Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children

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Lesson 2: Frequently Asked Questions about Bonding and Attachment
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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.


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