How Children Bond

All human beings need to bond with their parents and other caregivers as children. It's part of how people are wired for survival, like needing to eat or instinctually recoiling at the thought of a dip in an ice-cold lake or a kick to the shins. In the old days, if people in a family group didn't bond, they wouldn't need to stick together during a famine or an attack by animals, and they'd lose members of their group pretty quickly. Though it's not as obvious or immediate, the same holds true today.

Bonding and Attachment

There's a theory in psychology called “bonding and attachment theory” that was originally developed by a man named John Bowlby. Bowlby grew up in an upper-class family in England about a hundred years ago, and was raised by his nanny as a young child, then sent to boarding school. He had little contact with his mother and even less with his father. This lack of opportunity for connection in his family was the basis for developing his theory.

In a nutshell, Bowlby argued that kids need a strong attachment, or bond, with their caregivers in order to develop normally. Switching up the caregivers from one month to the next, or failing to respond to a child's emotional needs when in a caregiving role, will not result in a strong attachment.

Generally, the relationship needs to be consistent and long term, and the younger the child, the more immediate and crucial her attachment needs are. It is imperative to understand that the child establishes a primary bond with one caregiver, and that bonds with all other people are subordinate.

Essential

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a theory for ranking universal human needs from the most essential for survival to the least essential. The most essential needs are physical, like food; the least essential is the need for personal growth. Not only does family security appear in the second tier, but young children depend completely on their caregivers for first-tier needs.

Attachment theory, though it was developed more than 50 years ago, is still largely upheld today. Just letting a child sleep in your house and making sure she has food and water is not enough — nurturing your relationship with your child is what creates a strong bond.

Securely and Insecurely Bonded Kids

Strong attachment in early childhood gives a child a feeling of security from which she can grow, and forms her idea of how relationships should work. The caregiver and the child are highly communicative, and the caregiver responds to the child's physical and emotional needs. A kid with a strong long-term attachment to a primary caregiver is able to form healthy relationships later in life, and may be able to pursue creativity, problem-solving, and other less essential needs that help her grow as a person and feel fulfilled.

In contrast, failure by a primary and consistent caregiver to respond to a child's bids for bonding can create anxiety in the child, interrupt normal social development, and can even influence psychopathic behavior. In fact, there's a disorder called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). A kid with RAD may fail to engage in age-appropriate social situations, or, on the other hand, try to form inappropriate relationships with just about anyone who comes her way.

How Kids Initiate Bonding

You may be surprised to know that kids actually initiate bonds with their caregivers. They do this by what's called “bidding.” A “bid” is any attempt at engagement, whether it's a hug, throwing a fit to get your attention, or even some annoying behaviors like leaning on you while you're trying to clean the bathroom. (Before you guilt-trip yourself for ignoring your child's bids, be aware that you don't have to drop what you're doing to focus on your daughter if she hangs on you like a wet cape while you're trying to scrub the toilet.) Securely bonded kids bid less than insecurely bonded kids; they don't need it as much.

The most effective way to bond with your child and to decrease the annoyance level of the bids is to respond to the ones you like. If your child hugs you, and you see that hug and raise it a kiss, you're responding to your child's bid and strengthening your bond. If your child tries to tell you about her day while you're still working, and you wait five minutes and then listen fully, you're responding to her bid and teaching her to respect your time.

If, on the other hand, you tell her you're busy and put off listening to her until she's too tired to talk, you're failing to respond to her bid. If you do that very often, you'll soon leave her feeling disconnected, like a raft floating in the middle of an ocean. You don't have to respond to every single bid, but you do have to respond to most of them.

If your child's bids for bonding are inappropriate, ill-timed, or downright infuriating, don't visibly respond to her. Go ahead and seethe inside, but keep a cool exterior. Make a mental note of what your child is doing, wait five minutes and see if you can catch her being good, then come forward with the hug, affirmation, or interaction she was looking for. Keep in mind this advice is for bonding only.

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