Chat to other families
Finding the bond, the emotional connection that ties a parent and a child, can be a struggle for some parents. While many will experience ‘love at first sight’ with their child at birth, others just don’t – and still have difficulties years down the line. It can also be an issue in families that come together when the child is older, like stepfamilies or after adoption.
“The media doesn’t help, as it pushes the message that parents should instantly bond with their children, whereas actually often they struggle to,” says Sandra Hiller, Family Lives manager. “We hear from mums and dads who express different issues around how they’re struggling to bond. Because people think it’s a taboo, they often hide their feelings.
“Being surrounded by parents who seem to have wonderful attachments to their children can make you feel more isolated still. But whatever your family set-up, remember the problem is more common than it seems. So don’t feel guilty about it, and whatever you do, don’t think you’ve failed as a parent.”
Taking the first step
Admitting that you’re struggling to bond with your child is a brave, vital first step. It’s then about doing practical things to try to work through your feelings and start forging a connection. “A mutual emotional attachment is important for your child’s development so it’s important to work at it,” says Sandra. “It will help give them a sense of security and self-worth – no connection might show itself later in their behaviour.”
Because the first few days and weeks after birth are seen as crucial times for bonding, if you struggle to feel a connection with an older child it can often be traced back to this time. Traumatic events at, or after, birth can affect how you feel about your child, even years down the line. Perhaps as a mum you had a difficult labour and took a while to recover. Or if your newborn spent time out of reach in intensive care it might have been harder to make a connection as a mum or dad. Postnatal depression can affect how connected you feel to your child, too. Parents of children with special needs can also find it difficult.
“Expecting to have a ‘perfect’ baby, only to discover it’s born with problems, can be hugely disappointing,” says Sandra. “This is especially true if a child needs significant day-to-day care – the emotional connection can take second place.”
Some parents worry that the only time to bond with their child is during babyhood. “Remember that stepfamilies, or families through adoption or fostering can form deep bonds too, even though they met each other later,” says Sue Atkins, author of ‘Raising Happy Children for Dummies’. “So take heart that just because you may feel this way at the moment, it doesn’t mean you’re family’s broken or troubled. You can build bridges, and it needn’t be like this forever.”
Dads who’ve traditionally taken a backseat in day-to-day childcare can find it hard if circumstances change. Perhaps Mum’s now working while Dad’s looking after the kids at home. Being immersed in full-time parenting suddenly can be a real culture shock. As Sandra points out: “Mums will tend to discuss concerns with friends and parenting groups, but it’s harder for dads to find that support. Best to remember that it’s not about being another mum – but being dad and sharing special activities with the kids, like football in the garden, cycling, swimming or reading together.”
Bonding can also be an issue for stepfamilies. When two families come together – whether or not each step-parent already has children of their own – there’s pressure to get on immediately. “But it’s more realistic to see the connection building slowly and naturally, rather than everyone feeling forced to be a happy family,” says Sue. “Don’t expect you and your new stepchildren to love each other straight away. Better to aim for respect first, and hopefully the rest will come naturally in time.”
Bonding isn’t about big gestures, but the everyday stuff that makes up life. Helping your child with their homework or chatting while you’re doing the washing up together can be just as good times to connect as days out and special occasions. Like with any relationship, it’s all about finding common ground. “For smaller children, a link might start as a physical one, like a hug or tickling,” says Sandra. “After that, the emotional connection will start to materialise.”
Try sitting on the bed together to read them a story, or play games like hide and seek. Singing nursery rhymes to each other, with lots of eye contact, can also be a nice way to connect. Music, films, TV or computer games are a fun ways to forge a link with an older child, too. Sing songs from the radio, or watch TV together and chat about the characters and plotline.
“Another good time to connect is to have a chat while you’re all sitting round the table eating dinner,” says Sue. “A lot of families are so fragmented and busy they never have time for that. They eat in front of the TV and wonder why they’re not getting on with their children.
“Aim for some ‘we time’. Perhaps ask them what they want to do with you, instead of you always deciding. It’ll probably be something simple like: “I’d like us to play a board game”, or “I want to ride my bike round the garden with you”. Letting your child choose will help them feel connected and listened to, and it’s a lovely way to boost their self-esteem."
If you are part of a stepfamily, see our Stepfamilies section for more information on bonding and other childcare matters.