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Bonding with Your Child


Chapter 3: Bonding with Your Child
Tools for Parents with Special Needs
By James J. Messina, Ph.D., CCMHC, NCC, DCMHS

A. What is bonding?

Bonding is very important when discussing your parental response to your child who has a special need. It is imperative that you understand what bonding is and how it can impact the emotional well being of your children. Bonding is:

  • the forming of a mutual emotional attachment between parent and child.
  • the giving of unconditional love by the parent to the child.
  • the development of an emotional connection between parent and child.
  • the development of a sense of security for the child.
  • the establishment of an emotional intimacy and sense of closeness between parent and child.
  • the beginning step in helping the child to feel a healthy self-worth and self-esteem.
  • the transmission of familial ties between child and parent through which nonverbal communication and understanding takes place.
  • a means of providing the child with a sense of belonging to a family.
  • a way of bringing the child into the larger network of caring and love present in the parent's extended family.
  • the concern and love for the child by the parent, and for the parent by the child, which is exhibited in all aspects of both their lives.

B.  What is over bonding?

Parents of children with special needs can go to the extreme of over bonding with their children. Over bonding is:

  • the forming of an over-dependent relationship between parent and child.
  • the forming of a relationship in which the parent becomes over responsible for the child.
  • the forming of a relationship in which the parent is overly concerned for the child putting these concerns before the needs of the spouse and other family members.
  • a relationship in which a parent is so guilt ridden due to the child's early problems/special need that the child is smothered with attention and all personal needs of the parent are ignored or dropped to meet the needs of this child.
  • a relationship in which the child is overindulged.
  • a relationship in which the child is unable to develop a sense of individual personality or autonomy.
  • a  relationship in which a child is neither encouraged nor allowed to accept personal responsibility for personal actions.
  • a relationship in which one parent focuses all personal attention onto the target child to the exclusion of the spouse and other family members.
  • a relationship in which the rights of an individual are ignored or excluded in order to more fully address the needs of a second individual who appears to be more ''needy'' or ''deserving.''
  • a relationship in which one person devotes one's entire life, energy, efforts, and health for the sake of another person.
C. How is bonding manifested?

Parents of children with special needs should review the following signs of mutual bonding between parent and child to assess how well they have bonded with their children.The degree of bonding between parent and child is shown by:

  • the parents' attitude and interest in their child.
  • the way the child is held or touched.
  • how comfortable the child is in leaving the parents to enter a strange environment.
  • the child's ability to be secure in a social environment.
  • the child's degree of self-confidence.
  • the child's sense of self-concept and self-esteem.

A parent's response to the child's special needs reflects how well they are bonded. The signs to analyze as to how close or distantly the parents are bonded with their children with special needs are if the parents are:

  • overly protective, smothering, and hysterical can mean over bonding.
  • acceptance, relaxation and coping can mean normal bonding.
  • detachment, rejection, withdrawal can mean a lack of bonding.

A parents' response to the helpers of the child with special needs reflects the level of bonding. If the parent is:

  • critical, non-trusting, lack of faith can mean over bonding.
  • involved, active can mean normal bonding.
  • disinterest, ignoring can show a lack of bonding.


The manner in which a parent deals with the child's diagnosed special need reflects the level of bonding. If the parent is:

  • permissive, babying, pampering can mean over bonding.
  • cooperative, helpful, understanding can mean normal bonding.
  • blaming the child, ostracizing, condemning can show a lack of bonding.

D.  What are some obstacles to bonding?

Parents of children with special needs are faced with many obstacles to healthy bonding with their children such as:

  1. An unhealthy pregnancy: Parental anxiety can result in the child being blamed for the problems, therefore interfering with bonding.
  2. A problem delivery:  Extreme pain and discomfort can be a barrier to healthy bonding.
  3. A premature birth: This can interfere with bonding because the child is often immediately taken from parents for medical intervention.
  4. Intensive Care Nursery placement of child: A child being kept in an intensive care nursery can prevent touching, holding, rocking, therefore healthy initial bonding between parent and child is not formed.
  5. Diagnosis of special need: The diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental disability, chronic illness or some other form of special need can result in the parents' having a grief response resulting in poor bonding.
  6. Child's Behavior: Behavior problems or not performing up to a parent's anticipations can impede bonding.
  7. School problems and lack of achievement can impede bonding.
  8. Special treatments: A child needing specialized services and treatment can impede bonding.
  9. Child Pawns: Spouses who use the children as pawns in marital warfare can interfere with bonding between parent and child.
  10. Child's Search for Autonomy: The natural development to a stage of seeking independence and autonomy can interfere with bonding.

Recognizing these obstacles to bonding you can take steps to improve the bonding with your child with special needs. This holds true even for your typical children as well.

E. What are some ways to improve bonding?

You can improve the bonding with your child with special needs by doing one or all of the following:

  • When the child is a baby place it on your chest/stomach area while you both relax.
  • Use lots of physical touch, caressing, or baby massage.
  • Talk often to the child, surround child with an atmosphere of communication.
  • Physically hold the child face to face.
  • Talk to the child face to face.
  • Get down to the child's level to make eye contact when talking.
  • Work at meeting the ''match'' of the child. Encourage the child to do those things for which the child is ready and capable. Try not to expect too much too soon, frustrating both child and parent.
  • Speak in a loving and caring manner to child, helping the message of bonding to get through.
  • Show respect for the child; do not expect the child to act like an ''adult'' when child-like behavior is normal.
  • Play with the child at the child's level of understanding and ability.
  • Always listen carefully to the child and offer empathy and understanding when the child is troubled.
  • Encourage interaction between your child and your child's peers.
  • Be honest with the child when describing or dealing with problems in the family or with the child.
  • Be supportive of the child as the child faces the harsh realities of life and becomes fearful, scared, or concerned about the future.
  • Let the child grow up to be his own person; encourage the development of independent and autonomous thinking.
  • Assist your child in becoming a good problem solver by encouraging the honest and open  exploration and discussion of options and alternatives when facing problems.

F.  Activities to improve bonding between parent and child

The following activities can increase bonding between parent and child:

 

1. Body Touching: If your child is an infant, lay your naked child on your bare chest and let your bodies touch. Lie this way 30 minutes a day for 10 to 14 days to increase the touch experience. Talk gently and lovingly to your child. (Use a blanket or sheet if needed for the cold.)

 

2. Simulated Breast Feeding: With infants who cannot be breast fed, pretend you are breast feeding by having the baby lie on your bare chest as you feed the baby formula This is an excellent way to recapture the lost opportunity to bond through breast feeding. It is a great activity for fathers and brothers of children who are being breast fed. Physical contact, body to body, during feeding creates a special bond between parent and child.

 

3. Face to Face: If your child is talking, sit face to face and play a game of touching and naming each other's body parts. This encourages concept development, sexual awareness, and physical contact. It is fun! Do this once or twice a week until you are comfortable in giving and receiving physical touches with your child.

 

4. Hug-a-Game: Play a game with your child in which the reward for the correct answer or correct move is to get a hug from the others in the game. You can do this with flash cards, checkers, bingo, scrabble, card games or any children's trivial pursuit-like games.

 

5. Tickle Game: Lie on the bed or floor (dressed) with your child on your chest so that the child's head is close to your head. Whisper and talk to your child. Tickle your child's body and begin to laugh gently and comfortably as you softly tickle and snuggle with your child. Begin to roll from side to side as you snuggle. Laugh as you say ''Wheee'' or ''Whoose'' as you roll. This is a sure-fire way to stimulate a sense of fun and security in the child.

 

6. Memory Lane: Remember your favorite childhood songs, nursery rhymes and stories. Share them with your child while looking into the child's eyes and keeping eye contact. The sharing of your treasured memories contributes to cross-heritage bonding. Remembering the things important to you as a child brings back good, warm feelings; these feelings can then be transmitted to your child.

 

7. Cocooning: With any aged child, pretend you and the child are caterpillars in a cocoon of blankets or a sleeping bag. Lay quietly, closely touching, and sing softly to one another. After 30 minutes, pretend you two are beautiful butterflies breaking out of a cocoon. Throw off the covers and ''fly'' around the room. Do this once or twice a week until you feel comfortable being intimate with your child.

G.  What Steps can improve bonding with your child with special needs?

Step 1:  Before you can improve bonding with your child, you must identify the determinants of your bonding today. Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • What does infant or child bonding mean to me?
  • When did bonding begin between my child with a special need and me?
  • What were the barriers to our bonding at my child's delivery?
  • When was the first time I could touch my baby? What were my feelings and emotions whey I first held my baby?
  • In my child's first three months of life what was the environment like in which my child and I had a chance to bond?
  • How did my child's diagnosis affect our bonding? How did my beliefs about my ability to accept a child with a special need affect our bonding?
  • How did my child's fragile health affect our bonding?
  • What early behavior traits of my child affected our bonding?
  • What physical features of my child affected our bonding?
  • How did the reactions of others (spouse, children, parents, in-laws, relatives, friends, neighbors, fellow workers) affect my bonding with my child?

 

Step 2: Once you have identified the determinants affecting bonding between you and your disabled child, you are ready to ascertain the status of your bonding. Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • What level of bonding do I have with my child with special needs? Normal? Under-bonded? Over-bonded?
  • How does my attitude and interest in my child reflect my bonding with my child?
  • How does the way I hold, look at, and touch my child reflect our level of bonding?
  • How does the way I discipline my child reflect our level of bonding?
  • How has my handling of grief over my child's special need and other problems affected our bonding?
  • How has my guilt over my child's problems affected our bonding? Lack of guilt?
  • How does my child's behavior reflect our bonding?
  • How has my acceptance of my child's diagnosis affected our bonding? Inability to accept?
  • How does the way I talk to or talk about my child reflect our bonding?
  • How does the way my child treat me reflect our bonding?

 

Step 3: Once you have determined the status of your bonding with your target child, you are ready to deal with it.

  • If you are over-bonded, work on to Chapter 4, Lifelong Normalization.
  • If you lack bonding or want to improve the bonding with your child, proceed to Step 4.

 

Step 4: In order to improve deficient bonding with your child, answer the following questions in your journal:

  • Which of the ways of improving bonding listed in this chapter have you tried? Which of these ways are you willing to try now?
  • Become aware of your physical response to your child. How relaxed are you when you approach your child? How tense are you? What does this tell you about your bonding? How can you improve this?
  • How comfortable are you in touching your child? How comfortable are you with your child touching you?
  • How many minutes or hours a day do you hold your child?
  • In what ways do you feed your child to encourage close contact with one another?
  • How do you give your child a bath? How does this encourage bonding?
  • How comfortable are you with your child's naked body touching your body?
  • How comfortable are you in talking to and with your child? How comfortable are you in looking into your child's eyes as you talk?
  • What is your usual tone of voice in talking to your child? How does this encourage bonding? What different tones could you use?
  • How comfortable are you in playing with your child at the child's level? How much fun do you and your child have together? How could you improve the amount of play and fun you experience with your child?

 

Step 5: If you still have problems bonding with your child with special needs, return to Step 1 and begin again.