What Happens When Bonding Is Interrupted?

Bonded relationships are critical in child development. When a bonded relationship is threatened or severed, trauma results. Ainsworth (1993), Maier (1994), Keck (1995), Holmes (1996), and Hughes (1997) all discuss the dire consequences of the disruption of bonding.

“Many of the most intense of all human emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption, and the renewal of affectional bonds. In terms of subjective experience, the formation of a bond is described as falling in love, maintaining a bond as loving someone, and losing a partner as grieving over someone. The threat of loss arouses anxiety. Actual loss causes sorrow. Both situations are likely to arouse anger. On the positive side, the unchallenged maintenance of a bond is experienced as a source of security and the renewal of a bond as a source of joy.” (Bowlby, 1979)

“Neither blood ties to the child nor sex of the primary caretaker seem to be as important as the relationship this person has to the child.” (Fahlberg, 1979) Later, the same author lists the many negative consequences of the lack of attachment and bonding. Children develop a “What’s in it for me?” attitude and exhibit the following behaviors to keep people away: poor eye contact, withdrawal, chronic anxiety, aggressive behavior, indiscriminate affection, over-competency, lack of self-awareness, control battles, and delayed conscience development.

John Pardeck in his 1984 empirical article on “Multiple Placement of Foster Children” concludes that many foster children develop important psychological ties to their foster parents that may be as strong as those with their birth parents.

“The more continuity is disrupted, be it through multiple moves or through being left too long in limbo while wardship and future plans are being contested, the greater the risk of severe and lasting personality damage...Many juvenile court judges, lawyers, and even Children's Aid Society workers still do not fully appreciate how damaging it is for a child to be left in limbo while his case is adjourned again and again to suit the convenience of the parents or the legal system.” (Steinhauer, 1991)

“Child development specialists agree that the ability to form lasting bonds with any caregiver is severely reduced if a child undergoes too many separations or lingers in impermanence too long. By allowing impermanence for abused or neglected children in our care we are causing further damage. We are damaging children’s capacity to form the lasting ties that make families secure and safe.” (Cahn and Johnson, 1993)

The transition from foster care to independence is difficult. Thirty-seven percent of these youths experienced one or more homeless episodes, incarcerations, victimizations, or sexual assaults. (Courtney et al, 2001)

Iwaniec’s 2006 review of the research lists some of the dire consequences that follow problems with bonding: “Reduced capacity to form meaningful emotional bonds with others; development of a fragile sense of self with resultant interpersonal difficulties; tendency towards negative self-evaluation; dysfunctional cognitions; and an impaired repertoire of defenses and coping strategies.”

Feeney et al (2007) examined the impact of infant adoption on later adult relationships. The authors found that attachment issues and parental bonding were more important than adoption status in predicting adult relationship outcomes.

Neurogenesis refers to the formation of new brain cells, physically embedding the newborn and growing child’s experiences. Recent research with brain-imaging techniques has demonstrated that the brain continues to form in response to the environment. The newborn begins its life hard-wired by genetics. However, changes in the brain can actually be observed and measured while the child learns and grows and bonds. The brain is, in a real sense, becoming re-wired, especially in relation to early life experiences and human interaction. In other words, bonding, when it can be demonstrated, is both physical and psychological.

“The fundamental characteristics of human consciousness and identity are that they are shaped and reshaped by a brain that is continually adapting to the world around us. Whether we’re reading or walking, dreaming or talking, the particular impulses and pathways of the brain’s billions of neurons are storing experiences, learning and unlearning, and creating us anew in the process.” (Conlan, 1999)

Arredondo et al in 2000 relates life experience to changes in brain structure: “The developing cerebral cortex is exquisitely sensitive to external experiences. In other words, early childhood experiences in interaction with the outside world will, in part, determine the child’s subsequent capacities in the higher human faculties. It is the bidirectional interaction (reciprocal connectedness) with a responsive external environment that supports the development of internal brain capacity for higher mental functions such as interpersonal sensitivity, empathy, compassion, and resilience.”

McEwen in his 2007 chapter “Stress and the Brain,” underlines the critical importance of the environment: “Early life experiences perhaps carry an even greater weight in terms of how an individual reacts to new situations. Early life physical and sexual abuse carries with it a life-long burden of behavioral and pathophysiological problems. Moreover, cold and uncaring families produce long-lasting emotional problems in children. Some of these effects are seen on brain structure and function and in the risk for later depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.” The same might well be said about the interruption of bonded relationships.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report in 2000 on “Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care.” They note: “During the first 3 to 4 years of life, the anatomic brain structures that govern personality traits, learning processes, and coping with stress and emotions are established, strengthened, and made permanent…..The nerve connections and neurotransmitter networks that are forming during these critical years are influenced by negative environmental conditions….It is known that emotional and cognitive disruptions in the early lives of children have the potential to impair brain development…. In terms of evolution, the cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that was last to appear and the part that is most quintessentially human. In addition to language and speech (e.g., reading, comprehension, writing), it is home to mathematical abilities. More important to decision makers such as judges, however, is the fact that the cortex is the home of conscience, abstract reasoning, empathy, compassion, moral development, and social skills.”

By interrupting the child with traumatic moves and separations, any attempt to bond is disrupted. The child’s developing brain is severely impaired, setting the stage for learning disorders, behavioral problems, and mental or emotional dysfunction.

The Pediatric Academy issued another report in 2008 on “Understanding the Behavioral and Emotional Consequences of Child Abuse.” Again, they warn of the serious consequences resulting from disruption and trauma in early childhood. “Once thought of as an enigmatic ‘black box,’ the brain is now seen as a complex of specialized, interactive organs, constantly developing through interaction with the environment and each other. Nowhere is this development more dramatic than in the first 3 years of life as the young brain undergoes sweeping structural change as it senses and adapts to the environment in which it finds itself.”

A child who is well-adjusted in the beginning may give up after facing too many crises. Why bother adjusting? It becomes too painful to attach if one must face the crisis of loss again and again. Still more tragic, an unfortunate pattern of anticipating rejection may develop, an expectation which shapes future relationships even when the fear of loss may appear no longer realistic to an outside party..

Poet and foster child, Jaiya John, in his 2007 book “Reflection Pond,” expresses the pain well: “Each successive separation (trauma) leaves behind incremental wounds that blockade the avenues of a child’s ability to receive and offer love just as plaque obstructs blood from flowing through arteries. Obstructed arteries bring us heart attack and stroke. Obstructed attachment channels (cognitive, behavioral, affective, spiritual, creative) bring her systemic breakdowns. These breakdowns manifest as injuries to her whole, creating further inflammation to her internal channels.”

Interrupting or severing bonded relationships takes a heavy toll on human health and well-being. It is as serious as brain surgery, death or divorce. The younger the child and the deeper the bond, the more devastating is the consequence.

The trauma begins with the initial abuse and/or neglect, when a decision is made to change homes for the basic safety and good of the child. The child often sees the removal as his fault. If I were a good and desirable person, this would not have happened. When separation occurs, self-blame by the child is very common.

The foster care system is set up to provide temporary relief for the abused and neglected child while a more permanent plan is arranged. However, because of inefficiency and bureaucracy in the child welfare system and delays in the courts, the very systems designed to protect the child become major abusers. Delay, by allowing bonding to take place in the foster home, and then interrupting it again, can cause serious and lasting damage to a child. The impersonal systems create the unbonded child, the child who suffers from a failure to attach.

Unresolved separation and loss, multiple placements, long delays in limbo (over three months), and interrupted bonding can lead to psychopathy, aggression, a loss of capacity for intimacy, and mental illness in adolescence and adulthood.