Attachment and Bonding How They Work & Why They Don’t



I have been wrestling with the question of whether or not we can expect parents to bond to a child if the child is having a difficult time attaching because of trauma history.  My own bias is that If the parent doesn’t bond or allows themselves to hold back, attachment will almost never occur or it will be very far in the future which of course it probably will be any way.  I don’t believe that a child will ever truly trust a parent who doesn’t love them and will never attach because it won’t feel safe.  What are your thoughts/experiences? – Thanks, Elaine


Dear Elaine,

That is a beautiful question, and one that many parents wonder about.

Attachment and bonding is the dance between parent and child.  Both have their place.

The literature uses the term attachment to describe what the child does. And bonding to describe what the parent does. It is literally a beautiful dance.

Trauma is interference. When pre-birth and early life trauma occurs it affects the mind body system in a way that makes the dance more difficult. Read this statement as inclusive.

When pre-birth or early life trauma occurs to either the child or the parent or both, it makes the dance of attachment and bonding more challenging.

Let’s consider the dynamics frequent behaviors related to pre-birth and early life trauma for infant, toddler, child, teen with trauma: cries easily, hard to sooth, heightened state of arousal, food sensitive, tactile sensitive, cringes at touch, arches back, rigid when held, older child is argumentative, aggressive, defensive, always has to be right, chatty, agitated, anxious, vigilant, self loathing, depressed, and internalized. This is a short list of behaviors that are often present when pre-birth and early life trauma occurs.

Many parents adopt with the expectation or hope of having a sweet loving baby; a baby that feels warm and snugly, a baby to love and love them in return, a baby whom the parent can meet their needs, and also have their own needs met.

Hopefully the parent attempts bonding. Hopefully the adoptive parent is interested in really connecting with the baby.

But the baby is traumatized.  The baby experienced very different chemicals and rhythms in the womb, and older children experienced very different ways of relating in their early life.  These differences are the blueprints of the brain and neurological system.

For example:
The parent attempts to soothe the baby when it cries and the baby is rigid, the baby doesn’t respond to the efforts to soothe.This can be a huge trigger for parents.  Remember parents have the need to love and be loved in return.  The rigid baby, the baby who cries and cries and doesn’t respond to soothing the way the parent expected, the tantrum throwing child, the anxious vigilant child, the defended child, the child who does not trust, etc. for parents this triggers their own pre-birth early life experiences.

If as a child the parent was sent away with upset emotions, if tears were never accepted then it will be difficult to accept the cries of their baby and the continued crying will likely triggered significant stress for the parent at a core level. If the parent experienced rejection during their early life experiences then the infant or child’s challenges to soothe will feel like rejection to the parent.

Attachment and Bonding is an intimate dance.

Dr. Marcy Axness, author of Parenting for Peace, says it like this, while in the womb the baby is being wired for the environment for which it will be born.  These are the pre-birth and early life blueprints.  It has to be acknowledged and understood. Relationship is a must.  Understanding even with infants is so important.  Attunement, connecting with the infant experience, Skin to skin contact,  self awareness, really sensing the babies needs, and really sensing our own needs is so important.  This is true no matter the age.

Everything I just said sounds like I am talking about what is required of parents to children, and it is, and at the same time parents who haven’t experienced this, parents who have their own pre-birth and early life traumas will need soothing and understanding in the same way at some level. That is likely way more than you were expecting.  I hope it’s helpful.

Much Love,
Kristi Saul (Head Parenting Coach for The Post Institute)