Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

"Re-creating Experiences"

You can't go home and get "bonded" again.

A friend sent me a link to an interesting web site, This link shows an announcement/advertisement for a program about "how to re-create the bonding experience" for the benefit of adoptive families. There are multiple claims folded into this apparently simple statement-- that "bonding" is a useful term, that "bonding" occurs because of a controllable experience, that that experience can be "re-created", and that such "re-creation" will have some measurable positive effect.

Let's examine these claims under a strong light.

1. Bonding is a useful term... but in fact it's been many years since most psychologists used this term at all, and when they did use it (as in J.H. Kennell and M.H. Klause [eds.]. "Parent-Infant Bonding", 1982; St. Louis: Mosby) they were referring to the surge in positive feeling toward an infant that many parents feel shortly after birth, and most feel at some time within the first few months of the baby's life. "Bonding" did at one time seem to be a useful word to describe parents' positive feelings, but those feelings proved to be difficult to measure. However, the courts adopted the word in a combined form-- a sort of "bondingandattachment"-- which referred to a child's feelings about familiar adults. The nursing profession also came to use "bonding" in a different way, to refer to early affectionate interactions between a mother and her newborn, which could be encouraged and modeled in order to help the mother develop strong positive feelings toward the child. In the case of the "seminar" advertised at the link given earlier, it seems that the presenter is using "bonding" to mean "attachment", positive feelings of a child toward a familiar adult. Nothing at the presenter's web site suggests that her methods alter the adoptive parents' emotions. The child is the focus of interest.
2. Bonding occurs because of a controllable experience... as a result of our conclusion in #1, we can assume that this is translatable into "attachment [of the child] occurs because of a controllable experience". In fact, reams of research on attachment have shown two important things. The first is that attachment, as it is usually considered, is most likely to occur when a child is between about 6 months and 2 years of age. The child's developmental status interacts with experiences to produce attachment, so an experience alone does not create this phenomenon. Second, there is no single event that causes attachment (and most particularly, attachment is not related to feeding of milk or other sweet things, as claimed by the seminar presenter). Attachment develops following a lengthy series of social interactions that are pleasurable for both adult and baby. Early in this series, the adult needs to work to "woo" the baby and get him or her interested; later, the baby begins to play an active role in this social play. Many babies do seem rather suddenly to change their behavior, to act wary of strangers and to try to stay near familiar people. However, the sudden change in attachment behavior does not mean that attachment occurred in a short time frame or because of some specific experience the baby had. This means that no brief experience (even a "two-week intensive") can replicate the actual events that culminate in attachment.
3. The experience can be replicated or "re-created".... Although it's remotely conceivable that an adult could devote months to the kinds of behavior that normally "woo" an infant into the attachment relationship, unless the child reciprocated with infant-like behavior, the two could not "re-create" an experience resembling early interactions relevant to attachment.
4. "Re-creating" the experience will have a measurable positive effect... Advocates of this kind of thinking have presented several research reports claiming that children said to be diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder behaved better following this type of "re-creation", but examination of their work shows that they have not succeeded in supporting the claim. And this is hardly surprising, given the nature of attachment and its precursors. As I mentioned earlier, emotional attachment normally develops through an interaction between the child's developmental stage and his or her experiences with familiar adults. While I don't want to exaggerate the idea of a "critical period" such that a developmental event can occur at no other time, nevertheless the evidence seems to be that attachment is a fairly simple process in early life, but attachment and related aspects of development like language take much more effort and time later in childhood. (This seems to be shown by the reports of Michael Rutter and his research group about children from Romanian orphanages who were adopted by British families.) It's unknown in the natural world for some event in the environment to recapitulate aspects of early development, and we should not expect psychosocial interventions to do so.

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Sorry, there is no magic way to "re-create" and "fix" unfortunate past experiences. Treatment of family-related problems is a slow process that requires a lot of reflection as well as emotional engagement. Under the First Amendment, the seminar presenter can make her contrary claims freely, but the rest of us have some responsibility for examining the facts and logic behind the claims.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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