Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children
 
Lesson 2: Frequently Asked Questions about Bonding and Attachment
   
 
     

In this lesson, learn more about:

  • How attachment and bonding can be defined

  • Some of the physiological processes at work during attachment and bonding experiences

  • Experiences that facilitate bonding

  • The role of attunement in bonding and attachment.

What is attachment?

Well, it depends.  The word attachment is used frequently by mental health, child development and child protection workers but it has slightly different meanings in these different contexts.  The first thing to know is that we humans create many kinds of bonds.  A bond is a connection between one person and another.  In the field of infant development, “attachment” refers to a special bond characterized by unique qualities that forms in maternal-infant or primary caregiver-infant relationships. The attachment bond has several key elements: (1) it is an enduring emotional relationship with a specific person; (2) the relationship brings safety, comfort, soothing and pleasure; (3) loss or threat of loss of the person evokes intense distress.  This special form of relationship is often best characterized by the maternal-child relationship. 


In the mental health field, “attachment” is used more loosely and has come to reflect the global capacity to form relationships.  

For the purposes of this course, attachment capabilities refer to the capacity to form and maintain an emotional relationship while attachment refers to the nature and quality of the actual relationship.  A child, for example, may have an "insecure" attachment or a "secure" attachment.

 As we study the nature of early, emotional connections, we are finding out how important they can be for the future development of the child.  Indeed, many researchers and clinicians feel that the maternal-child attachment provides the working “template” for all subsequent relationships that the child will develop.  A solid and healthy attachment with a primary caregiver appears to be associated with a high probability of healthy relationships with others.  Poor attachment with the mother or primary caregiver appears to be associated with a host of emotional and behavioral problems later in life.

 


What is bonding?

Simply stated, bonding is the process of forming an attachment.  Just as bonding is the term used when gluing one object to another, bonding is using our “emotional glue” to become connected to another.  Bonding, therefore, involves a set of behaviors that will help lead to an emotional connection (an attachment).

Are bonding and attachment genetic?

Without a doubt, the biological capacity to bond and form attachments is genetically determined.  The drive to survive is basic in all species.  Infants are defenseless and must depend upon a caregiving adult for survival.  It is in the context of this primary dependence, and the maternal response to this dependence, that a relationship develops.  This attachment is crucial for survival.

 An emotionally and physically healthy mother will be drawn to her infant--she will feel a physical longing to smell, cuddle, rock, coo, and gaze at her infant.  In turn, the infant will respond by snuggling, babbling, smiling, sucking, and clinging.  In most cases, the mother's behaviors bring pleasure, soothing and nourishment to the infant and the infant's behaviors bring pleasure and satisfaction to the mother.  This reciprocal, positive feedback loop--this maternal-infant “dance”--is where attachment begins.

Therefore, despite the genetic potential for bonding and attachment, it is the nature, quantity, pattern, and intensity of early life experiences that express that genetic potential.  Without predictable, responsive, nurturing, and sensory-enriched caregiving, the infant's potential for normal bonding and attachments will be unrealized.  The brain systems responsible for healthy emotional relationships will not develop in an optimal way without the right kinds of experiences at the right times in life.

The acts of holding, rocking, singing, feeding, gazing, kissing, and other nurturing behaviors involved in caring for infants and young children are bonding experiences.  Factors crucial to bonding include time together (in childhood, quantity does matter!), face-to-face interactions, eye contact, physical proximity, touch, and other primary sensory experiences such as smell, sound, and taste. Scientists believe the most important factor in creating attachment is positive physical contact (e.g., hugging, holding, and rocking).  It should be no surprise that holding, gazing, smiling, kissing, singing, and laughing all cause specific neurochemical activities in the brain.  These neurochemical activities lead to normal organization of brain systems that are responsible for attachment.

An essential ingredient of bonding is attunement.  Attunement is being aware of and responsive to another.  This sensitivity to others depends on our attention to non-verbal communication.

The majority of human communication is non-verbal.  In fact, without our being aware of it, a huge percentage of what our brains perceive in communication with others is non-verbal signals: eye movements, facial gestures, tone of voice, the move of a hand, or tip of the head.  Even as one area of the brain is processing and attending to the words in an interaction, other areas are continually focusing on and responding to the non-verbal actions that accompany the words. From this process, a child can literally sense your interest, your approval, and your enthusiasm.

Communication and interaction are both greatly influenced by our internal state.  Our bodies and our minds move through predictable rhythms driven by powerful physiological processes.  Sleep and wake; hunger and satiety--the human brain's capacity to focus, listen, learn, and communicate is shaped by the symphony of dozens of patterns of rhythmic biological activity. They create, in any given moment, a person's internal state.  In some of these states, we are attentive and receptive (e.g., when calm or satisfied), while in other states, we are incapable of learning (e.g., when exhausted, asleep, sad, or afraid).  In order to be attuned to someone, we must interpret both their verbal and non-verbal cues--reflections of their powerful physiological rhythms.

 




 


What is Attunement?

Attunement is never more clearly demonstrated than in the interactions between mothers and infants. Unable to verbalize needs and wants, an infant will rub his eyes, turn his head, or kick his feet excitedly to communicate different messages to his caregiver. Attuned mothers report that they can tell what their particular child needs (e.g., a new diaper, a nap, food, soothing or help) by the way their child cries. The baby sends out a signal; the mother begins to recognize the signal’s meaning; mother meets the need; baby calms and is comfortable again; mother experiences relief, satisfaction, and pleasure at her baby’s contentment; baby feels safe, loved, and understood. This dance repeats over and over throughout the infant’s days. The connection between mother and child depends not only on the caregiver’s attention to the infant’s signals, but her consistency in meeting his needs again and again.

In addition to the daily rhythms of the infant or child, each age and developmental stage has its own rhythms and needs that demand a caregiver’s understanding: a toddler’s need for independence; a teenager’s need to differentiate themselves from their parents, for example. At any point in time, we can be attuned to a child’s need in the moment (e.g., a need for “down time” after school or work) or to her developmental needs. In being understood, the child can also learn to understand others. It is through attunement and understanding that the child feels connected to others.


Throughout our lives, attunement helps us build and maintain our relationships. As stated earlier, the most important relationship in a child’s life is the attachment to his or her primary caregiver--optimally, the mother. This is due to the fact that this first relationship determines the biological and emotional ”template” for all future relationships. Healthy attachment to the mother, built by repetitive bonding experiences during infancy, provides the solid foundation for future healthy relationships. In contrast, problems with bonding and attachment can lead to a fragile biological and emotional foundation for future relationships.
 

Attunement Strategies:

  • Become an observer: focus on non-verbal cues

  • Be sensitive to ever-changing rhythms and remain flexible as these change

  • Consistently provide a caring, supportive response to cues

  • Remember that persons are unique and so are their needs

 

Eye Contact

Nonverbal cues must be understood within the context of a child’s age/development, culture, history, and the specific circumstances of the moment. 

For example, eye contact is typically considered a positive sign in infants – a sign of engagement and interest.  

However, older children and adults in some cultures are taught that eye contact is a sign of disrespect.  Still in other cultures, eye contact is often construed as a challenge. 

Children with a history of maltreatment can read eye contact in very unpredictable ways; some may even experience as threatening and as a warning sign of impending abuse.

 


Assignment #2

Attention to non-verbal cues is an important part of both parenting and working with children.  Careful consideration about and response to the cues and signals offered by a child can increase not only your understanding that child’s unique needs, but improve the sense of connection you both feel within the relationship. Some cues indicate physical needs (e.g., fatigue, need to go to the bathroom) while other cues suggest emotional needs (e.g., wanting to explore,  feeling shy around an unfamiliar person).

 Consider the following nonverbal behaviors and what they could mean, depending on the child’s age/development, cultural background, individual personality, history, and the circumstances in which the behaviors are observed.

 In the answers section, we will offer some typical and some uncommon interpretations.

          A 4-month-old rubs her eyes.

          An 18-month-old in a store walks forward, away from his mother, and then looks back; then walks a little further, and looks back.  This continues for a brief time until he finally runs back to his mother.

          A 2-year-old says, “No!” to her mother when asked to give something back to her baby brother. 

          A 3-year-old clings to his mother at a crowded, noisy child’s birthday party.

          A 5-year-old chews the neckline of her shirt while waiting to see the dentist.

          A 6-year-old lowers his head tells his tutor, “Ssshhhh” when given animated praise for working a problem.

          A 7-year-old eats a sandwich that another child threw away in the trash at school.

Please complete assignment before proceeding to answers below.

 

Assignment #2 Answers

�     A 4-month-old rubs her eyes.

Typical interpretation – She is tired / sleepy.

Alternate interpretations - She could also have something in her eyes, light could be bright or too intense.

 �   An 18-month-old in a store walks forward, away from his mother, and then looks back; then walks a little further, and looks back.  This continues for a brief time until he finally runs back to his mother.

Typical interpretation - This is normal behavior for age – starting to venture out more independently from parent but returning for a sense of security when feeling unsure.

 �   A 2-year-old says, “No!” to her mother when asked to give something back to her baby brother.

Typical interpretation -  This is common behavior for 2- and 3--year-olds.  It is another means of establishing greater independence.  Sharing is also a considerable challenge for children this age.

 �   A 3-year-old clings to his mother at a crowded, noisy child’s birthday party.

Possible interpretation -  This is very common for many children at this age. 

Another consideration - If the child has a history of abuse, the party may also be terrifying. 

 �   A 5-year-old chews the neckline of her shirt while waiting to see the dentist.

Possible interpretation - This may be a way to express apprehension, even if she is unaware of her anxiety or unable to verbally explain how she feels.

 �   A 6-year-old lowers his head tells his tutor, “Ssshhhh” when given animated praise for working a problem.

Possible interpretation - He may be a little embarrassed by the enthusiasm.

Additional note: The child in this scenario actually had a very violent past and often hid with his siblings from his father.

�    A 7-year-old eats a sandwich that another child threw away in the trash at school.

Possible interpretations - This child is under-socialized or very hungry.

Another consideration - This child originates from a very neglectful home, where both food and attention/nurturing were unpredictably provided.

When interacting with children, it is useful to help them identify their own needs.  Statements like "You are rubbing your eyes.  You do that when you are sleepy."  Or to a reticent child who wants to explore a new playground but is clinging to your leg instead, it is helpful to rub their back and whisper to them "It's okay to take your time.  This playground is new to us.  Would you like me to come with you to the slide?"  Offer to hold his hand and stay close.

 

 




 

Lesson 2 Section Quiz
 

1. Attachment:

a.  Is a lasting relationship                     

b.  Is often best illustrated by the mother-child relationship

c.  Involves comfort and safety

d.  All of the above
 

2. True or False:  The belief that early attachment experiences can impact the quality of future relationships has been largely discredited.

3.  Which of the following can be bonding experiences?

a.  Singing to/with a child

b.  Face-to-face interactions

c.  Reading to a child

d.  All of the above
 

4. True or False:   Whether or not a child can form attachments to others is genetically determined.

5. True or False: Bonding experiences change the brain.

6.  Attunement is:

a.  Attention to another’s verbal and non-verbal cues

b.  Consistent response to the cues of another

c.  Interactive and synchronous

d.  all of the above
 

7. True or False:  Human communication is 50% verbal and 50% non-verbal.

8. Babies begin communicating wants and needs:

a.  As newborns

b.  When they learn to gesture

c.  When they learn to reach and grab

d.  When they begin to speak
 

9.  True or False:  Attunement allows a caregiver to better meet a child’s needs; thus, providing the child with a sense of contentment, safety, and security.

10.  True or False:  A person is either born with the ability to “tune into” others’ cues or they are not.

 




 


Lesson 2 Section Quiz Answers

1. Attachment:

The correct answer:  d.) All of the above

Comment:  Attachment is a lasting relationship best illustrated by the mother-child relationship which involves comfort and safety.

2. The belief that early attachment experiences can impact the quality of future relationships has been largely discredited.

The correct answer:  False

3.  Which of the following can be bonding experiences?

The correct answer:  d.) All of the above

Comment:  Singing to/with a child, face-to-face interactions and reading to a child can all be bonding experiences when attempts are made to connect with that child in a supportive and loving way.

4.  Whether or not a child can form attachments to others is genetically determined.
 

The correct answer:  True

 

5.  Bonding experiences change the brain.
The correct answer:  True

 

6.  Attunement is:

The correct answer:  d.)  a and b

Comment: Attunement is the attention to another’s verbal and non-verbal cues in an interactive and synchronous manner

7.  Human communication is 50% verbal and 50% non-verbal.
 

The correct answer:  False 

8. Babies begin communicating wants and needs:

The correct answer:  a) As newborns

Comment:  Communicating with your newborn both verbally and non-verbally is essential for healthy development.

9.   Attunement allows a caregiver to better meet a child’s needs; thus, providing the child with a sense of contentment, safety, and security.

The correct answer:  True 

10.   A person is either born with the ability to “tune into” others’ cues or they are not.

The correct answer:  False 

Comment: People can learn how to recognize and respond to others' cues.

 




 


   
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