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Dealing With a Lack of Bonding in Older Children

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Human relationships are, perhaps, the single most important thing in our existence. One of our most basic human needs is to feel a meaningful connection to others. The bond with our parents or caregivers is the first and most important relationship in our early lives. It makes a profound impact on every part of our being and establishes the groundwork for how we relate to others throughout the rest of our lives.

Bonding isn't something that people can do by themselves. It requires all parties to be fully committed to the process. In normal circumstances, babies instinctively seek the safety of their parents. And it's the parent's instinct to recognize his or her child's cues and respond appropriately. The hugs, kisses, eye contact and attention make the baby feel safe and loved, long before they understand the words that express these feelings.

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Parents and children influence each other, working together to form this important bond. Children who have learned how to form healthy attachments have a life full of intimate relationships with family, friends and romantic partners. But infants who don't form these early attachments are deeply impacted and have trouble forming meaningful relationships of any kind. They may exhibit avoidant and distant behavior, or the complete opposite, and be anxious and clingy. In severe cases, they often find little to no pleasure in being connected to others. They're emotionally distant and have few friends, if any. And the behavior gets more noticeable as they get older.

When children don't have that bond with their parents or caregivers, the result is a series of negative consequences that may follow them through life. These children are more prone to depression and anxiety, less able to cope with stress and tend to have poor relationships with other people.

There are a number of reasons why children can develop attachment problems. Children in the foster system or who live in orphanages are often moved from caregiver to caregiver, which doesn't give them that important time with a person that they trust. But even children who live with their parents can experience attachment problems. This can happen if the parent is away for periods of time due to a prolonged illness or other life issues. It can also happen if the child is seriously ill and spends a lot of time in hospitals. Behavioral issues in the child may also impact the child/parent bonding process. For example, if the child has a developmental disorder like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or Asperger's syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder, these issues can give the child a difficult temperament, which can be trying for parents and impact the bond.

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Abuse and neglect are both common offenders that create attachment issues. In situations of neglect, the child's needs for comfort and nurturing weren't met, so they learned not to seek out comfort from other people. And in situations of abuse, these basic needs were met with negative repercussions, discouraging the child from forming attachments with people. The living environment plays a big part as well. The stresses of poverty, single parenthood, marital conflict and family chaos can all contribute to a child's difficulty in forming attachments with others.

Find common ground and go from there.
Find common ground and go from there.
Lifesize/ThinkStock

Trying to deal with a child who has an attachment issue can be scary and stressful. The good news is that it's never too late to work with your child to help him assimilate into his environment a little better.

The main issue for children with attachment problems is safety. They don't feel safe in the world, which makes them distrustful and distant toward others. They keep up their guard as what they perceive to be a necessary defense mechanism, but it also keeps them from accepting love and support. In order to improve their sense of security, it's important to establish boundaries and routines. This way, they understand what is expected of them, what behaviors and actions are acceptable, and what the consequences will be if they don't follow the rules. Ultimately, this helps them understand that they have more control over their lives than previously thought. And, routine provides comfort that they're not used to having.

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Conflict can be especially stressful to children with attachment issues. After an event where you've had to discipline your child, be sure that you're available to make up as soon as he or she is ready. You child needs to know that you love him or her no matter what, so being available to reconnect following conflict is very important in your journey. This also means taking responsibility for your own mistakes. Sometimes, your frustration may get the best of you, and you may inadvertently say or do something insensitive. It's important to own up to it immediately and make amends. This will help your child understand that you're not perfect either, but regardless, you love him or her.

And for all of this, a healthy dose of patience is required. The process may not happen as quickly as you would like, and this can be frustrating and demoralizing. It's important to have realistic expectations, which may require altering your picture of normal. The best way to do this is take one day at a time. Make a point to recognize and celebrate small improvements along the way rather than focusing on the big picture. Kids can pick up on your feelings, and if they think you're discouraged, they will probably become discouraged, too. So, take care of yourself and manage your stress, so you can be the best you can be with them.

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Sources:

  • "AAMFT Consumer Update. Children's Attachment Relationships." Therapistlocator.net, 2010.http://www.therapistlocator.net/families/Consumer_Updates/ChildrenAttachment.asp
  • "Attachment and Bonding Info for Adoptive Parents." Olderchildadoption.com, 2010. http://www.olderchildadoption.com/attachment-and-bonding-info-for-adoptive-parents
  • "Attachment Disorders & Reactive Attachment Disorder." Helpguide.org, 2010. http://helpguide.org/mental/parenting_bonding_reactive_attachment_disorder.htm
  • "Attachment Explained." Attachmentexperts.com, 2010.http://www.attachmentexperts.com/whatisattachment.html
  • Perry, Bruce, D. "Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: How You Can Help." Scholastic.com, 2010. http://teacher.scholastic.com/professional/bruceperry/bonding_help.htm

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