The Importance of Bonding & Attachment

Bonding and attachment are terms that are often used interchangeably. Bonding is the basic link of trust and heart between infant and parents, usually with the mother first. Bonding and attachment are cornerstones of human development and essential to a child’s growth and functioning. At conception, fetuses inherit and absorb both the mother’s and father’s emotional, physical and energetic DNA. They are like little sponges, absorbing positive and negative energies equally. They internalize whatever energies/feelings the parents are experiencing.

For example: If one or both parents lived during the Depression Era, the fetus would carry the energetic feelings and beliefs of deprivation and fear of poverty in their bodies. Later, the child is then predisposed to this same energy of deprivation and will likely project the parents’ beliefs onto the world. The task of every child (starting at conception) is to bond. Babies bond by absorbing the energy of the world and everyone around them, especially of their mothers and fathers.

Recent studies done at the University of Minnesota, by Megan Gunner (Child Development, 75, 497-504, 2004) show that under stress, high levels of a the hormone cortisol are produced. This increases heart rate, causes digestive problems, and decreases the ability to think. However, the study also showed that the presence of a loving caregiver during the time of stress reduced the level of cortisol. Although the child still experienced upset, there was a reduction in the levels of cortisol in the body. This shows that a loving, consistent relationship can offset even the most stressful situation. Without that kind of relationship, growth is stunted — mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Children need good bonding in order to move through the world and accomplish developmental tasks such as walking, climbing, age-appropriate separation, using the toilet, and reaching for their needs in the world. Children who have had good bonding are able to handle the successes and failures of these various tasks. They have the spirit to get up after falling down or failing and trying again. They develop positive core beliefs about their worth. They believe they are strong, competent, secure and safe.

The kind of bonding we receive determines how we perceive the world, ourselves, and how we interact with others. The quality of bonding is extremely important in many different ways, such as: building and maintaining trust, developing relationships with others, intellectual achievement, brain language development, development of the nervous system, regulating feeling, identity and self-esteem. Good bonding results in feeling strong connection to self, body, spirit, safety, and a right to live and take risks. However, if an infant doesn’t receive good bonding and his/her arrival encounters anger, disappointment, chaos, abandonment or other forms of rejection, h/she will not feel secure about him/herself and his/her existence.

Lack of good bonding and trauma during childhood can create various psychological reactions. Not only during childhood but also throughout life. The child may begin to exhibit signs of distress and agitation or the child could appear depressed. There can be a reduced feeling of the right to exist when this occurs. As an adult, we might compensate for feelings of low self-esteem (given that we never received the positive bonding and attention we needed, or that we received negativity) we will potentially become narcissistic (the focus has to be on us) and develop feelings of endless anger and a lack of compassion for others. These traits impact relationships and create intimacy issues.

If the parent meets the child with violence, rejection, abandonment, or doesn’t respond to the child’s needs, the ability to trust the relationship will be damaged. This is a form of trauma, and is experienced as such. If the child reaches out and no one consistently responds to the reaching, a feeling of hopelessness will take over. This can result in collapse, depression and despair. The child may compensate for not having his/her needs met by pretending to be excessively independent. Later, as an adult, this individual projects, and lives, the feeling of “no one cares” as if it were true of everyone. Again, this projection has an impact on all relationships.

Stranger anxiety is a natural stage of development in children. The good bonding from a parent at this stage offers gentle encouragement and reassurance that it’s okay to trust others. This encouragement needs to be balanced with an understanding that the child’s need to feel safe is of utmost importance. If a child feels that his/her pace to test out the world is being honored, the child will feel safer in the world. On the other hand, if a parent feels frustrated or rejecting the child will have a difficult time feeling safe enough to be separate and safe in the world. This might lead in adulthood to the person’s being frightened of crowds, parties, social situations, and in extreme cases, to agoraphobia.

As adults, these individuals will likely be more stuck in life and have a hard time moving forward because they didn’t get the bonding, support and encouragement to feel safe and explore life. They are unable to reach directly from their needs and express needs through whining and complaining thus developing a victim mentality.

A child that is mocked, inflicted with guilt or whose boundaries are not respected will feel unsafe to explore the world. The child senses that he/she can’t rely on his/her parents to be available and spite develops and an endless underground “no” forms. This creates a self-defeating pattern in adulthood due to the inability to say yes to life. Saying no is their only form of power.

Based on the kind of bonding we received as children, we all have varying degrees of healthy attachment. Therefore we all fall somewhere on the continuum that runs from “well attached” to “poorly attached.” Below are some of the signs that indicate whether or not a child has successfully bonded and attached:

A well-attached child generally:
-Is affectionate
-Is caring
-Is helpful
-Feels bad after doing something wrong
-Has positive interactions
-is willing to exert effort to accomplish things
-Takes responsibility
-Is developmentally on target in its emotional life

Some symptoms of poor attachment that you may see in children:
-Manipulative behavior
-Controlling behavior
-Defiant behavior
-Poor eye contact
-Rage filled behavior
-Is not affectionate
Asks incessant questions
-Acts incapable
-Lies and/or steals
-Is mean to animals
-Has interested in blood and gore

Children who have been traumatized develop behaviors signifying that they feel unsafe, unworthy or unlovable. They have difficulty with developmental tasks; they become over- stimulated, and have difficulty soothing themselves. Because children have little control over their environment, they have difficulty handling stress, and their struggle is usually communicated through symptoms.

It would be wonderful if we received all the positive bonding we needed. The truth is that as infants we absorbed the totality of our parent’s emotions and energies. Given that our parents were simply human, we carry a certain amount of trauma that has created some level of attachment difficulties that we need to heal. As parents we carry the negative impact of the environmental trauma and our own childhood trauma. As parents we need not be perfect. Our love is expressed every time we take responsibility for our own negativity. Given that all parents were children, we are providing examples of both adult and childhood injury. For those of you who are parents we invite you to begin your own process of awareness around your origins of bonding and attachment.

Overly intense reactions toward your children, or any person, hold clues to your own development of bonding and attachment in your childhood. We simply cannot give what we didn’t get. Your unavailability to your children’s feelings and reactions is an indicator of your own history as a child of not having a parent available for your own feelings and reactions. Once aware of this you can begin to have more compassion and understanding for your own process of reactions and emotions. This will allow a greater level of compassion and understanding for your children’s daily process and the process of the people in the world.

The great thing about bonding and attachment is that you get a million chances a day to meet the needs of your child, yourself and those around. You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to do it every time, just more often than not!

Fostering And Attachment Disorders – Problems and Challenges Carers May Face

An attachment disorder is a diagnosed condition where children and young people have difficulty forming loving, lasting emotionally intimate and meaningful relationships.
Attachment disorders vary in severity, but the term usually is reserved for disorders in children and young people who show a nearly complete lack of ability to be genuinely affectionate with others. They typically fail to develop a conscience and do not learn to trust.

Children with healthy attachments to a loving caregiver

  • Feel secure and loved
  • Can attain their potential
  • Can develop reciprocal relationships
  • Develop a conscience
  • Cope with stress and anxiety
  • Become self-reliant

Children who do not have healthy attachments with a loving caregiver

  • Do not trust caregivers or adults in authority.
  • Have extreme control problems, manifested in covertly manipulative or overtly hostile ways.
  • Do not develop a moral foundation: no empathy, no remorse, no conscience, and/or no compassion for others.
  • Lack the ability to give and receive genuine affection or love.
  • Resist all efforts to nurture or guide them.
  • Lack cause and effect thinking.
  • Act out negatively, provoking anger in others.
  • Lie, steal, cheat, and/or manipulate.
  • Are destructive, cruel, argumentative and/or hostile.
  • Lack self-control – are impulsive.
  • Are superficially charming and engaging.

The process of developing healthy attachments can be disrupted by abuse, neglect, abandonment, multiple changes in primary and main carers, painful illness, parental rejection, exposure to alcohol/drugs in the womb, maternal depression, and/or inconsistent day care.

The core marker of attachment disorder is a significantly disturbed and in child development terms inappropriate social connection with other children, young people and adults in every environment and context, with few exceptions. Attachment Disorder manifests before the age of 5 and is associated with an incompetent or ineffective standard or pathological parenting that disregards the child’s basic emotional and physical needs. In many cases, it is associated inappropriate, violent or ever changing care givers.

The word ‘attachment’ is used to describe the process of bonding that occurs between infants and carers in the first 3 years of life, and most importantly, between 7 – 9 months of the baby’s vulnerable stage, when a vast amount of brain development is occurring. When a carer does not respond to a baby’s emotional and physical needs, or does not respond consistently, or is abusive, the child starts to lose the capacity to form meaningful trusting relationships and a feeling of anxiety starts to grow.

Children with Attachment Disorders will present wide ranging emotional problems such as depression and anxiety symptoms or anxiety/ risk-taking behaviours. To feel safe, children may seek any person to attach to – they may cuddle strangers, and tell anyone ‘I love you.’ At the same time, they have reduced capacity to show authentic affection to others or develop meaningful emotional bonds. Children may show ‘soothing behaviours’ such as rocking and head banging, or biting, or self-harm. These behaviours will increase at times of stress or threat.

Child Example Of Attachment Disorder

At 7 years of age, John was referred for a psychiatric assessment by his specialist mental health worker of the last year. Jim had lived with his adopters for 3 years; before that he had been with those different carers in a foster placement for 1 years. He had been removed from his birth mother at 2 years of age because of chronic neglect and virtually abandoned by her.

John’s symptoms began before he was 2 years old and included acting out; he was easily agitated, disruptive, and intrusive. He was verbally and physically aggressive, exhibited temper outbursts and rage reactions, and was violent toward his friends and mother. His adopters described him as having up-and-down cycles: when up, John was easy to please and wanted to please others; when down, he was disruptive and intrusive. Regardless of the up-down nature, he had consistent difficulty in falling asleep.

John’s birth mother had a personal history of physical and sexual abuse. His father had a history of juvenile crime and his family history included substance misuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.

John came across as as a thin, fidgety, hyperactive boy who had trouble staying in his seat. He appeared immature, anxious, and had a difficult time understanding the reasons his adoptive parents had brought him for help. He was easily distracted and evidenced some mood swings and agitation. His mood often swung from anxious to agitated to giggly to irritated to being distant to calm.

There was no evidence of delusions, hallucinations, or violent intent to self-harm.. He was orientated to person, place, time, and situation. His intelligence appeared to be within a low average range. His short- and long-term memory was intact. His judgment and insight were fair to poor.

John’s history, symptoms, and emotional presentation were indicative of disorder, most likely being attachment disorder. While some of his behaviours improved because his adopters learned different ways of responding to him, John still had significant difficulties with motivation, attention, and task completion.

It was decided to work more closely with school, and involve them directly in the sessions that the carers were having. This had tremendous effects, as school were a lot more confident in responding to John’s behavioural needs and challenges.

John has been more settled from age 8 to his current age of 12 years. He has had no temper outbursts or oppositional tendencies and is dealing with his issues in a verbally appropriate manner.

This case study demonstrates how an accurate diagnosis of childhood disorders can provide the information needed for effective interventions for children with attachment disorders with histories of significant abuse, neglect, or maltreatment. Diagnosing the correct disorder is incredibly important, and attachment disorder is often mis-diagnosed, or labelled as ADHD, etc. It is incredibly important that the diagnostic process is comprehensive and at the right pace.

Ideas To Improve The Way Adopters Look After Children With Attachment Disorder

  • Work closely with specialists – no child’s Attachment Disorder could have been diagnosed without specialist intervention in the first place. Understanding the purpose or functionality of the child’s disordered behaviours will help you respond more effectively. For example, a punishment approach or sanctioning may increase the child’s feelings of insecurity and distress and subsequently increase the problematic behaviour.
  • Be predictable, consistent, and repetitive. Children with attachment disorders are very sensitive to changes in routines, transitions, unpredictable changes, and loud/ noisy social situations. Being predictable and consistent (in as much as you can be as a foster carer) will enable the child to feel safe and secure, and that can reduce the child’s anxiety and fear.
  • Model and educate the child in appropriate behaviors for specific social settings or contexts. One of the best ways to teach children these skills is to demonstrate the behavior and then tell through narration the child what you are doing and why you are doing it. For this to work it needs to be on a committed and grand scale – and culturally in the UK we are not used to overly demonstrating such behaviour strategies.
  • Avoid power battles. When intervening, approach the situation in a light-hearted, stress-free and matter of fact manner.
  • Make sure the situation is not about a child’s basic inability to understand (Attachment Disorder can mask a child’s true social functioning ability by enabling a child to apparently show a high ability to function in sophisticated situations) by breaking situations down into manageable chunks.
  • As you would with a child with autism or ADHD, break down social situations and their meanings into manageable steps/ chunks to help simplify and make understandable complex social functions.
  • Identify a place for the child or young person to go to take time out to at times of stress and anxiety.

Children with attachment disorder need clear structure more than the average child if they are to develop any trust in the adult professionals. Multiple warnings, negotiated bargains, or motivational pep talks all tend to undermine the development of trust. However, children with AD are also prone to perceiving discipline and authority as intentional humiliation by the adults, particularly given institutional contexts, and the context of looked-after children’s lives. This can generate shame and anger which may sabotage performance and compliance.

After an young person with attachment disorder makes a choice to co-operate, appreciation is often a better response than praise. Praise is a hierarchical interaction, with the more powerful one (adult) able to pass judgement (albeit positive) on the less powerful one child). Praise runs the risk of triggering payback behaviour as a result of the AD young person perceiving that the carer is rubbing his face in “having won”. Appreciation is an non-hierarchical reaction that avoids triggering oppositional behaviour and can strengthen the carer-child relationship. Linking the appreciation to the specific behavior that is its focus is preferable to a bland expression of appreciation. The positive attention should also be delivered in an attention-focussed fashion, as positive attention can trigger internalized shame. This is painful and a carer/ professional offering positive attention that triggers shame – and shows how complex attachment disorders are.

Attachment disordered young people often have little real sense of personal responsibility or choice. Instead, a sense of victimisation often dominates young people. However, even “victims” still make choices. Personal responsibility and choice are literal central lessons that children need to learn. Most basically, children should be held accountable for their choices and the behaviors that then flow from them. Thus learning needs to be experiential, and not simply verbal. This experiential learning requires establishing specifically, what the child did.

Once this has been done, whatever the behaviour was, it is simply defined as a “choice” that the young person made. The next step is to make a best effort to establish the reason for making the choice (this is taking responsibility for motivation). If the choice was a positive one (adult view) this should be acknowledged. If the choice was a negative one (adult view), carers should avoid the temptation to encourage better choices in the future. This is sinking mud for the carer, as the carer cannot extract improved choices the child does not wish to make, and children are acutely aware of this. Simply hold the young person accountable for the choice and determine whether to impose a consequence of some form. In general, a consequence should be imposed no later than the second time a behaviour appears. The first appearance can be used to identify the behaviour as problematic and establish the expectation that the child should replace the behaviour with a more constructive alternative in the future. Though children will likely test this, it is still a process worth doing for it lays the groundwork for the carer to clearly establish the child’s responsibility, experientially, should s/he choose the same behaviour a second time.

One Of The Traps To Be Aware Of:

Holding young people accountable for themselves will be met with blaming the adult in some fashion. The last thing for carers to do here is to defend themselves. A defense will be seen by children as proof the child is right in his blaming and the carer is trying to “get away with something”. Instead, give the child the freedom to view the adult/ carer/ professional however they wishes and go right back to the accountability topic.

Caring for children with attachment disorders is a huge challenge, but also will bring huge rewards. Outlined above are some of the key challenges that foster carers and adopters will face. Being the adult carer or adopters of a child with attachment problems is challenging enough, but when a diagnosis of disorder is involved the challenges are immense. That is where support, networking and resourcefullness come in, and adopters are champions at networking and being resourceful.

Overall the rewards far outweigh the challenges in looking after a child. One only needs to ehar from carers and children who have been through this difficult and emotional process to see that.