Brain Research Supports Bonding

By James Kenny, PhD, Peter Kenny, Esq., and Steve Egan

Bonding 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.

Bonding to a specific person or persons is critical to a child’s healthy development. 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 in the context of continuing important relationships.

When a judge must decide where legally and best to place a child whose primary home has been broken or lost, laws clearly must be followed. But what guides are available? The court must interpret the child’s best interests. Are genes, however, the sole determinant? 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. Bonding when properly defined and understood, merits equal consideration with blood ties. How shall the judge weigh the genetic relationship against the parent-in-place?

For bonding to be considered, however, an objective definition must be provided, along with data that details the consequences of its disruption. Socio-psychological research has long provided compelling evidence of bonding’s importance. Appellate court decisions that favor bonding have mounted. And now, we are learning that bonding has a physical counterpart, comparable to genes.

Genetic kinship needs no explanation. For welfare departments and courts to give bonding the attention it deserves, however, bonding must first be properly explained and objectively defined. Compelling evidence from socio-psychological research documents the increase in dire consequences from the disruption of bonded connections. Also presented are citations and terminology from appellate court rulings favoring bonded relationships over mere blood kinship.

Brain scans from early childhood have now added physical verification to the psychological and legal aspects of bonding. Neurons in the newborn’s brain are in place at birth and ready to go. As the child develops, especially in the pre-school years, observable connections in the child’s brain are fashioned from the child’s unique environment and experiences. Many of these neural connections certainly reflect personal attachments. Brain scans indicate that these attachments are “real.” Bonding, a significant attachment, is embedded in the neural pathways that will have been connected over time while being cared for by the de facto parents.