Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children

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Lesson 3: Factors Affecting Bonding and Attachment
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In this lesson, learn more about:

  • Windows of opportunity for bonding and attachment

  • Classifications of different types of attachment capabilities

  • Factors that interfere with attachment and bonding

  • The impact of maltreatment on attachment


When are the windows of opportunity for bonding and attachment?

Timing is everything.  Bonding experiences lead to healthy attachments and healthy attachment capabilities when they are provided in the earliest years of life.  During the first three years of life, the human brain develops to 90 percent of adult size and puts in place the majority of systems and structures that will be responsible for all future emotional, behavioral, social and physiological functioning during the rest of life.  There are critical periods during which bonding experiences must be present for the brain systems responsible for attachment to develop normally.  These critical periods appear to be in the first year of life and are related to the capacity of the infant and caregiver to develop a positive interactive relationship.


What happens if this window of opportunity is missed?

The impact of impaired bonding in early childhood varies.  Severe emotional neglect in early childhood can be devastating. Without touch, stimulation and nurturing, children can literally lose the capacity to form any meaningful relationships for the rest of their lives.  Fortunately, most children do not suffer this degree of severe neglect.  There are, however, many millions of children who have some degree of impaired bonding and attachment during early childhood.  The problems that result from this can range from mild interpersonal discomfort to profound social and emotional problems.  In general, the severity of problems is related to how early in life, how prolonged, and how severe the emotional neglect has been.

This does not mean that children with these experiences have no hope to develop normal relationships.  Very little is known about the ability of “replacement” experiences later in life to replace or repair the undeveloped or poorly organized bonding and attachment capabilities. 

Clinical experiences and a number of studies suggest that improvement can take place, but it is a long, difficult and frustrating process for families and children.  It may take many years of hard work to help repair the damage from only a few months of neglect in infancy.




Did you know?

Infants with facial disfigurement
(i.e., severe cleft palate) have a greater degree of difficulty maintaining sustained attention and engagement from their caregivers and later in life demonstrate more attachment problems.


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