Attachment and bonding

A look at one family’s struggle with attachment issues

By Debi A. Grebenik, PHD

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. . . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, 7)

One family with whom I worked wanted to expand their family by adopting a child from another country. Their family consisted of the parents and two sweet-natured little girls. The parents wanted to adopt a younger male child. The little boy they adopted came into their lives through much perseverance in the adoptive process. They were thrilled to have him join their family.

Then, a few months after the adoption, he began to act out. His behaviours were targeted on the primary caregiver, his mother. He would yell at and hit her; defecate and urinate on the floor; cry and scream instead of sleep at night; and he wouldn't allow anyone to touch or attempt to calm him. As a result of his escalating behaviours, the mother began to react to him and became angry with herself for her negative thoughts toward him.

When I met them, she felt as though her son was in the process of ruining her family. She expressed how much she despised how he changed their family. She found herself yelling at him in response. The father became the only one who could soothe the child. Without his presence, the boy's behaviours continued to escalate.

The emotionally drained family needed answers. Why was this happening? What could they do? (You can read more about this family here.)

First, I explained the issue of attachment and bonding. As parents interact with and relate to their children, children reflect what they see. They model facial expressions, voice intonations and physical gestures, and these elements contribute to the child's developing attachment capabilities. For some of us, this process is second nature; for others, it is unknown territory.

Attachment can be a complex concept. To understand, let's look for it in everyday life. The face of attachment is evident in children who, while playing with other children, go to their parent(s) and touch them or stand near them to "touch base" and then return to playing with their friends. Attachment is also seen when children run to their parent(s) when hurt, sad, afraid or overwhelmed. When attachment is present, the parent(s) can soothe this child. A child who is not attached may be hypervigilant; always on guard out of fear; or they may not respond to the parent's words, sounds or gestures.

All different degrees of attachment exist. A child may have experienced an intermittent attachment process such as when parents are deployed, divorced or depressed. If there is even one significant adult in a child's life who will provide consistency and unconditional love and support, that child can attach. Attachment is based on the needs of the child.

Bruce Perry, MD, a specialist in child development and trauma, defines attachment as "a special enduring form of 'emotional' relationship with a specific person which involves soothing, comfort and pleasure."1 An attached child finds security and safety in the context of this special relationship. It is within this secure and safe relationship that a child is able to develop emotionally, physically, socially, culturally, intellectually and spiritually. This connectedness provides the context for a child to learn, love, survive, work, create and grow.

Attachment is also demonstrated when the loss or threat of loss of the specific person evokes distress. Distress is manifested through behaviours: bouts of crying, throwing tantrums, periods of hoarding, moments of withdrawing, actions of self-mutilating and other significant behaviours.

Next article in series: A New Definition of Attachment/Regulation

1.  Bruce Perry, MD, Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children (, 2001