Attachment Theory – the Basics

We are grateful to Kate Wells for this piece outlining the basics of ‘attachment theory’. This is a very important concept in care proceedings as often conclusions reached about a child’s attachment or lack of will be very influential in determining the direction of a case. But it is often  a concept which seems poorly understood and misapplied by many. 

I think it is absolutely essential that social workers have a basic understanding of attachment theory and the importance of the early relationship between baby and mother (again used as shorthand) from the first moments of birth, and even in utero as there is evidence that babies can be adversely affected if there is tension, hostility, domestic violence etc., and how this insecure attachment pattern will affect the children as they grow through the ages and stages of childhood.

Attachment theory in psychology originates with the seminal work of John Bowlby (1958). In the 1930’s John Bowlby worked as a psychiatrist in a Child Guidance Clinic in London, where he treated many emotionally disturbed children. This experience led Bowlby to consider the importance of the child’s relationship with their mother in terms of their social, emotional and cognitive development. Specifically, it shaped his belief about the link between early infant separations with the mother and later maladjustment, and led Bowlby to formulate his attachment theory.
Evolutionary theory of attachment (e.g. Bowlby, Harlow, Lorenz) suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive. The infant produces innate ‘social releaser’ behaviors such as crying and smiling that stimulate innate caregiving responses from adults. The determinant of attachment is not food but care and responsiveness.

Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one primary attachment (monotropy) and that the attachment figure acted as a secure base for exploring the world. The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences.

This theory also suggests that there is a critical period for developing an attachment (about 0 -5 years). If an attachment has not developed during this period then the child will suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced resilience and aggression
I don’t propose to give any further background details as there is so much more information since Bowlby’s works in the 1950s that it would be a mammoth task and as my aim is to provide some very BASIC information on attachment theory, further detail would not be helpful.

However there is a huge amount of published information on Attachment Theory readily available for anyone wishing to gain a greater understanding of the theory.

I do NOT claim to be any sort of expert in this theory, although I do have a basic understanding of the theory and have in the past been involved in collaboration with a clinical psychologist and play therapist, in delivering training to prospective foster carers and adopters.


‘Attachment’ is often used in a meaningless way

The word “attachment” is often used by social workers in my experience in a way that is meaningless e.g. “He’s attached to his mother” I ask “In what way?” and the usual response is along the lines of “well he goes to her at contact and isn’t upset by seeing her…” I then ask “Is he upset when the mother leaves at the end of contact?” “Oh no, he’s fine, sometimes he waves bye bye” Hence there is a misunderstanding of attachment theory. The word is used in almost the same way as “I am attached to these old slippers.” We read of “strong” attachments, “good” attachments, and even “solid” attachments. Sometimes the term “bonding” is used in much the same way we read “There is a good bond between X and his mother.”

Incidentally I am using the term “mother” as shorthand, but of course it could be father or any other caregiver.

Attachment theory holds that within close relationships young children acquire mental representations or internal working models of their own worthiness based on other people’s availability and their ability and willingness to provide care and protection (Ainsworth et al 1978).


Attachments can be SECURE or INSECURE/ANXIOUS

A SECURE attachment pattern between baby and mother develops when the mother has an ability and willingness to try to understand behaviours and emotions from her baby’s point of view. She is attuned to his needs, e.g. responds to his crying by picking the baby up and soothing him, either by feeding, or changing him, or simply holding him. She learns to differentiate his cries, sometimes hunger, pain, boredom, tired etc and responds appropriately. She talks to the baby, maybe sings to him and smiles at him and as the baby grows she is rewarded by his response, in that he smiles back and they can engage in “conversation” e.g. the baby “coos” and laughs/gurgles in response to the mother’s attention and often tries to mimic her sounds. Within this attuned, coordinated relationship, the baby learns to regulate his own feelings and behaviours. The mother’s love is unconditional, and this provides the growing child with a sense of security and trust in his mother (often referred to as his attachment figure)

Babies can of course have secure attachment patterns with fathers, and other adults, so long as those adults are able to be emotionally available to the child (as outlined above) as well as physically present.

A secure attachment pattern will be a protective factor for the child throughout the lifespan. He will have learned that he is loved, effective, autonomous and competent and will have an expectation that other people will be available, co-operative and dependable, as he progresses through life.


These attachment patterns are broken down into Avoidant or Ambivalent attachments. Children who show these insecure attachment patterns have learned that there are conditions attached to their gaining proximity to their mother.

Interestingly these children develop appropriate strategies that a) increase the mother’s emotional availability and do not cause her to withdraw and b) bring care and protection. These strategies are of course devised for survival and can be effective, but the feelings of anxiety and insecurity remain in relation to the mother.

However both secure and insecure attachment patterns represent efforts by children to ORGANISE their behaviour, to achieve some kind of proximity to their mother and with it a “felt security” – and when there is an insecure attachment pattern, these behaviours in children have varying degrees of success.


This attachment pattern is sometimes referred to as dismissive. The mother (or parents) of these babies are often rejecting and controlling. If the baby cries it annoys or agitates the parents, and they lack sensitivity to the child, are unreliable and largely disinterested in the baby. These babies are often “prop fed” a bottle put into their mouth propped up by a towel (or something similar) while they are lying in the pram. The parents do not get any pleasure from the baby.

Hence at times when the baby is in need of comfort, care, protection, and this is manifested by crying, clinging, following, demanding, it actually brings the opposite reaction to what the child needs, in that the parents are rejecting or controlling.

The child’s strategy in this attachment pattern is often to minimise their needs and deny or not communicate their distress. Strong feelings are defensively excluded and emotional self-containment is established. This allows the child to stay in reasonable proximity to the attachment figure without causing him or her too much irritation, thus reducing the chances of being rejected. This strategy can be seen as the psychological defence of flight, rather than fight, e.g. a child may sit close to his mother, gradually moving nearer and if not rejected, attempting some kind of physical contact. Maybe they sit on the floor next to their mother’s chair, and then stand up and lean on the arm of the chair, and eventually chance getting into a mild form of physical contact e.g. putting their arm around their mother or laying their head on her arm. If they are not rejected they may try to sit on their mother’s lap and if the mother is not rejecting but not responsive either, the child will usually remain as long as possible.

These children are often described by foster carers and adopters as difficult to “reach” emotionally, “detached” “can’t make him out” “never know what he’s thinking” and in extreme cases, unable to show any affection other than very superficially. One adopter described her child as “fine on the outside, mostly pleasant and co-operative, but “hollow” – he has no middle.” Emotional self-containment was learned very early on in his life as a way of survival.



This attachment pattern forms when parents are insensitive, unreliable and inconsistently responsive. Children very often adapt the psychological defence of fight, and show angry behaviour, crying, whining, fretting, clinging, demanding, shouting and tantrums. This is an attempt to break through the emotional neglect, unavailability and lack of responsivity. Needless to say this generally doesn’t bring the desired response, and these children grow up feeling that they are not worthy of automatic interest. Other adults are seen as inconsistent and not always able to soothe and provide comfort. These children grow up to be particularly vulnerable to stress and are very frustrated (sub consciously of course) that the mother is emotionally desired but emotionally unreliable. At any one times these children’s relationships with their mother are guided by strong feelings of either love or anger.

It’s important to recognise that even when children are insecurely or anxiously attached to their mother, they can adapt their behaviour (or organise themselves) in an attempt to get physically and emotionally close to their attachment figure, with varying degrees of success.

There is however a type of insecure attachment that is so severe that children are unable to organise their behaviour or develop a defensive strategy to achieve proximity or security, and their distress remains heightened and unregulated. The parents of these children are often dangerous (abusive) or emotionally unreachable because of severe mental illness, and/or abuse of drugs and alcohol. If one parent is the abuser, the other fails to protect. Children are severely neglected and/or abused. Without an organised strategy children may freeze, either physically or psychologically. These children have an attachment disorder and are going to need a great deal of understanding and resilience by the foster carers or adopters, who have a full understanding of how their early life experiences have affected these children.

By definition therefore ALL children who are removed from their parents by a Court Order are going to have one type or another of insecure or anxious attachments with their mother or parents/step-parents.

Frozen Awareness

I appreciate that this notion of babies and children being able to organise their behaviours in order to get the best they can from their mothers, might seem strange, even bizarre. However I have observed this happening and it can be very chilling. I remember reading about “frozen awareness” in a very young child and was I admit sceptical, until I actually saw a 4 month baby lying quiet and still in the pram but with eyes wide open, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, fearing (quite rightly) that danger was nearby. I was to see this many more times, but the memory of that first baby has never left me. The step-father had been shaking the baby and twisting her arms (this was relayed to me by the mother who had a mild learning difficulty and was afraid of her partner.) Fortunately the court agreed that the baby should be removed and she was subsequently adopted and thrived in the care of the adopters.

Likewise I have seen the “frozen” child crouched in the space between his bed and the wall. This was a little boy not yet 2 years, and the bruising to his face and ears was very visible. When I picked him up the child was rigid, frozen, traumatised. I have observed toddlers sitting still on a chair, casting fearful glances at the abuser, again keeping very quiet so as not to attract the attention of the abuser. These are definite strategies that the child sub-consciously employs for survival.

I recall a 6 year old boy after a phone call from his mother, dancing around the room of the foster carer, repeatedly calling out “she loves me, she loves me” – clearly the mother had said this to him on the phone and it may well be the first time that the child had heard this from his mother and his delight was both sad but very moving. When one of the foster carer’s older children returned home, the little boy immediately pounced on him and said “my mom loves me….” And of course the older child looked bewildered, failing of course to understand the significance of the little boy’s delight.

Obviously I could go on to give many more examples but I don’t think that is necessary.


Attachment patterns throughout childhood

Looking at attachment patterns through the ages and stages of childhood Robert Karen (Becoming Attached) provides a chart of typical patterns of secure and anxious attachment. Before doing so he makes a very important point:

The following chart is meant only as a convenient guide and does not take into account many of the complexities and exceptions found in the research. It should be remembered that insecure attachments (avoidant and ambivalent) is not always associated with the style of parenting described here, but can sometimes come about for other reasons; that a child often has a different pattern of attachment to mother and father; and that attachment patterns can change, so that while many avoidant babies for example, continue in their early pattern, others do not end up behaving like an avoidant 6 year old or develop later into a dismissive adult and parent.

I believe this is largely because these babies are adopted at a young age and the adopters have a good understanding of attachment theory and practice, and can therefore help the child to develop a secure attachment pattern. This takes time, patience and resilience. The adopters need to understand that there will be a gap between the child’s emotional and chronological age, (sometimes called arrested development) and that they will need to allow the child to regress and gradually gain confidence and a sense that he is in fact loved and valued by his parents, and this is unconditional.

Robert Karen’s chart is extensive and so I don’t propose to reproduce it in full. But he describes a secure attachment pattern between mother and baby – mother is warm, sensitively attuned, and consistent. Readily attends to baby’s cries. Baby readily explores, using mother as secure base, compliant with mother. Pre-school: easily makes friends, popular, resilient under stress, good self esteem. Teachers treat him in warm, matter of fact, age appropriate way. Aged 6 with parents: Warm and enthusiastic, comfortable with physical contact. Middle childhood: Forms close friendships and is able to sustain them in larger peer groups. In adulthood: Easy access to wide range of feelings and memories, positive and negative. Balanced view of parents. If insecure in childhood has worked through hurt and anger. Usually has securely attached child.

Avoidantly attached baby. Mother is often emotionally unavailable or rejecting. Dislikes neediness, may applaud independence. By end of 1st year baby seeks little physical contact with mother, randomly angry with her, unresponsive to being held, but often upset when put down. Pre school: Often angry, aggressive, defiant, may be isolated/disliked by peers. Teachers become controlling and angry. Age 6 with parents: Abrupt, neutral, unenthusiastic exchanges. Absence of warm physical contact. Middle childhood: No close friends or friendships marked by exclusivity, jealousy. Often isolated from group. In adulthood: Dismissing of importance of love and connection. Often idealises parents, but actual memories don’t corroborate. Shallow if any self-reflection. Usually has avoidantly attached child.

Ambivalently attached baby: Mother is unpredictable or chaotic. Often attentive but out of sych with baby. Baby cries a lot, is clingy, demanding, often angry, upset by small separations, chronically anxious in relation to mother. Limited in exploration. Pre School: Fretful and easily over whelmed by anxiety. Immature, overly dependent on teacher, maybe be bullied. Teachers indulge, excuse, and infantalize. Age 6 with parents: Mixes intimacy seeking with hostility. Affectedly cute or ingratiating. May be worried about mother when apart. Middle childhood: Trouble functioning in peer groups. Difficulty sustaining friendships when in larger groups. In adulthood: Still embroiled with anger and hurt at parents. Unable to see own responsibility in relationships. Dreads abandonment. Usually has ambivalently attached child.


I think it is absolutely essential that social workers have a basic understanding of attachment theory and the importance of the early relationship between baby and mother (again used as shorthand) from the first moments of birth, and even in utero as there is evidence that babies can be adversely affected if there is tension, hostility, domestic violence etc., and how this insecure attachment pattern will affect the children as they grow through the ages and stages of childhood. They need to understand that attachment patterns are secure or insecure/anxious, not “strong” or any of the other adjectives that are often used. However it is only by observing the interaction between the mother and child that can demonstrate the attachment pattern. Having said that, great care should be taken not to jump to conclusions, and indeed I don’t think it fair that social workers should be expected to determine the exact attachment pattern between mother and child. This is more the work of clinical psychologists and play therapists, often working collaboratively.

The other important point is that LAs should make it a priority to ensure that all prospective and approved foster carers and adopters are given the opportunity to learn about attachment theory and practice. These children with insecure attachment patterns, or an attachment disorder are going to be in their care, and it can only be positive for them to have an understanding of the reasons for the child’s often difficult and challenging behaviour.

Adopters need to know that “love is not enough” (a commonly held view, and not unreasonable) but the child who has an insecure/anxious attachment with his mother, or an attachment disorder is going to prove a huge challenge for the adopters, especially in the case of the attachment disordered child. Indeed these children should be able to receive play therapy and the adopters should be assisted/guided by the therapist as to the best way of caring for the child, to enable the adverse effects of his early life to be minimised, and for him to begin to feel loved and valued for who he is, and that love and care is not conditional. There is no “quick fix” and sadly LAs are so cash strapped that they are highly unlikely to pay for play therapists. Some LAs have clinical psychologists who are able to offer training on attachment to social workers, managers, foster carers and adopters.

Many foster carers and adopters in the LA in which I worked said that it was “like the scales falling from their eyes” as they recognised the child who was insecurely attached to his mother, and the behaviours that were manifested as a result. Many of them went on to read and study the topic further and in turn were able to share their knowledge with other foster carers and adopters.


I have only been able to give a very basic introduction to the topic in this piece, and it is not within the social worker’s remit in my view to be able to define the particular type of insecure attachment pattern between mother and child in written or oral evidence in court. To do so would require a thorough understanding of the topic in order to be credible and able to handle cross examination.

I think the best way of dealing with this matter is for social workers to talk of children who have “learned that adults can’t always be trusted to care for them” and be able to give an example of a mother not attending to the cries of the baby or failing to give him attention and this in turn causing the baby to feel insecure and anxious, and these feelings may well persist throughout his childhood and into adulthood. I am sure a lawyer acting for birthparents would challenge such an assertion and this could be problematic for an inexperienced social worker who was nervous in court in any event.

I once had a barrister say something like “So you’re saying Ms W that unless a baby is picked up the moment he cries, his future is doomed to failure – is that what you’re saying….” I was experienced and competent enough to deal with this kind of comment, but I can imagine it could be intimidating for a newly qualified social worker.

This piece is far longer than I anticipated but I hope it has provided a very basic understanding of the importance of the mother/child relationship and what can go wrong in the absence of a secure attachment pattern established between mother and child. ……………..Kate Wells.


Further reading

See the guidelines from NICE published in November 2015: Children’s attachment: attachment in children and young people who are adopted from care, in care or at high risk of going into care.

37 thoughts on “Attachment Theory – the Basics

  1. looked_after_child

    The Sharp End of Attachment Theory

    As the parent of an autistic young man who entered the care system after a deep crisis I’d like to assess the ‘parenting sensitivity ‘of corporate parents myself and while I’m at it some ‘experts’ in attachment.. It might prove less popular than assessing ‘parential sensitivity’ of the weak and desperate.

    What’s not to like about attachment theory if you have a statutory responsibility to provide expensive support to children in need or looked after children?

    There is not nearly enough of the expensive personalised support that neurodisabled or neglected children may need and what there is requires superhuman persistence to access. Attachment theory instead turns the focus away from poor provision to poor quality of caregiving by parents usually mums. Parenting classes based around ‘increasing parental sensitivity’ can be rolled out relatively cheaply

    All the better if an army of ‘trained key workers, social care workers, personal advisers and post-adoption support social workers in the care system, as well as workers involved with children and young people on the edge of care’ can recognise and assess attachment difficulties and parenting quality, including sensitivity”
    NICE guidance

    So what’s not to like –unless of course like me, your autistic child must enter care because there are no appropriate services for him or for us in the community.

    And what of this army trained to ‘’recognise and assess … parenting quality, including sensitivity’’ their generals are quietly leaving the field. (

    And what of those engaging with the difficulties of children who have experienced real neglect, they are likely to face the battle we faced.

    Here is something to think about on that front –

    ‘’A case note review of 100 referrals to a specialist adoption and fostering service compared community referrals with the specialist assessments of attachment disorders. Attachment disorders were identified four times more often in community referrals versus the specialist service, but this only partly explained the significant under-identification of more common disorders in the community, especially for neuro-developmental factors and conduct disorder by up to 10-fold’’

    Woolgar M Baldock E (2015) Attachment disorders versus more common problems in looked after and adopted children: comparing community and expert assessments Child and Adolescent Mental Health
    Volume 20, Issue 1, pages 34–40, February 2015

    So what’s not to like about Attachment theory?

    1. helensparkles

      It has been the case for some years that attachment theory is placed in the context of current research on epileptics, resilience & neuroscience.

        1. looked_after_child

          To be honest Helen I’m not sure a neuroscientist would touch the ‘science’ of attachment theory with a bargepole. As I see it this science is akin to ‘Aliens teaching humans how to be human’ – twisted and mis-shappen so the science is un-recognisable and its applicability to human experience dubious at best.
          What is so unforgivable is that this stuff is peddled to people in desperate need of real support (me when I asked for help around our son’s behaviour due to his autism) and in some cases I have little doubt used to justify removal of children from mums (always mums!) struggling with intractable social problems that they cannot fix but they can be blamed for ‘legitimately’ using this toxic theory.

          1. helensparkles

            Neuroscience has it’s own critics regarding pre-determinism. Attachment theory is not in itself toxic & I don’t know any research which uses it as evidence of predetermined outcomes? You would be better off reading peer reviewed academic research rather than POV of one psychologist. There is a danger in cherry picking from an opinion piece for anyone, whether they be a professional or parent.

          2. looked_after_child

            This comment is out of order Helen so hopefully it makes sense.
            I have made contact with clinicians via NICE guidance on autism ( start at the top!) and I know from speaking to them and others responsible for Autism Research that looked after children can present with some of the most complex nuro-developmental problems including a combination of callous and unemotional traits with autism and very poor mental health. These children are exceptional thankfully, not the norm – their problems are likely to have genetic, environmental ( prebirth, mother’s addictions and own poor physical health) and potentially environmental post birth ( extreme, extreme neglect) causes. The relevance of this cohort is discussions around normal parenting – virtually nil.

          3. looked_after_child

            Sorry Helen
            Another out-of order comment..
            I’ve just googled the BNA – I cannot find any ref to Attachment at all. -dos’ent mean its not there but I could’ent find it..

            Did find this though
   Sarah Jayne Blakemore, UCL

            ‘Adolescence as a sensitive period of brain development’

            and I though early caregiving determined outcomes…. GOSH

          4. helensparkles

            Your reference to NICE and clinicians is indicative of an organisation which is predicated on a medical not social model. Both have value but the medical model is of limited relevance when you are making criticisms of social care professionals in regard to your son’s care. I would argue SW have a much more eclectic and holistic overview, because they are often looking at multiple and complex needs, hence my reference to the years when attachment theory research is read alongside the neuroscience & epigenetics. I doubt that either of the latter fields would dispute attachment theory, they may argue about where the interconnnectedness lies, and the more we know the more we know we don’t know in the field of genetics.

  2. looked_after_child

    ”The fact is that there’s no strong evidence for parent–child attachment in infancy predicting anything much about children’s later development. Indeed, Booth-LaForce and Roisman’s definitive 2014 study showed that early attachment doesn’t even predict attachment later in development, let alone all of these other things. There is good evidence that how a parent feels as an adult about their childhood attachment experiences relates to the security of the attachment relationship they have with their own child, but this is very different from the kind of attachment you yourself had as a toddler predicting the kind of attachment you’ll have with your future child. So the belief that making all toddlers securely attached will have knock-on positive effects for future generations is patently incorrect”

    When did ‘Early Intervention’ to support parenting become the powerful orthodoxy of the that is ‘Attachment theory’?
    The road to hell was paved with good intentions and bad science…
    I was pointed in the direction of this deeply flawed but seductively persuasive report today

  3. looked_after_child

    …fantastic work being done by Val Gillies ( and Ros Edwards ( looking at the social and societal construct of ‘good parenting’- it is not fixed in time or across societies ( good parents produce economically productive children, children who do not need state services, healthy soldiers or whatever the state needs at the time).

    If you want to understand brain development look at work of neuro-scientists working with autistic families and in autism research.

  4. looked_after_child

    ……….and this book is good to read ‘Brain science and early intervention: tracing the new biologisation of parenting and child care (2012-2014) Faraday Institute for Science and Religion £63,680 (CI with R. Edwards) if you can access it,
    should you want to understand the how and why of how attachment theories have such traction in policy despite the complete absence of evidence that the quality of attachment between a child and caregiver is a determinant of a child’s future outcomes/ poor attachments cause brain damage…
    When did we stop using our own brains and unquestioningly accept this ‘ nonsense’ as ‘science’?

  5. Angelo Granda

    Attacment theory is what it says ,in my opinion,a theory!
    Therefore, whilst SW’s and other cp professionals are quite entitled to speculate,predicate on the antecedents of other families.quote research statistics etc. etc , they should not enter guesswork into decision-making (especially in serious cases). Decisions should be made on facts alone.Never should half-baked,inconclusive theory be disguised as fact and presented to a court. Psychologists recognise it can only speculation.
    Not for the factual matrix in proceedings. .

    1. helensparkles

      I think we are back to who can diagnose attachment styles Angelo, just those psychologists, so let’s hope their court reports aren’t based on “speculation” and half “baked theories”?

  6. looked_after_child

    I’m with you there Angelo.
    One of the dangers of this theory is that parent(s) desperately in need of support are sent on parenting courses, predicated on children reaching their developmental milestones based on one construct of what good parenting is (there are lots of models and some in different cultures are very different) and told ”Now we’ve invested time in solving your difficulties, but you still have them, then the problem is with you”. These are ‘no win-situations’ for many parents of children with disabilities or parents who have very little control over their own lives for whatever reason. This is not about science – it is about values! If no-one gives a toss about the weak and vulnerable in society because they consume resources without giving anything back, then lets be honest about this without blaming people for their own vulnerability and using CP processes and bogus science as a rationale for or own inhumanity.

    1. helensparkles

      Just because there are other factors to consider, doesn’t mean that attachment theory needs to be binned, that is an over simplification to another extreme. It is a theory backed by research and proof, not just something that someone plucked out of the air. It also isn’t an ethnocentric theory, so not a social construct solely of this society.

      I would be the first to say that cuts and austerity have led to a slashing to the bone of services and support – though I know Angelo doesn’t agree that has any impact.

      Neither of you are talking about the families that most CP teams work with where parenting is absent through a combination of domestic & other violence, substance misuse, & mental health problems. Parents with those issues often prioritise their own needs and do not provide their children with the secure base they need. If you think a parenting course is the only solution offered when supporting those families you need to know more about CP.

  7. looked_after_child

    ”parenting is absent through a combination of domestic & other violence, substance misuse, & mental health problems”
    Helen none of these problems are confined to people on low incomes yet CP by and large, with the exception of parents of children with behavioural/mental/neuro-developmental health difficulties now being drawing into the CP net, largely affects those on very low incomes so there IS a link to our values as a society.
    I knew a judges’ daughter whose father beat her mother all through her childhood. I know middle class mums addicted to pharma., Many middle class mums drink way to much and run a very high risk of having children with FASD, living with violence and having dependents that you are trying to protect will lead to mental health problems. I know people who have NHS treatment for gambling, I know mums who brought up their children in violence and somehow kept it together. The mums I know in this situation have very big regrets about the damage done to their children yet they have managed to bring up some truly wonderful strong young adults. In different situations all these people would be subject to CP proceedings. I’m not sure this would have helped anyone – it is likely to cause as much damage to mums just hanging in there, as help.
    These are society’s ills and they run right through all levels of society – top to bottom – but so long as no-one is asking for help from the state, we all turn a blind eye and when people do need help that consumes state resources we tell them its their fault and theirs alone and they need to fix it or they will lose their children.

    1. helensparkles

      I didn’t say those issues are unique to people on low income and I think you would be surprised how much SW is with middle class and even wealthy families. I don’t deny the link between CP and poverty, apart from anything else, it means families reach crisis sooner – it is the crisis that is more visible. Wealthier families are more able to conceal those issues in the same way as wealthier people can conceal a drug habit because they don’t have to steal to fund it. As I have said often here, most of my cases don’t go to court. Most of the people I work are given help with for e.g. substance misuse, their mental health (after all most substance misuse is self medication) and domestic violence. That’s help from the state and they come out of the CP process without losing their children.

  8. looked_after_child

    This is interesting too.

    ”The Troubled Families Programme was underpinned by a Financial Framework (DCLG, 2014), which aimed to ensure that the funding was targeted at the priority issues.

    The eligibility criteria reflected DCLG’s definition of ‘Troubled Families’ as households that:
    1. Are involved in crime and anti-social behaviour
    2. Have children not in school
    3 Have an adult on out of work benefits
    4 Cause high costs to the public purse

    All families meeting all of criteria 1-3 were to be automatically included in the programme
    Families meeting any two of criteria 1-3 who were a “cause for concern” were also potentially eligible providing that they met a locally determined assessment of need. Local authorities were tasked with identifying a discretionary filter to serve as a proxy for criterion 4 (“high cost”).
    The guidance from DCLG indicated that this might include families with health problems, those with a child on a Child Protection Plan or where there was a risk of the child becoming ‘looked after’, families with a high level of Police call-outs or where adult offending was an issue, and families involved in gang- related crime.”

    Our teenage autistic son was experiencing a mental health crisis and we met TPF criteria because of the very high level of high cost services he was getting at that time, he was out of school etc. … so we were offered and attended 30 hours each of lovely Attachment Theory based Parenting Classes. We felt we needed to, to show SW’s we were compliant.

    I’m sorry to say Helen I view ‘Attachment theory’ now as a form of social coercion meted out to ‘bad’ people unlucky enough to need high value services that ‘good people’ have to pay for.

    1. helensparkles

      Perhaps you should critique the rest of the SW theory base. It is a profession based on social science theories, not just attachment theory, as well as those sciences like neuroscience and genetics that you seem to value more highly.

      The troubles families programme was funded by central government and has been largely discredited by its outcomes and a recent evaluation report. It was a response to the riots and a ‘something must be done response’. The amount spent on it could have been better used in my view and the resources it offered did not meet the need.

    2. Sam

      I voluntarily took a parenting course, which was nothing to do with CS, and whilst it was suitable for my NT children , it really did not address the problems of parenting an autistic child. Do CS run specific courses tailored the the needs of SEN children and if not why not?
      I can actually see some sense in attachment disorder, however I do feel it is used as a catch all in care proceedings.

  9. helensparkles

    Attachment disorders are rare, the lack of a secure base is more common, and it is fair comment to make in Care Proceedings. It isn’t as if children are removed from their birth parents solely because they don’t have a healthy and secure attachment.

  10. looked_after_child

    I don’t have a problem with giving parents advice that children need to be able to trust the people who care for them ( so they need to be reliable and attuned to their needs) and can become hugely anxious otherwise or promoting the value of listening to and respecting your child’s opinions, feeling etc or putting their needs before yours, or trying to instill good values by example..Who could argue with that but medicalising on the basis of ‘pseudo-science’ – talking of ‘secure bases’, telling parents you have to do this this/our way as if one size fits all – this I have a problem with.
    It reduces all problem’s in society to ones of ‘poor parenting’. It is the ‘get out of jail free’ card for those responsible for policies affecting healthcare provision, family poverty etc.
    I for one am not that gullible!

    1. helensparkles

      I have no idea why you think all societies problems are related to attachment by anyone.

      The things you say you don’t have a problem with are features of attachment theory, a secure base is a child having a carer who is reliable, attuned to their needs, and who meets them. it isn’t about a value base.

      If by pseudo you mean its a social science you would be right, which means it is not medicalised that would be a medical science.

  11. looked_after_child

    ”The things you say you don’t have a problem with are features of attachment theory, a secure base is a child having a carer who is reliable, attuned to their needs, and who meets them. it isn’t about a value base.”

    No-one has ownership of ‘good parenting’ Helen. It is’int something that can be packaged and marketed under a label as the ‘right’ way. Good parenting is very responsive and largely intuitive. Good parenting for a child with Autism is likely to look like very odd compared to parenting to a child without autism.

    Theory after theory held up as ‘the right way’ makes for anxious parenting.
    We are all full of anxieties for our children in a uncertain future (me more than most because my son is in care with a neuro-developmental disability!). That’s life and our power to change it is unlikely to be changed by following a parenting ‘fad’ with its ‘own ‘insiders’ vocab based on spurious claims about science.
    I believe that good parents are intuitive, attentive and responsive and they teach about life and prepare for independent adulthood. Sometimes we fall short, lose our way or what our child needs in different to the norm for whatever reason (eg autism) and we could do with a bit of help and guidance.

    Attachment theory has become a monster – held up here, there there and everywhere as a ‘cure’ to societies problems caused by ‘feral’ kids as a result of ‘incompetent parenting’.

    1. helensparkles

      I don’t think anyone is mentioning good vs bad except you in this discussion. I also really don’t know why you are talking about anyone having ownership of ‘good’ parenting or packaging parenting.

      I do understand that parenting a child with any additional needs will look different to parenting other children, having a reliable parent who is attuned to their needs is just as important, whatever those needs are.

      I don’t know where your monster of attachment theory has emerged from (which is hardly a fad) or what your mention of other theories means. Social work is an academic profession so you would expect it to be based on research and evidence. I don’t think you would know what the theory base is apart from attachment theory, because SW don’t talk to families about theories generally.

  12. looked_after_child

    ”I do understand that parenting a child with any additional needs will look different to parenting other children, having a reliable parent who is attuned to their needs is just as important, whatever those needs are.”
    Just as important as what Helen?

  13. looked_after_child

    We agree on that but will have to agree to disagree on the value (or otherwise!) of attachment theory even as it applies to non neurodisabled children.

  14. Angelo Granda

    I wonder if Helen will ever agree with me on my version of proportionality . Indeed I wonder if she even understands it. If she does not then it will be down to the fact she is not a High Court Judge, I guess, but she can’t be blamed for that because I think that even solicitors and barristers have trouble understanding the law as has been indicated by Appeal Court judges on many occasions. They express their exasperation time and time again.
    For my part, I recognise that SW’s are quite reasonable to take into account so-called research-based theories and I also agree with them that they are entitled to look at antecedents,assess risk and predicate on them. I know one of the first things they do for each ‘assessment’ is draw out a family tree. However, I believe there are limits to which they should go when predicating on antecedents and guessing on the basis of theory. They are not wrong to anticipate what might happen ( stare into their crystal balls as some describe it) in order to assess risks and assess the type and form, time-scales etc. of the support and training to be offered to families. This is reasonable. Yet I believe it is disproportionate for a Family Court to contemplate care-plans which advise the removal of children from their parents based on such ‘risk’ assessments.
    These theories and predications are mere speculation , they have no ‘being’ and after all, Sarah will know , as I do, that is the definition of a falsehood. Something which does not exist and has no being. It is not real; sometimes I have used the term cloud -cuckoo land.
    Predications based on antecedents have a place in law particularly in civil courts but ,in my view, a line should be drawn by lawyers .Strict limits should be placed on the extent of sanctions which a civil Family Court may impose. When using this sort of evidence in Public Law cases, let them issue care-orders by all means but they should never remove children from home based on fears as to what might happen. Such massively intrusive decisions should only be based on ‘facts’ and then only when cases have been conducted with scrupulous correctness.
    It is simply not fair and hearings must be fair. Take a look at the criminal system and bear in mind that the permanent liquidation of a family may be regarded as second only to a death sentence for families perhaps even worse. The mental torture and degradation suffered by the children is immense. In the criminal system, it is strictly forbidden for antecedents to be brought into a case and theory discounted. They are only introduced into a case at the sentencing stage. It is reckoned unfair to reveal antecedents!
    So my view on proportionality leads me to say again that the judiciary must draw a line in respect of the power of the civil Family court.
    Perhaps ,in the really serious cases where permanent liquidation is ordered, automatic appeals to a higher Court should be granted ( with full legal-funding). That is what would happen were such an enormous sanction to be imposed by a normal Court.

  15. looked_after_child

    DISCUSS —————————————

    Attachment Based Practice is largely promoted by people with little clinical training and organisations selling products and/or promoting their own services. It relies on a rigid adherence to a simplistic core belief that most children’s difficulties stem from emotional trauma caused by parental incompetence and holds out the possibility of trauma recovery with ‘specialist’ intervention. It employs an impressive array of jargon to give itself credibility that borrows in part from the vocabulary of others working to understand the causes of neuro-developmental disabilities such as Autism.

    Attachment Based Practice is being promoted by policymakers as a cheap alternative to specialist diagnostic services for children with poor mental health, disorders and disabilities particularly when these children are at the edge of Care.


    It is a significant contributory factor in rising numbers of children entering Care. These children are then described as suffering from ‘neglect’.

  16. Angelo Granda

    Thank you very much looked after child for all your constructive work on this subject and all praise is also due to Sarah and the CPR for enabling free discussion over the years.
    I like to think the CPR has played a small part in this judgment but wonder how long before it trickles down to judges.Currently,it matters little to the authorities whether evidence given is right or wrong and the lower court judges can and exercise their discretion as they see fit. When they do so,there is little prospect of appeal.
    All discussion on this problem welcome

  17. Pingback: Attachment – Who Makes the Diagnosis? | Child Protection Resource

Comments are closed.