Bonding with parents is such a vital necessity for babies’ development, that they come into the world programmed to seek contact with their parents, first through crying, then later by seeking eye contact, babbling and reaching out with their arms to the parents. When the parents respond to their babies’ promptings with loving care, the process of bonding takes place. This is a 2-way process that can be compared to the serve and return of a tennis game: the baby serves and the parent returns (1). Without this reciprocal interaction, bonding cannot take place. The initial physical care of the babies is later accompanied by many daily moments of small interactions, playing, talking, singing, being silly, laughing together. During these moments the parent and child are in a “bubble” and the world outside does not exist.

An infant’s distress when not receiving a response from the mother, is clearly depicted in the research of Dr Tronic with his “Still face” experiment (2). In this video the mother and infant of a year sit opposite each other. The infant babbles and points and the mother responds and looks where the little one is pointing. Then the mother is told to keep her face still and expressionless for two minutes. At first the infant is confused. She babbles and points, but receives no response from the mother. She then becomes so distressed, that she cries bitterly. The moment the mother responds again, she calms down and smiles at the mother.

Bonding is perhaps the strongest force that exists in the world. It impacts directly on the quality of our society. It cannot be replaced and it has a profound influence on every aspect of people’s development and functioning throughout their lives. For the past decades scientists have studied the influence of the parent-child-bond on the development of the child. The first professional to give this relationship a name, was John Bowlby, who referred to the bonding behaviour between parent and infant as attachment. Later, more research was done and attachment became the general term used to refer to the quality of the relationship between parent and child. Another scientist Mary Ainsworth, built on Bowlby’s work and, through her research, came to identify a secure attachment, where the infant feels loved and safe. She contrasted this to several types of dysfunctional attachments, where infants feel insecure and where a variety of negative feelings towards the parents are expressed.

The parent-child-bond influences the child’s development in the following ways:

Social development:

Early bonding experiences with parental figures influence all the relationships that children have for the rest of their lives. Babies come into the world with no concept of self or of how the world and relationships work. Their mind is like an empty canvas and everything that happens to them after birth, is like painting a picture on that canvas. Every time babies cry and are picked up by the parents and soothed and lovingly cared for, the picture is painted. This results in a clear image in babies’ minds of whether they are precious and loved and welcome. They also learn whether it is good and safe to enter into relationships with people or not. This picture is called an internal working model and for the rest of the babies’ lives they subconsciously fall back on this image when they go out into the world, meet people and enter into relationships. If they grow up in a loving relationship with the parents they have a strong sense of self-worth and they feel confident enough to enter into relationships with relatives, their teacher and playmates. They feel secure enough that they can relax and be themselves in relationships. They do not feel the need to wear a mask or seek attention and acceptance. They do not need to misuse relationships for personal gratification but can consider the needs of the other person. It has been found that children who do not have a secure bond with a parental figure, cannot bond with their teacher and become involved in the activities in the classroom. Because they never experienced trust and dependability in relationships, they do not trust the intentions of other people. They easily take offense by misinterpreting what the other person says or does, with the result that there is much manipulation and even anger in such relationships. Later when the child reaches the teenage years, he finds it difficult to develop emotional intimacy with friends and later with a life partner.

Emotional development

When babies cry, their brains secrete stress hormones including cortisol, that wash over the brain and through the babies’ bodies. The moment the parents pick their babies up and soothe them, their brain absorbs these chemicals and the babies return to a state of rest and relaxation. When this happens repeatedly, the babies’ brains learn the ‘recipe’ of how to soothe and calm themselves and later they can turn to self-soothing when they are distraught. This lays the foundation for healthy emotional development. When they are older they learn how emotions are handled by their parents’ example. Later when children go out in the world, they will be emotionally strong to face life’s challenges. The effect of the parents’ love will shield them from the full impact of failures, disappointments and hurts.
Should parents not soothe their babies when they cry, the stress hormones remains in their bodies. They remain in a permanent state of stress and the permanent secretion of stress hormone could eventually harm important learning areas of the brain. This happens to neglected and abused babies.

Cognitive development

More and more, scientists discover the importance of the first 1 000 days of a child’s life. Brain development during this early phase takes place at an incredible pace, with millions of neural connections being formed every second. The foundation of the architecture of the brain is laid in the early years. This takes place through the thousands of interactions that children have with stable, nurturing parents. In other words, the love and consistent serve and return interactions between parents and children that was described earlier, directly contribute to healthy brain development and is vital to a child’s cognitive functioning for the duration of his life. The higher functions of the brain that develop later and that enable children to concentrate, reason things out, make wise choices and use self-control, build on this foundation laid earlier. Healthy brain development also has a direct impact on the development of the genetic basket that a child has been endowed with. The potential that the talents and abilities that a child has inherited will develop, lies with environment and the quality of care that the child receives.

How can we show our children that we love them?

Our children need a demonstration of our love on a daily basis. It is not enough for us to know that we love them, they need to feel it. Loving our children will give them the best chance to develop to their highest potential in every facet of their lives. Here are a few practical ways to show our love:

Loving touch

Our children need to be touched in a safe way every day. Good examples are:

  • Hugging, softly stroking their shoulders, arms or feet or massaging their head for a moment will send a message to the children’s brain that they are loved and that their body is precious.
  • With little ones, a good idea is to wrap them in a towel and rub them dry very slowly while making small talk.
  • One can also use body lotion and rub their hands and feet. In a playful way this can even be used to make a ‘beauty parlour’.
  • With teenagers who sometimes shy away from a parent’s touch, try using moments when their attention is elsewhere to touch a shoulder or an arm.

Good touch teaches children what the ‘safe’ touching zones are and will prevent them from seeking unsafe touch in the wrong places when they are older.

Words that build

Very often we as parents do not speak when things are going well, but only when things are going wrong. The result is that our children receive very little positive and upbuilding verbal input from us. To our children we are like God, in the sense that they look up to us as the representatives of God, Whom they cannot see or understand yet when they are young. Whatever we say to our children, they believe and take seriously. If I say to my child that he is clever and wonderful, he accepts that as the truth and this influences the way that he sees and behaves himself. When I say to him that he is worthless, a troublemaker or stupid, he believes me and acts according to my judgements. Keep the following in mind:

  • We as parents need to put the proverbial guard before our mouth and watch what we say.
  • We can look out for opportunities to comment on positive behaviour.
  • Naming the behaviour that pleases us will teach our children what is right and how to behave to receive a positive response. (I see you share your toys with your brother and that makes me really happy/ I feel so proud when I see you washing/helping/doing your homework on your own).
  • We should also never hold back telling our children how much we love them, they need to hear it!

Spending quality time together

Life is busy, but life also flies by. Many parents have discovered too late that their children have grown up and no longer want the parent’s company when they reach the teenage years. The time for us to spend quality time with our children is now. Here are some suggestions:

  • Quality time does not only mean doing homework or chores together. It also means doing things that are fun and that we and our children enjoy.
  • This does not have to include spending money or having expensive resources or technology.
  • Kicking a ball, going for walks or visiting the library and read books about things that our children are interested in, fantasy stories, sport heroes, careers, anything.
  • Create family rituals, such as having ‘piggy day’ on a Friday, which means that the children do not have to take a bath and having hamburgers on a picnic blanket in the living room.
  • Homes need to be happy places and the more we share happy times with our children, the closer the bond becomes between us. When last did you make popcorn and have a popcorn ‘fight’ with your children?

Good parenting is a demanding job, but nothing is more gratifying than seeing one’s children growing into responsible, happy adults.

Dr Jeanne Brown
Social Worker.

(1) Harvard University: Centre on the Developing Child.