Bonding and Attachment

A week or so back I was invited to speak about my research into adoptive parent mental health with Al and Scott who run the Adoption & Fostering podcast.  It was a great opportunity to be able to talk about some of the real challenges that adopters face.  A link to the podcast is attached below.  During the recording, Al asked a question that caused me to pause – that being the difference between bond and attachment – and it was a question that I was keen to explore.

The definition of ‘bond’ describes a “strong feeling of friendship, love or shared beliefs and experiences that unites people”.

Attachment is described as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, J.; 1969; “Love and Attachment”).  Attachment theory explains the dance of attunement that occurs between an infant and primary caregiver; it is about the caregiver being available and responsive to the infant’s needs; as a result of this the infant gains a sense of security and safety.  From this the infant forms a view of themselves and their place in the world. 

I wanted to consider bond and attachment from the perspective of the adoptive parent.  Bond / attachment was talked about in two ways during my study:  the first spoke about that initial period of meeting the child and moving the child into the home; the second was more about the long-term sense of being attuned to the child.

The first sense of ‘bonding’

My results were really mixed when parents spoke about that initial feeling of meeting their child or children.  Some felt an incredibly strong feeling of love and protection towards the child; others expected to feel love, but instead of love felt anxiety; others didn’t recall feeling much at all.  One adopter voiced being a terrible person because she didn’t feel an initial flooding of love and she kept this feeling to herself because she felt guilty and ashamed.

There are so many thoughts and expectations that hinge on that first meeting with a child.  For many adopters, this is the family that they have been dreaming of, potentially for many years.  Levels of excitement and apprehension are high.  That expectation of bonding immediately places a high level of pressure on the parent:  it means that you and the child must be attuned with shared feelings of love.  

But the parent comes to this union with many thoughts, feelings and experiences – and the child comes to this union with their own thoughts, feelings and experiences.  Rather than setting an expectation of ‘bonding’ we should be normalising the broad range of feelings and thoughts that may be experienced.  We should be helping the parent who is feeling fear to understand what that fear means and where it comes from.  We should be helping the parent who is self-critical to increase their self-compassion.  

I remember my own first meeting with my daughter.  She was almost 5.  She wore a princess crown and she called me mummy.  I was her new mummy, but I didn’t know her.   I had read her file, I had heard all about her from her social worker and foster carers, but I didn’t know her as a mum would normally know her 5 year old.  I felt like I wanted to wrap her in a big quilt and keep her safe and warm forever.   I felt overwhelmed by the entire experience – and keeping the complexity of those thoughts and feelings to myself was the start of my adoption journey.

Bonding / Attaching

As time progresses and the child / parent relationship develops, the true sense of bonding / attaching starts to materialise and I believe this is where some differences emerge between bonding and an attachment relationship.

I believe that most adopters work hard to model secure attachment for their children.  They work hard to provide consistent, nurturing care.  They understand the principles of PACE and therapeutic parenting, they are responsive to the needs of their children.  As the relationship of trust and security develops between the parent and child, then moments of attunement will also be experienced and I believe it is then that moments of bonding occur.

However, for many parents, this sense of attunement may be more difficult.  They will desperately want to increase the moments of shared love and connection they have with their child.  They will have empathy, compassion, understanding, love – but for many reasons ‘bonding’ may not happen. 

Firstly, parents bring their own attachment styles to the parent / child dyad – and these styles may make ‘secure attachment’ more emotionally challenging for some.  How much is the parents’ attachment style discussed during the assessment / training stage of adoption preparation?  If the parent has a strongly ‘avoidant’ or ‘ambivalent’ style is the parent then supported to understand and possibly make change to their natural relational style within the context of parenting?  My pondering on this subject has really highlighted for me the frequently undiscussed subject of adult attachment and I will be writing about that in my next post.

Secondly, the reality of home life for many adoptive families should be considered.  Where children have experienced adversity (here I refer to the 10 areas identified by the ACE study*), that adversity will likely show itself behaviourally within the home.  How the parent responds to that adversity, providing regulation for themselves and for their child, may mean moments occur where bonding is possible.  I recall the moments after anger rages when I could hold my daughter, she allowed me to soothe her, and within that moment bonding happened.  But many parents may also experience a decrease in their own emotional regulation, and further psychological disorders, as a result of the challenges they experience within the home.  It is normal not to feel safe and secure when trauma and abuse are present in the home – and as a result, moments of attunement or bond will be difficult.  

So, what is my outcome?

After pondering the initial question for a couple of weeks – are bond and attachment the same – I believe that they are different.

Attachment talks about the continuum of relational style that exists within each of us, based on our experience of being parented.  Adoptive parents will form attachments with their children – whether that attachment is secure or insecure will be based on the experiences of both the child and the parent.

Bonding, that strong feeling of shared love, is not guaranteed. I believe that many adoptive parents want to increase the moments they bond with their child; for that to happen, both parties need to feel emotionally safe, secure and understood.

In my experience, the emotional state of the parent receives little focus once adoption assessment is complete.  This is wrong, because the parent is the greatest healer for the child.  Adoption preparation should include educating adoptive parents on their own attachment preferences.  Adoption support should focus on helping parents to increase their sense of emotional regulation and resilience, supporting them to maintain (or quickly regain) a secure state when faced with adversity.  Open and honest communication should be encouraged from the very start of the adoption journey, providing every adoptive parent with the opportunity to explore the broad range of emotions they may feel as they progress through adoption.  Through increasing adoptive parent knowledge and support, we also increase opportunities for moments of bonding between parent and child.


ACE study information:

Adoption and Fostering Podcast:

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