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 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.

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