Bonding Defined

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In order to have meaning in court, the definition of bonding needs to be clear, specific, and objective. The state Child Welfare Manuals are a good place to start for such practical definitions. The 2000 Indiana Child Welfare Manual gives three examples of situations that would warrant an exception from the rule that efforts be made to find an adoptive placement which does not require post-adoption subsidies. All three refer to bonding, indicating that the protection of a bonded relationship is in the child’s best interest and more important than money. The examples are:

  • The child has been in the foster home for six months or more.
  • The child has already developed a significant emotional attachment to the foster parents.
  • The child desires to be adopted by his foster parents.

Four concrete and evidentiary definitive criteria for bonding emerge from the current research. They are contained in one way or another in many state child welfare manuals. Any one of them standing alone is sufficient to demonstrate that bonding has occurred. The criteria are: length of time, the behavior of the child, reciprocal attachment, and family identification.

Time in Place: In a parent-child family setting, bonding may take place after three months. Research from many venues indicates that three months is the length of time that normal human beings take to adjust to a new and/or difficult situation. This three-month period is reflected in folk wisdom as the time of grieving after a death, and also as the probationary period when starting a new job. In the description of many psychiatric disorders listed in the DSM-IV (1994), three months is the time allowed to “adjust” before a more serious illness can be diagnosed.

Bonding is probable after six months. Normal children will adjust and attach well within this time frame. ASFA and the parallel state laws recognize this fact by setting six months as a turning point after which a permanency plan other than reunification may be selected.

Bonding is almost certain after one year, unless one is dealing with an unbonded or psychopathic child. In such cases the child, without therapy, is not capable of bonding with anyone. Even in such cases, when bonding on the child’s part is absent, the court should recognize the willingness of the foster/adopt parents to make a lifetime commitment, which is of considerable value both to the child and to society.

Time is the definitive factor. Bonding is possible after three months, probable after six, and almost certain after 12 months. At some point the child’s right to permanence and emotional stability must come before the rights of the biological parents. Recognizing that a year is a very long time in the life of a developing child, ASFA requires that the state file a termination of parental rights within that time period. Continuing delay, even to grant biological parents extra chances, is destructive to the child.

Biological parents must be given immediate help and the opportunity to change neglectful or abusive behavior. But they must do so within a reasonable time. If a year goes by and the biological parents are still not ready for reunification, and the child has bonded with another family, then the child’s right to a permanent stable home becomes pre-eminent. This pre-eminence exists even though the biological parents may not be at fault. Biological parents cannot be given unlimited time and chances to reform their lives.

The Behavior of the Child is a second way to determine whether bonding has occurred. Research suggests that bonding can be established by the way a child interacts. Young children who are bonded seek to stay close to the parent or caregiver. They turn to the parent when frightened, hurt or distressed. They may object when the parent leaves them. They want the parent to watch and admire what they do. (Belsky et al, 1988.)

Checklists can be used to determine and measure these behaviors clinically (Randolph, 1997; Keck, 1998.) Here are a few examples from the Groves Bonding Checklist which contains 49 such behaviors. See Appendix F for the complete list.

  • Eye contact
  • Being affectionate with “parents”
  • Enjoying hugs and physical contact
  • Attentiveness to what is going on
  • Copying mannerisms of “parents”
  • Asserting self
  • Going to “parents” when hurt or distressed
  • Being able to express pleasure and joy
  • Being kind to animals, and many others.

Bonding is Reciprocal. Measuring the interaction between the parent and child is a third way to measure bonding. Arredondo (2000) posits a “reciprocal connectedness” which he characterized as a mutual interrelatedness characterized by reciprocity and developmental sensitivity.

Stokes and Strothman (1996) focused on the mutual interplay in presenting their structured dyadic interview to assess the strength of the parent-child relationship.

In addition to noting the existing track record of the foster/adopt parents with the child, a good bonding assessment will include the commitment they are offering. The bonded parent is the one who wants to raise the child through good times and bad, through joy and heartbreak, until death. The evaluator may request a statement from the foster/adopt parents expressing the strength of their commitment.

“I want you to be my child forever. I will always be there for you. As long as I live. Even after you are 18 and emancipated. You won’t ever be absent from my concern. Our home will always be your home. When life hits you hard and you need a place to go. When you need money. When you go through a divorce. Or a death. When I die, you will have an inheritance. You will always have a place here with me.” The child’s willingness to respond to and accept that promise should also be considered.

Family Identification is a fourth way to measure bonding. The Indiana Child Welfare Manual (2000) is practical and explicit in directing case managers to identify and protect bonded relationships with the foster parents by validating the cumulative wisdom of the community. Specific guidelines to prove that bonding has occurred were provided:

  1. The child identifies as a member of the foster family.
  2. The child is perceived to be a member of the foster family by the community: e.g. the school, friends, neighbors, extended family members.
  3. The child has developed self-reliance and a trust of the foster family while in their care.
  4. The child does not make a significant attempt to attach to another family, including the birth family.
  5. To demonstrate bonding using the “family identification” criteria, the evaluator may wish to include statements from the extended family, teachers, friends, and neighbors.

Many different definitions of attachment and bonding appear in the research history. They focus mainly on the internal and emotional interaction, particularly between mother and infant. The definition of bonding proposed in this book is more external and objective, describing what bonding looks like, and what it does. Bonding needs to be framed in a way that does not depend solely on the feelings of the parties involved. Here are some key qualities that have appeared in the research.

  • Bonding is a form of attachment.
  • A significant attachment. The relationship is critical to both parties.
  • Bonding is reciprocal or mutual. Both parties want the relationship.
  • Bonding involves commitment. The quiet promise expressed in the day-to-day caregiving transcends any emotional moment.
  • Bonding takes time to develop.
  • Bonding is natural. It develops in everyday relationships, not in a therapy office.
  • Bonding requires day-to-day proximity. It normally develops in a family setting.
  • Bonding is or is expected to be lifelong.
  • Bonding means interdependence. Both parties are attached in a vital way
  • The interruption of bonding can cause serious distress. Childhood and adult mental disorders are the frequent result of disrupting bonded relationships.
  • Permanence is the key structure. A permanent home is the external marker of bonding.

Permanence, as evidenced by a permanent home, is both the sign and the necessary setting for bonding. Without a secure and trustworthy base, bonding is almost impossible. A permanent home is like the dream goal, the “final frontier” in the journey of a foster child through failed reunifications, multiple placements, and temporary care.

Finally, we come to our proposed objective definitions of terms. Attachment is the general term. Bonding is the highest and most intense form of attachment. Bonding can be differentiated from attachment by the eleven qualities listed above. These qualities are expressed more succinctly in the following definition:

Bonding is a significant reciprocal attachment which both parties want and expect to continue, and which is interrupted or terminated at increased peril to the parties involved. Bonding occurs naturally over time by sharing important events in daily life such as eating sleeping, and playing together.