What Is Bonding and Why Does It Matter?

James Kenny, MSW, PhD and Peter Kenny, JD


Bonding is a significant attachment which can be defined in a clear and objective manner. According to extensive research, interrupting such relationships correlates with a statistically significant increase in mental illness, crime and homelessness. Federal law states than the child’s right to permanence within a reasonable time is paramount. When placing or moving children, bonded relationships must be recognized as equal to or more important than kinship.

Early care and nurture have a decisive long-lasting impact on how people develop, their ability to learn, and their capacity to regulate their own emotions. Children learn about life in the context of continuing important relationships. Bonding to a specific person or persons is critical to a child’s healthy development.

Bonding, however, has too often been loosely defined. Mental health professionals, in their reports, have been vague and fuzzy, offering generalizations rather than facts, opinion rather than data. As a result, courts and case managers may not have given bonding the critical consideration it deserves.

When a judge must decide where legally and best to place a child whose primary home has been broken or lost, laws must be followed. The lines between blood and bond are clearly drawn when a foster parent files to adopt the child for whom they have provided long-term care, and a heretofore unknown blood relative emerges to challenge the proceeding. But what guides are available? The court must still interpret the child’s best interests. Are genes the sole determinant? How shall the judge weigh the genetic relationship against the parent-in-place? When properly defined and understood, bonding merits serious consideration.

Bonding matters. Interrupting significant attachments (aka bonding) can be devastating and very difficult to overcome. Statistical research documents a connection between the interruption of bonded relationships and serious problems in adjustment. The inability to cope with separation and loss in a growing child correlates with a statistically significant increase in childhood and adult mental illness, crime, and homelessness. (Kenny and Kenny, 2014)

Brain scans from early childhood suggest that bonding also has a physical counterpart comparable to genes. Finally, appellate court decisions have increasingly recognized bonding as a major factor in child placement. Citations and terminology from appellate court decisions favoring bonded relationships over blood kinship will be presented.

What is Bonding?

For courts and welfare departments to give bonding the attention it deserves, the concept must first be objectively defined and carefully explained in ways the court can understand and accept. The dictionary defines a bond as a “unique relationship between two people enduring for long periods, even a lifetime.” After an extensive review of the literature, we offer this definition:

Bonding is a significant reciprocal attachment which both parties want and expect to continue, and which is interrupted or terminated at considerable peril to the parties involved.

Humans bond, not through therapy, but quite naturally, by sharing over time important events in daily life, such as eating, sleeping, and playing together.

We offer four practical ways to evaluate bonding and demonstrate that it has occurred. They are based upon common sense and longstanding folk wisdom. They are supported by research. And they are based on objective data.

1. Time: Bonding is likely after three months, probable after six, and almost certain after 12 months of constant daily contact. This is a simple restatement of the research-based deadlines contained in the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Their purpose is to anticipate the harm that can be done by keeping children too long in “temporary” care, by allowing bonding to take place and then interrupting it.

2. Behavior: Research shows that bonding can be assessed by the way a child acts. Based upon this research, many bonding checklists have been developed. Two good examples are Keck’s list of attachment disorders from the Ohio Attachment and Bonding Center (Keck and Kupecky, 1995) and the Randolph Attachment Disorder Questionnaire (Randolph, 1997). Kenny and Kenny (2014) have summarized multiple bonding behaviors in their Universal Bonding Checklist.

3. Reciprocal Attachment: Measuring the interaction between parent and child is a third way to measure bonding. It is a two-way street, and can be measured by the strength of the parties’ mutual promises and commitment. The bonded parent is the one who wants to raise the child through good times and bad, through joy and heartbreak, until death. A daily journal kept regularly by the foster-to-adopt parents can offer compelling documentation of this ongoing interaction and commitment. Such a detailed history of the time parents and child have lived together provides a practical measure of how connected they are. The child’s willingness to respond to and accept that promise should also be considered. Depending on the child’s age, the commitment may be expressed verbally or implied from the child’s behavior.

Stokes and Strothman (1996) focused on this mutual interplay in presenting their structured dyadic interview to assess the strength of the parent-child relationship. Arredondo and Edwards (2000) posited a “reciprocal connectedness” which they characterized as a mutual interrelatedness characterized by reciprocity and developmental sensitivity.

4. Family Identification: The wisdom of the larger community, including the extended family, neighbors, church, and school, attests to whether the child is already perceived as a family member. The community knows who belongs to whom. To demonstrate bonding using the “family identification” criteria, the evaluator may wish to include statements from the extended family, teachers, friends, and neighbors.

Indiana (2000) lists four specific guidelines to indicate that bonding has occurred:

  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.

Bonding Is Physical

How the brain develops hing

es on a complex interplay between the genes we are born with and the experiences we have. Clear evidence has emerged suggesting that the ongoing physical structure of the brain is not simply genetically determined, but depends on activity, experience, attachment, and stimulation. Some synaptic connections, those that are formed early in life and strengthened by day-to-day contact over a period of three to twelve months, are relatively permanent.

Genes and environment interact at every step of brain development, but they play different roles. Generally speaking, genes are responsible for the basic wiring plan – for forming all of the cells and the general connections between different brain regions. Experience is responsible for fine-tuning these connections, helping each child to adapt to his or her particular environment. An analogy that is often used compares brain development in early childhood to the wiring of a phone network. Genes would specify the number of phones and the major trunk lines that connect one relay station to the next. Experience would specify the connections between the relay station and each person’s home or office. Once established in early life, these connections are difficult, if not impossible to modify.

By age three, the infant brain will have progressed dramatically, producing hundreds of trillions of connections in the synapses between neurons. The first three to five years of life are a period of incredible growth.

Eliot (2000, p. 32) commented on the results of multiple experiments in human development in the first five years: “A young child’s environment directly and permanently influences the structure and eventual function of his or her brain….”

Schwartz and Begley (2003, pp. 117-119) noted the physical embedding of experiences in the developing brain: “The ultimate shape of the (child’s) brain….is the outcome of an ongoing active process that occurs where lived experience meets both the inner and outer environment….connections that are used become stronger, even permanent elements of the neural circuitry.”

Circuitry reflecting these experiences can now be observed. Brain scans of pre-school children have provided physical evidence of a fast-growing network of neuronal connections. The following images graphically depict the significant physical changes in the child’s brain over the early years.

Image removed.

Rapid Synaptic Growth from Birth to Age Four
Excerpted from CONNECTOME: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. Copyright © 2012 by Sebastian Seung. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

New terms have been coined to reflect our increased understanding of brain development. (Seung, 2012) When the synaptic connections between neurons are expressed in behavior, they have been called memes. A meme is a way of thinking or acting that can be passed from one mind to another. Because they are reflected in brain circuitry and have a significant impact in a child’s growth and development, memes are analogous to genes.

The larger pattern of connections between the brain’s neurons has been referred to as our “connectome.” That is where our genetic inheritance intersects with our life experience, where nature meets nurture. Experiences shape the connectome which changes slowly over time as we learn and grow. Elaborating how the brain’s wiring makes us who we are, Seung compares the connectome to our genome. Both nature and nurture, genes and experience, are seen to have an equally critical role in human growth and development.

The Courts Recognize Bonding in Deciding Child Placement

Courts may have traditionally favored genetics over emotional and psychological bonds. This has been due in part to a lack of knowledge about child development and a failure to listen to any but the birth parents. Non-biological parents who have already cared for the child for more than a year have had trouble being heard in court. Lacking legal standing, the deck has often been stacked against them.

As a result of increased knowledge of child psychology and changing policies about who has legal standing in child placement matters, an increasing number of jurisdictions have begun to shift that stance. Though the consideration is far from universal, courts are taking note of the significant impact that maintaining or breaking psychological bonds can have. Quite simply, courts are beginning to recognize that children may be better served when they remain with the people to whom they have formed close psychological and emotional bonds rather than given to others with whom they share only a biological relationship.

Courts today, when deciding where best to place a child, are listening, and developing a vocabulary of their own in defining bonding. The following are a few key phrases and concepts from appellate court decisions that may be helpful in determining the child’s best interests.

  • Compelling state interest in the prevention of emotional harm to a child justifies interference with parent’s due process rights. In the Interest of E.L.M.C., P.3d 546 (Colo. App. 2004).
  • “[E]xamples of extraordinary circumstances … include … disruption of custody … attachment of child to the custodian … biological parent’s abdication of parental rights … and child’s poor relationship with the biological parent.” Matter of Banks v. Banks, 285 A.D.2d 686, 687 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001).
  • “[A] non-parent who has a significant connection with the child has standing to assert a claim for custody.” Buness v. Gillen, 781 P.2d 985, 986 (Alaska 1989).
  • “[A] psychological parent is one who, on a continuing, day-to-day basis, through interaction, companionship, interplay, and mutuality, fulfills the child's psychological needs for a parent…” In re Clifford K., 217 W. Va. 625, 643 (W. Va. 2005).
  • “the bond between the foster family and the child is a critical factor.” In re Interest of J.A., 42 P. 3d 215 (Kansas, 2002).

Some other terms that appear repeatedly in Appellate Court decisions favoring bonding include “continuity of care,” “risks of transition,” “a father in the terms that matter most,” and “significant emotional bond.” Kenny and Kenny (2014, pp.156-172) provide more detail on the language that appellate courts use to define bonding.

Bonding Misconceptions

Careless use of the word “bonding” has led to several falsehoods. These mistaken assumptions are based upon confusion and a blurring of the boundary between an attachment and a significant attachment.

Myth One: “Good bonders” can learn to bond easily and repeatedly. Some professionals have mistakenly believed that multiple placements teach children how to bond easily. This is tragically not true. Learning good manners and how to get along pleasantly and superficially is surely a skill, but it is very different from bonding. Good manners do not indicate bonding. They are superficial, a veneer to get along, a survival skill that some foster children have mastered out of sad necessity. The “good-bonder” myth is comparable to telling a widow that she will get over the loss of a beloved spouse when she has learned to be a “good griever.”

Myth Two: Bonding can develop through regular visitation. People may become acquainted in that way but bonding does not occur with intermittent contact, only continuing frustration. Bonding can occur when people come together day after day in elemental ways and meet one another’s basic needs for food, shelter, play, friendship, and love.

Myth Three: Children are resilient. Bonding therapy can remedy any problems stemming from the loss of a significant attachment. This opinion is naively optimistic. Developmental specialists tell a very different story. The child’s early loss of a bonded caregiver colors future relationships with suspicion. This attitude may be pre-verbal and deeply embedded. Love and the best of therapies are frequently blocked by the hurt child’s innate distrust, fear and disbelief.

Myth Four: Kinship is a blood tie and must come first, no matter when or with whom. The words “relative” and “related” obviously have the same root. Blood is one way we are related, but bonding is another. The questions should be asked: Which relationships are most critical for this child? To whom is the child most closely related overall? These competing relationships need to be examined and compared with the child’s best interests in mind. By stating that genes always come before bonding, this myth negates the child’s significant attachment in favor of “kin-come-lately,” a relative who may emerge after other vital connections have been formed.

Why Is It So Important to Define Bonding?

Bonding is a very strong attachment, but it is much more than an intense emotional feeling. The term “bonding” is best used to describe the tipping point, that line in a relationship when the attachment has reached a level where its disruption may precipitate significant harm, either immediate or delayed. The hurt child, as a result, may suffer an inability to feel compassion and form or maintain personal relationships. The desire to attach is lost. This resultant inability to cope with separation and loss in a growing child anticipates an increase in later adult dysfunction.

According to the research, disruption of a bond significantly raises the possibility that the child will experience problems with mental health, criminal behavior, homelessness, and other serious life problems. Many studies document these correlations. Kulp (1993) summarizes common problems of foster children that are made worse by a continuing lack of permanence. Included are immaturity and poor social skills, problems with authority, fire-setting, lying, stealing, running away, suicide attempts, attachment problems, nightmares, stomach aches, and more. Karen (1994) has commented on the harm dome by multiple moves and has documented similar lists of childhood problems resulting from interrupted attachments.

Steinhauer (1991) reported on the wide-ranging negative effects from subjecting children to a series of short-term attachments. He specifically noted that these children are apt to resist relationships and develop a reactive attachment disorder. He goes on to discuss what he calls pseudo-relationships that appear superficially engaging, but actually are manipulative and self-centered, lacking the empathy necessary to develop true bonding. He cites promiscuity, theft, and provoking conflict as examples.

In 2000, the Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care of the American Academy of Pediatrics stated: “The following important concepts should guide pediatricians’ activities as they advocate for the child:

  1. Biologic parenthood does not necessarily confer the desire or ability to care for a child adequately.
  2. Supportive nurturing by primary caregivers is crucial to early brain growth and to the physical, emotional, and developmental needs of children.
  3. Children need continuity, consistency, and predictability from their caregiver. Multiple placements are injurious.
  4. Attachment, sense of time and developmental level of the child are key factors in their adjustment to environmental and internal stresses.”

The breaking of bonded relationships can cause even more serious problems in adulthood. While there are many contributing and confounding antecedents of adult disorders, nevertheless, adult mental illness, crime, and homelessness have all been positively correlated with time spent in foster care. Problems submerged in childhood behind a mask of compliance are apt to surface in adult life. Childhood experiences have lifelong consequences.

Mental Illness

The American Psychiatric Association (DSM-V, 2013) has included the following common childhood diagnoses caused or aggravated by the disruption of attachments and bonds: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), Adjustment Disorders, AD/HD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Developmental Delay, and Learning Disorders.

Many researchers have studied children who graduate from foster care and documented the connection between attachment problems and adult mental illness. In 1979 Bowlby cited a number of studies that showed a strong correlation between disrupted bonding and a significant increase in antisocial behavior, illegitimacy, and suicide. Others confirmed this finding. When attachments are damaged or broken, the research confirms an increase in Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Eating Disorders, Substance Abuse, Schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorders, and Antisocial Personality. (Triseliotis, 1983). (Aldgate, 1994).

Results of the Casey National Alumni Study (Pecora et al, 2003) and the Northwest Alumni Study (Pecora et al, 2005) revealed that former foster children are experiencing much higher rates of mental illness as adults than the general population. Here is a summary of their comparisons.

  • Fifty-four percent of former foster children in the states of Washington and Oregon had one or more mental disorders in adulthood compared with 22 percent in the general population.
  • Foster care graduates nationally were four times as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a comparable group (21.5% to 4.5%) They were almost twice as likely to suffer from PTSD as war veterans from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
  • Former foster children were 2.1 times more likely to become clinically depressed than the general population.
  • Former foster children were over twice as likely to suffer from panic and anxiety disorders.
  • Former foster children were 2.8 times more likely to suffer from psychotic problems and 2.5 times more likely to suffer paranoia.
  • Foster care alumni experienced seven times the rate of drug dependence and nearly two times the rate of alcohol dependence as their counterparts.


Delay and waiting breed frustration which may be expressed in aggression. Childhood anger can sometimes be successfully addressed and socialized in a stable home. Or it may remain hidden and erupt in later years.

Adult crime and violence are not uncommon in those individuals whose empathy is stunted and who grow up without the conscience normally fashioned through a concern for the well-being of others. Add resentment and anger to a lack of compassion and you have a dangerous person in process. The psychiatric literature labels these people “psychopaths.” Multi-placed children have been referred to as “psychopaths in the making.”

Persons with a history of foster care are diagnosed at a significantly higher rate than the general population with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Conduct Disorder, and Antisocial Personality. These DSM-V psychiatric diagnoses are often externally expressed in delinquency and crime.

Bowlby (1973): “The most violently angry and dysfunctional responses of all, it seems probable, are elicited in children and adolescents who not only experience repeated separations but are constantly subjected to the threat of abandonment.”

The concept of “social bonding” was introduced by Hirschi (1969) to explain a major cause of juvenile delinquency. Children lacking adequate levels of attachment are believed to be free from moral restraints. They are apt to act on impulse, without a conscience or feeling for others.

Continuing research has demonstrated a correlation between foster care and adult crime. Social bonds are repeatedly stressed as important in preventing delinquency.

  • A federal study of former foster care wards reported that 75 percent of Connecticut youths in the state’s juvenile justice system were once in foster care. (Bayles, 1995).
  • When children are tempted to engage in unacceptable behaviors, children with strong social bonds have a greater likelihood of conforming, and are less likely to become delinquent. (Furstenberg and Hughes, 1995).
  • Eighty percent of prisoners in Illinois spent time in foster care, according to a survey by the National Association of Social Workers. (Azar, 1995).
  • Problems with early attachment are apt to generalize during the adolescent years and set the stage for a failure to bond as an adult. The result is a higher incidence of both aggression and passionless crime. (Greenberg, 1999).
  • A variety of studies reported that 30 to 40 percent of foster children have been arrested since they exited foster care. Over one-fourth have spent at least one night in jail and over 15 percent had been convicted of a crime. This compares with only 3.2 percent of the general population who were on probation, in jail, or on parole in 2005. (Barth, 1990). (Alexander and Huberty, 1993). (Courtney et al, 2001).
  • One in four of the 20,000 children who “age out” of the foster care system each year will be incarcerated within two years. (Baccaglini, 2013).
  • Children aging out of the foster care system experience numerous difficulties, including an increased risk of engaging in delinquency and crime. Residence in group homes doubled the risk for delinquency. Ryan et al (2007) identified two major predictors of a more favorable outcome. One was school enrollment. The other was “placement stability,” otherwise known as a permanent home.
  • Children who experience multiple moves within the foster care system are more likely to engage in delinquency than those who expect to stay where they are. Even children who merely anticipate a change in placement (perceived instability) were significantly more likely to be involved in delinquency. (Ryan et al, 2008).
  • In 2009 Kingsley reported on the considerable research done to support the Hirschi theory that the lack of relationships and attachments is a significant cause of juvenile delinquency.
  • Out-of-home care experiences were found significantly correlated with violent crime. Multiple foster care placements contributed to an increase of three percent for each placement. Youths in group care were 80 percent more likely to engage in violent crime than those in traditional foster care. Multiple placements were also significantly correlated with an increase in non-violent crime and a high risk for arrest. As a foster child approaches transition to adulthood, having attachments reduces the risk of arrest. (Cusick et al, 2011).


Children who are emancipated into legal adulthood without a permanent home have no safety net, and no fallback family of origin. If they have been in foster care for an extended time, temporary living and the lack of a true home is a state they have learned while growing up. Small wonder then that foster care is correlated with homelessness.

People with a foster care history are over-represented in the homeless population. An overwhelming number of studies all report disproportionately large numbers of homeless adults who have had a history of foster care. (Kenny and Kenny, 2014, pp.208-209).

The following facts from www.childrensrights.org are shocking but should not surprise us. By its very nature, foster care is temporary and impermanent.

  • Three in ten of the nation’s homeless adults report a foster care history.
  • Former foster children tend to remain homeless for longer periods.
  • Homeless parents who have a history of foster care are almost twice as likely to have their own children placed in foster care as homeless parents without a background in foster care.
  • Sixty-five percent of emancipated foster youth leave the system with no place to go. Half of this group will become homeless within the first 18 months.
  • Fifty-eight percent of all young adults using federally funded youth shelters in 1997 had previously been in foster care.
  • Of the 1000 youth emancipated from the foster care system each year in Los Angeles County, 45 percent either go directly on to the streets or end up on the streets within six weeks. (Children’s Law Center, 2005).
  • Young adults emancipated from the foster care system had high rates of homelessness within 18 months. More than half experienced either homelessness or unstable housing. It is estimated that only one percent of American adults have a homeless episode annually and the lifetime prevalence is seven percent. (Kushel et al, 2007).
  • A two-year follow up of 265 adolescents in foster care in a large urban setting revealed that 43 percent had problems finding a stable residence and 20 percent were chronically homeless. (Fowler et al, 2009).


The importance of bonding is defined and supported by socio-psychological research and by many appellate court decisions. In addition, brain scans have recently provided clear evidence that brain structure is not simply genetically determined. Life experience during the first five years leads to trillions of new connections between neurons. As a result of brain research, relationships can no longer be referred to as merely psychological.

Bonding is a noteworthy attachment. The disruption of a bonded relationship in children has been correlated with a significant increase in mental illness, crime, and homelessness.

Kinship is easy to identify and is frequently given precedence. As we have proposed, bonding needs to be given equal weight and defined objectively in ways that can be presented in conferences and court.

Biological parents pass on their genes. Parents-in-place (de facto parents) pass on their life experiences (aka memes.) Both are enduring. Strong relationships and potential lifetime commitments are more valuable to the child than blood ties alone.

The primary consideration in matters of placement should be the rights of the child. Children have the right to a permanent home. As federal law (ASFA) makes clear, the rights of the child are paramount. Bonding outweighs biological kinship when serious harm might result from moving a bonded child.


ACT: adoptioninchildtime.org

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