraracial and interracial adopted subjects." They did, however, find a greater incidence of "insecure attachment" in the interracial mother-infant groups compared to the nonadoptive groups. In addition, they reported that mothers who had adopted transracially were less willing to allow other people to care for their children.

The researchers also said they found no relationship between "quality of mother-infant attachment and either perceived social support, infant development quotient, infant temperament, number of foster homes experienced by the infant, or infant's age at the time of placement."

Researchers Leon J. Yarrow and Robert P. Klein studied the effect of moving an infant from a foster home to an adoptive home. They reported that "change per se in the environment is less important than change associated with less adequate care. Infants who experience a marked deterioration in quality of the environment following adoptive placement show disturbances in adaptation, whereas infants who are moved to an environment where there is a significant improvement in maternal care are less likely to show significant disturbances following the move."

One aspect that can seriously impair the bonding process is if the adopted child is very different from the type of child the parent dreamed of, for example, if behavioral problems far exceed what the parent is ready to cope with or physical problems are more severe than what the parent said she or he could handle.

Consequently, it is very important for social workers to share as much nonidentifying information as possible about a child with prospective parents before a placement occurs.

Attachment Disorders

Some infants and older children have difficulty relating to or accepting a parental figure. This problem is more common in older children and in foster children who are adopted than in children who were adopted as infants.

Author and physician Vera Fahlberg says the most apparent trait of a child with an attachment disorder is the psychological and physical distancing from adults. In addition, the child may see himself or herself as an unworthy person. In most cases, the child is either overly dependent or greatly independent. Learning problems are common.

A related problem could be that instead of never having developed an attachment, the child may have suffered an "interrupted attachment" or experienced "unresolved separation issues."

A foster child with an attachment disorder may have been placed in many different homes or may not have received affection or love from any person at an early age. Severely neglected children are at the most risk for suffering an attachment disorder. Children who have been less severely neglected or emotionally or physically abused are more likely to have a damaged sense of attachment.

The "unattached" child could act out because of the lack of love and sociability in their own lives. They may appear manipulative, insincere and without a conscience. They may be distrustful and do their best to keep others at a distance, by either aggressive actions or withdrawal. The child may also be nondiscriminating in showing affection.

Indiscriminate affection probably deserves some explanation since it is not intuitively obvious why this could be a problem, especially in a young child. But when a child runs up to a total stranger and hugs him and says such things as "I love you," that is indiscriminate affection and may indicate an attachment problem, particularly if the child would normally be in the developmental stage where he or she would evince a fear of strangers. Although strangers may respond to such behavior in a very positive way and consider it charming, it is symptomatic of a problem.

Says Fahlberg, "It is difficult for foster or adoptive parents to feel close to a child who is acting close to everyone else. In addition, children who are willing to go with strangers pose real supervision problems for their parents."

Help for Attachment

Attachment can be encouraged, for example, a child's temper tantrums could be used to encourage attachment. After a tantrum, a child is usually exhausted, relaxes and is open to bonding with the parent.

Some positive interactions include such behaviors as telling the child "I love you," teaching the child a family sport such as skiing, reading to the child, or helping the child understand family jokes and other activities. Special trips or teaching the child skills such as cooking can create a favorable environment for creating an attachment between the parent and the child.

Initiating "claiming behaviors" is another technique. This encourages a child to claim a family as his own. For example, the family might send out adoption announcements, hold a religious or other ceremony that welcomes the child into the family, add a middle name of family significance or take the child to visit relatives. All such activities encourage a child to feel he belongs to the new family.


Christine Adamec, Is Adoption for You? The Information You Need to Make the Right Choice (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998).

Loren Coleman, Karen Tilbor, Helaine Hornby and Carol Boggis, ed., Working with Older Adoptees: A Sourcebook of Innovative Models (Portland, Me: University of Southern Maine, Human Services Development Institute, 1988).

Vera Fahlberg, M.D., Attachment and Separation: Putting the Pieces Together (Chelsea, Mich.: National Resource Center for Special Needs Adoption, 1979).

---, ed., Residential Treatment: A Tapestry of Many Therapies (Indianapolis: Perspectives Press, 1990).

Tiffany Field "Attachment and Separation in Young Children," Annual Review of Psychology 47 (1996): 541-561.

Ellen Galinsky, The Six Stages of Parenthood (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987).

Patricia Irwin Johnston, An Adoptor's Advocate (Indianapolis: Perspectives Press, 1984).

Michael Rutter, "Family and School Influences on Behavioural Development," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 26:3 (1985), 349-368.

Leslie M. Singer, David M. Brodzinsky, Douglas Ramsay, Mary Steir and Everett Waters, "Mother-Infant Attachment in Adoptive Families," Child Development, 56 (1985): 1543-1551.

Leon J. Yarrow and Robert P. Klein, "Environmental Discontinuity Associated with Transition from Foster to Adoptive Homes," International Journal of Behavioral Development 3 (1980): 311-322.

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