An Objective Definition of Bonding

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.

In order to have meaning in court, the definition of bonding needs to be clear, specific and objective. Four specific and definitive criteria for bonding emerge from the current extensive research. They are contained in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) and, in one way or another, in many of the state child welfare manuals. The criteria are: length of time spent together, the behavior of the child, reciprocal attachment and family identification. Any one of these practical definitions standing alone is sufficient to demonstrate that bonding has occurred.

ASFA marked a turning point in child welfare. Prior to ASFA, reunification was the automatic goal for every child in out-of-home placement. For the first time, with the passage of ASFA, the law stated that the rights of the child might supersede those of the birth parents. When President Clinton signed ASFA into law in 1997, he commented that the child’s rights had become paramount. To receive federal funds, each state was required to follow ASFA’s guidelines.  Nevertheless, the law was and still is open to interpretation by each state and county, and even by individual judges.

Typically, states are cost-conscious in their social welfare budgets and try to save money, one way being that they are required to find adoptive placements that do not require continuing subsidies. Nevertheless, the 2000 Indiana Child Welfare Manual, for example, states that post-adoption subsidies are warranted in three situations, suggesting that the child’s best interests are more important than money. All three refer to bonding. The exceptional situations 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.

Animals have a den to which they can retreat in times of stress. Humans too need the security of place. 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 all but 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.

Time in place

Bonding may take place as early as three months in a parent-child family setting. 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 different permanency plan than reunification may be selected.

Bonding is almost certain after one year, unless one is dealing with a detached or psychopathic child. Without treatment, the detached child has lost the ability to bond with anyone. Even in such cases, when the child appears incapable of bonding, the court can 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. Recognizing that a year is a very long time in the life of a developing child, the Adoption and Safe Families Act 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. At some point the child’s right to permanence and emotional stability must outweigh the rights of the biological parents.

Biological parents should be given immediate help and the opportunity to change neglectful or abusive behavior. But as ASFA requires, they must do so within a reasonable time, within child 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 preeminent. This preeminence exists even though the biological parents may not be at fault. Biological parents should not be given unlimited time and chances to reform their lives at the expense of a child’s normal growth and development.

The behavior of the child

Observe the child. This is a second way to determine whether bonding has occurred. Research suggests that bonding can be established by the way a child interacts with others. 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.

Checklists can be used to determine and measure these behaviors clinically.[i] Here are a few examples.

  • 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 other behaviors. A more complete list is available in chapter 12.

Bonding is reciprocal

Measuring the interaction between the parent and child is a third way to measure bonding. Stokes and Strothman[ii] focused on this mutual interplay in presenting their structured dyadic interview to assess the strength of the parent-child relationship. Arredondo[iii] posited a “reciprocal connectedness,” which he characterized as a mutual interrelatedness characterized by reciprocity and developmental sensitivity.

A detailed history of the time parents and child have lived together can provide a practical measure of how connected they are. 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 foster-to-adopt parents can offer compelling documentation of their ongoing interaction and commitment.

In addition to noting the existing track record of the foster/adopt parents with the child, a good bonding assessment will include 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. Depending on the child’s age, the commitment may be expressed verbally or implied from the child’s behavior.

Family identification

Researchers can become so intent on examining the specific parent/child relationship that they ignore the collective wisdom embedded in the larger community. Our jury system and our very trust in democracy are evidence of the reliance our founding fathers placed in the judgment of our peers. Folk wisdom offers a fourth way to measure bonding.

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. The Indiana Child Welfare Manual[iv] is practical and explicit in directing case managers to identify and protect bonded relationships with the foster parents by validating the cumulative knowledge of the community. Specific guidelines are provided 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.

Sibling bonding

No one would oppose the policy that tries to keep siblings together when they are first removed from an abusive home. Every effort must be made to find a foster home that can accept all the children. This is important not just because of their genetic ties, but because they have lived together and are likely bonded to each other in ways that amplify their blood tie. The bond between siblings may continue throughout life.

Who are the child’s brothers and sisters? Despite the general consensus for a much broader interpretation, some case managers and judges consider only genetic siblings. The word “sibling” transcends genetic ties and refers to a child’s relationship with a peer with whom he lives and who plays a significant role in his life. The dictionary defines “sibling” as a brother or sister. It goes on to define brother all the way from “a child of the same parent or parents” to a “comrade or friend.”

How do siblings bond? Children develop connections with one another over time in the same way that bonding happens between children and adults. The same definition of bonding applies to sibling relationships as it does to parent/child connections. “Bonding is a significant reciprocal attachment between children which both parties want and expect to continue, and which is interrupted or terminated at considerable long-term peril to the persons involved. Bonding results from sharing over time important events in daily life, such as eating, sleeping, and playing together.” The same four criteria apply: Time, Behavior, Reciprocity and Family Identification.

Protecting both genetic and bonded relationships need not be a contradiction. Wherever possible, siblings should be placed together at the time of removal. If, however, siblings are separated for six months or more, then the new relationships that have been formed should be evaluated before disrupting them to “honor” genetics.

What if a choice must be made between a “blood” brother and the foster brother with whom the child has bonded? What about half-brothers? Step-sisters? Foster brothers? Sisters of the heart? Being related by genes does not necessarily create a personal bond. When siblings are separated or unknown to one another, evaluating their relationship presents the same problem that adoptive parents face with kin family, weighing the importance between blood and bonded relationships. The best principle is to start with kin, but honor the bond.

Separating a child from his siblings at the outset, and then doing it again after he has bonded to new parents and brothers and sisters, even if well-intentioned, is misguided and cruel. Worse, to remove a child from a home where he has bonded and place him back with later-born siblings or an unknown relative whom he has never known, represents a failure to understand the true function of relationships. Genetic connections are only one way that attachments come about. Bonding, when it is demonstrated, represents a more significant relationship than simply a sharing of genes.

Family refers to the people you live with, not simply to your family of origin. Siblings are all your brothers and sisters, not only those with whom you have a blood tie, but those with whom you have shared a family life.

Multiple attachments or bonds

Bonding is person-specific, but it is not exclusive. What can be done when there are conflicting attachments or bonds? Older children may be significantly attached to their birth parents, and subsequently, during their stay as foster children, they become significantly attached to foster parents, as well. Following the research that indicates that bonded relationships are disrupted at peril, an effort should be made to maintain contact with all parties.

When the adopting parents already know the birth parents, ongoing contact may occur naturally. In this situation and some others, a cooperative adoption may be in the child’s best interests. A cooperative adoption allows for limited but continuing post-adoption contact between the child and his significant others, which may include kin family and siblings. More limited, but much like the visitation granted to the non-custodial parent in a divorce, the child enjoys the advantage of a stable and permanent home while maintaining ties with his or her extended family. The advantages and problems of a cooperative adoption are more fully addressed in Chapter 9.

A choice of home for the child must sometimes be made between competing parents or families. Bonding may not be the only important factor. Other issues might include a consideration of the health of the parent, one- versus two-parent families, a history of abuse or criminality, and financial stability. When these factors do not appear decisive, then bonding assumes prominence.

If and when it can be proven, then bonding should weigh more than genes alone. If the child is already bonded by definition to more than one set of parents, then the comparative strength of the bonds should be considered. The strength can be measured by comparing the length of time spent with the parties and the future prospects for permanence contained in the commitment.

Bonding myth-conceptions

 Because bonding has often been so vaguely defined, some misconceptions or myths have arisen, which sadly seem to serve the purposes of those expounding them. These myths about bonding need to be addressed and discounted.

Myth One: Bonding is simply a positive attachment, a general word that expresses nothing more than a connection with others.

This myth diminishes the importance of bonding. While bonding is surely an attachment, it is a vital and compelling one, a rare relationship whose disruption significantly increases the future likelihood of mental illness, crime and homelessness.

Myth Two: No harm is done when an infant or small child is moved from home to home because they will not remember the experience later.

The opposite is true. According to almost every expert, the initial year of life is critical in child development. The principle of primacy over “recency” applies. The earlier in life an event occurs, the more significant are its consequences.

The innocent-child myth wrongly assumes that children are blank slates and, like an Etch-a-Sketch, the slate can be scraped clean for new and better experiences to occur that rewrite his life’s script. In fact, we know from brain scans that an enormous amount of learning takes place in the early months and years of life, much of which, good or bad, remains in place to color further learning.

The first two years of a child’s life are pre-verbal. Because early life experiences are not mediated and analyzed by words, they make a more generalized and lasting impression than later ones. Erikson[v] posits that the lifelong attitude whether to trust or distrust the world is formed in the first year or two. If an infant’s mother is not there to meet basic needs, the baby’s whole world falls apart. The infant may see himself as unlovable and living in a world that is not to be trusted. Infants generalize. Separation and loss are hard for adults, but they are catastrophic and life-shaping for a small child.

Child development can be compared to the ocean voyage of a ship from New York to Spain. A small navigational error made just short of the Spanish port might cause the ship to scrape the dock. That same error made in the beginning while leaving New York might cause the ship to miss the entire coast of Spain. The earlier a consequential event occurs in life, the more it determines later patterns of adjustment.

Myth Three: Any problems stemming from attachment and loss can be fixed later by therapy or remedied by love and consistency. Children are resilient. They are so young that, with help, they can overcome anything.

This opinion is naively optimistic. Developmental specialists tell a very different story. The child’s early loss of a bonded caregiver sets an almost irreversible pattern, coloring future relationships with suspicion. This distrustful attitude is pre-verbal and deeply embedded, beyond the reach of verbal, play and holding therapies. The notion that continuing love and consistency will remedy the trauma created by loss assumes that one is dealing with a child that is able to accept and trust love. For love to heal, it must flow both ways and not be blocked by the child’s innate fear and disbelief.

Myth Four: Bonding is a learned skill. The child who has bonded well in one family is a “good bonder” and will do well if moved to another family.

Some psychologists and social workers have naively believed that multiple placements have taught 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.

When first placed in a foster home, some children may appear superficially pleasant and charming. Honeymoons are common and can be misleading. The honeymoon may last as long as three months. The child is coming from an abusive or neglected situation and entering a strange new place. While it should be no surprise that the child puts on a pleasant mask, temporary good manners do not constitute a healthy attachment. In fact, experienced foster parents have learned to be wary of the child who comes on with compliance too quickly.

The “good-bonder” myth is comparable to telling a widow that she will get over the loss of a beloved spouse because she has learned to be a “good lover.” Rather than being a compliment, such a comment is thoughtless. All the advice books, recognizing that her decision-making is likely to be impaired, recommend that she wait at least a year before making any major change.

Suppose that you have been happily married for two years when the kindly, well-meaning person in charge of your life announces, “You are so good at marriage that we have decided to move you. Tonight you are going to a different home with a different husband. It is a very nice place, and he is a wonderful person. You’re really going to like it there.” Crazy? No more crazy than telling a bonded foster child that he will do or be well moving to a new placement.

Bonding is elemental. It’s what happens to normal people over time when they share meals and bedtime stories, chores and recreation, watch TV and play video games together, go shopping and to baseball games. Bonding is part of the process of living together. Bonding takes time, it takes being together day after day. When the bonded relationship between a child and parent is severed, it will take a long time, if ever, for the child to recover.

Humans do not bond to just anyone. They bond to this particular person in this particular place, and once hurt by losing that relationship, they are understandably hesitant to re-bond. They may never form a bond again.

Myth Five: Bonding can grow and develop through regular visitation.

Wrong. People may become acquainted in that way, but bonding is not likely to 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. Bonding takes time, usually a period of 24/7 contact for several months. This typically happens between parent and child where the parties fulfill different but vital needs. The parents fulfill the child’s needs for food, shelter and nurture. The child conversely fulfills the parents’ need for purpose, completion and love. Bonding will not occur over a weekend or through afternoon visitations at a welfare office or a fast food restaurant.

Requiring visitation is a common mistake often made in a late attempt to involve a newcomer in the permanency plan after the foster child has been in one placement for a year or more. The child has probably already bonded to his or her long-term foster/adopt parents. Then a blood relative arrives late on the scene and makes known their wish to adopt. Visitation is ordered by the court in a belated attempt to initiate a new bonding process and “see if it takes.”

Bonding, however, won’t happen that way and that scenario may only put the child through an unnecessary and sometimes painful game of peek-a-boo. Goldstein et al[vi] make clear that the psychological parent is not someone the child visits but rather the child’s primary and everyday caretaker.

 Myth Six: Kinship comes first, no matter what or when. As one judge announced to the court in placing the child with a late-arriving relative: “I know where this child belongs. He belongs with his family.”

This may sound good but it is not correct. 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.

Western white middle-class culture focuses narrowly on the genetic nuclear family. Other cultures acknowledge the extended family network that provides physical, financial and emotional support. The terms grandmother and grandfather, uncle and aunt, brother and sister are often applied to the individuals who fill these roles. They may not necessarily be blood relatives, but they are truly related in a substantive and vital way. Questions such as, “Who is living in the home?” and “Who helps you out?” may help identify these bonded but non-genetic relatives.

Blood ties are not the only ties, nor are they necessarily more vital than bonding. True bonding, bonding that has been objectively defined and identified, takes precedence over mere genetic ties.


“Traditional wisdom knows that we can be crushed by grief and die of a broken heart, and also that a jilted lover is apt to do things that are foolish or dangerous to himself or others. It knows too that neither love nor grief is felt for just any human being, but only for one, or a few particular and individual human beings.”[vii]

Bonding is the highest and most intense form of attachment. When two items are attached with super glue, they are bonded. Pulling them apart is very difficult. Separation is possible but at some considerable cost. Parts of both sides may be broken or torn. The result is ugly.

Chapter 3: An Objective Definition of Bonding Notes

[i] See Chapter 2 Note 9 above.

[ii] John Stokes and Linda Strothman, “The use of bonding studies in child welfare permanency planning,” Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 1996, Vol. 13, No. 4.

[iii] David Arredondo and Leonard Edwards, “Attachment, bonding, and reciprocal connectedness: Limitations of attachment theory in the juvenile and family court.” Journal of the Center for Families, Children, and the Courts, Vol. 2, 2000. 109-127.

[iv] Indiana Child Welfare Manual (Revised, 2000) Section 805:12 and others.

[v] Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, (New York: Norton, 1950)

[vi] Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert J. Solnit, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, (New York: International U., 1973)

[vii] John Bowlby, The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. (London: Tavistock, 1979)


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