Attachment is a theory about danger and how we organize in the face of it
Crittenden and Clausson 2000
We hear a lot about ‘attachment’ and its important in care proceedings.
Basically ‘attachment’ is a theory developed by psychologists to explain how a child interacts with the adults looking after him or her. If a child has a healthy attachment, this means the child can be confident that the adults will respond to the child’s needs, for example if he is hungry, tired or frightened, the adult caregiver will respond to meet his needs or reassure and comfort him.
This gives the child confidence to explore his environment and develop a good sense of self-esteem. This will help the child grow up to be a happy and functioning adult.
If a child can’t rely on his carers to look after him and respond consistently, this has been noted to have potentially very serious and damaging consequences for the adult that child will become. If adults are seriously inconsistent or unresponsive in their behaviour to the child, he may become very anxious as he is not able to predict how the adults around him will act; the child may even give up trying to get his needs met.
Therefore, identifying how a child responds to the adults trying to look after him, can be very important information when you are trying to work out what is the best thing to do for that child. If the attachment relationship is very poor and there are worries it won’t improve quickly enough for the child then this may have a significant influence on any decision to remove the child from those adult carers.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) described ‘attachment’ in this way in their November 2015 guidelines regarding children’s attachment:
Children whose caregivers respond sensitively to the child’s needs at times of distress and fear in infancy and early childhood develop secure attachments to their primary caregivers. These children can also use their caregivers as a secure base from which to explore their environment. They have better outcomes than non-securely attached children in social and emotional development, educational achievement and mental health. Early attachment relations are thought to be crucial for later social relationships and for the development of capacities for emotional and stress regulation, self-control and metallisation…
Where did attachment theory come from?
The psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907 – 1990) investigated how what happened to us as children could contribute to later problems as adults – in the way we behave and interact with other people.
He developed the concept of a ‘theory of attachment’, suggesting that we are born pre-programmed to form attachments to others, as without this babies could not survive. This followed on from the work of Lorenz in 1935 where he investigated ‘imprinting’ in ducklings and geese and showed that the birds would attach to the first large moving object they met in the first few hours of life.
Attachment theory was further developed by Mary Ainsworth (1913 – 1999) and her assessment technique called the Strange Situation Classification (SSC). Babies and toddlers can’t use words to tell us how they feel so Mary Ainsworth needed to find a way to allow them to show her.
Children were observed through a one-way mirror and the researchers noted the children’s reactions in a range of different circumstances.
- Parent and infant alone.
- Stranger joins parent and infant.
- Parent leaves infant and stranger alone.
- Parent returns and stranger leaves.
- Parent leaves; infant left completely alone.
- Stranger returns.
- Parent returns and stranger leaves.
This allowed four different categories of behaviour to be investigated:
- Separation anxiety – what does the child do when the caregiver leaves?
- Willingness to explore – was the child confident to explore his environment?
- Stranger anxiety – how did the child react to the stranger?
- Reunion behaviour – how did the child react when the carer/parent came back?
Results of the experiment.
See further this article from Simply Psychology
She identified three main attachment styles
- Insecure avoidant
- Insecure ambivalent.
A fourth attachment style has since been identified as ‘disorganized’.
The majority of the children were ‘secure’.
|Secure Attachment||Ambivalent Attachment||Avoidant Attachment|
|Separation Anxiety||Distressed when mother leaves.||Infant shows signs of intense distress when mother leaves.||Infant shows no sign of distress when mother leaves.|
|Stranger Anxiety||Avoidant of stranger when alone but friendly when mother present.||Infant avoids the stranger – shows fear of stranger.||Infant is okay with the stranger and plays normally when stranger is present.|
|Reunion behavior||Positive and happy when mother returns.||Child approaches mother but resists contact, may even push her away.||Infant shows little interest when mother returns.|
|Other||Will use the mother as a safe base to explore their environment.||Infant cries more and explores less than the other 2 types.||Mother and stranger are able to comfort infant equally well.|
|% of infants||70||15||15|
Why is attachment theory so important in some court proceedings?
There is clearly room for debate about how attachment should be measured and what implications this has for trying to support families in crisis.
However, attachment theory will remain significant in care proceedings because of the large degree of expert consensus about why it is important. This is primarily because good attachment allows us to develop a well functioning internal working model. This is:
a cognitive framework comprising mental representations for understanding the world, self and others. A person’s interaction with others is guided by memories and expectations from their internal model which influence and help evaluate their contact with others (Bretherton, & Munholland, 1999).
Having a healthy ‘internal working model’ is thus important for three main reasons
- Your sense of self
- Your sense of others
- Your relationships with yourself and others
Research shows that attachment problems can have a big impact on later life. Attachment difficulties account for a significant percentage of reasons why adoptions break down for e.g.
Children who are securely attached can develop increasing independence, exploring their environment with confidence that they can return to a carer who will respond to their needs. Therefore securely attached children will develop good self esteem and know that they are considered worth looking after.
However, children who don’t get the chance to form good attachments run the risk of developing poor internal working models which can have very negative impacts on their view of themselves and their ability to form relationships with other people. John Bowlby was worried that the long-term impacts included increased aggression and even ‘affectionless psychopathy’ where a person cannot show affection or concern for others.
Some concerns about attachment theory
The Sutton Trust have estimated that 40% of the general population do NOT have secure attachments (see ‘Baby bonds: parenting, attachment and a secure base for children’). This claim, and the evidence cited to support it, has caused some disquiet amongst academics.
There are criticisms of Mary Ainsworth’s experiments, not least the fact that her work is based on the assumption that brief separations and reunions have the same meaning for all children, which may not give proper consideration to cultures where it is accepted that children will experience everyday maternal separation. See further ‘Clinical Implications of Attachment Concepts: Retrospect and Prospect’ Michael Rutter 2005.
Bandying about this figure of forty percent of the population not being securely attached, with the original source so deeply buried, is disingenuous enough. The Brain Science and Early Intervention study, funded by the Faraday Institute and conducted by researchers at the Weeks Centre and the University of Southampton is particularly concerned with how claims like these are being beefed up by ‘evidence’ from neuroscience, as in the Baby Bonds report’s section on ‘neurological pathways’ to developing secure attachment.
You might expect a claim like ‘there is a burst of brain development when attachment bonds are made’ to cite a neuroscientist but the reference supporting this quote is the work of Sue Gerhardt, a psychotherapist who is one of the founders of the OXPIP parenting programme; and her book Why Love Matters: how affection builds a baby’s brain, is core reading for practitioners delivering the programme. The Baby Bonds report features only one neuroscientist in its bibliography and that is Jack Shonkoff, director of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, which is a partner of the UK’s Early Intervention Foundation. Increasingly, third sector organisations like the Early Intervention Foundation and ‘strategic philanthropists’ like the Sutton Trust, and not rigorous up-to-date studies or neuroscientific thinking, are providing the ‘evidence’ on which policy is based.
In selecting the research that is presented to policy makers, reports like Baby Bonds have the power to privilege certain agendas. It is crucial that their key messages are not based on distortions or misrepresentations of social life. If family policy is to deny the fundamental opposition to attachment theory feminists have articulated for at least twenty years, it should at least be cognisant of critiques of the highly questionable measurements of attachment.
From the conflation of a dyadic relationship with an individual characteristic to the cherry-picking of psychological or biological terms depending on which makes the most compelling case, attempts to measure the quality of human relationships in this way are profoundly flawed.
Through the Brain Science and Early Intervention project, I have witnessed the effects of this discourse on practitioners who work with parents in need of support and these sloppy attributions of good and bad models of parenting have the potential to do real harm with their individualisation of risk factors for a panoply of social ills.
If the UK government is serious about investing in policy and practice that encourages children to flourish, its focus on deprivation should not be narrowed to the prefix of the maternal. When nurses tell us that they are under pressure for their delivery of a parenting programme to be seen to have a direct effect on future prison populations, it is clear that family life has become atomised beyond all recognition. We are left with a science of parenting where family support used to be and this can only serve to further isolate those who are consigned to the 40%.
GM v Carmarthenshire County Council & Anor  EWFC 36 (06 June 2018) – now no longer good law!
This case makes for interesting reading regarding the judge’s comments about attachment. The case involved an 8 year old boy who had been in foster care for 2 years and his mother wanted to discharge the care order and have him return home. The court approved a report by an Independent Social Worker to report on the child’s attachment. The Judge made the following comments.
A number of points may be made about this description of the theory. First, the theory, which I suppose is an aspect of psychology, is not stated in the report to be the subject of any specific recognised body of expertise governed by recognised standards and rules of conduct. Indeed, I asked the advocate for the guardian whether he was aware whether a student could undertake a degree in attachment theory, or otherwise study it at university or professionally. Mr Hussell was not able to answer my question. Therefore, it does not satisfy the first criterion for admissibility as expert evidence.
Second, the theory is only a theory. It might be regarded as a statement of the obvious, namely that primate infants develop attachments to familiar caregivers as a result of evolutionary pressures, since attachment behaviour would facilitate the infant’s survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements. Certainly, this was the view of John Bowlby, the psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst and originator of the theory in the 1960s. It might be thought to be obvious that the better the quality of the care given by the primary caregiver the better the chance of the recipient of that care forming stable relationships later in life. However, it must also be recognised that some people who have received highly abusive care in childhood have developed into completely well-adjusted adults. Further, the central premise of the theory – that quality attachments depend on quality care from a primary caregiver – begins to fall down when you consider that plenty of children are brought up collectively (whether in a boarding school, a kibbutz or a village in Africa) and yet develop into perfectly normal and well-adjusted adults.
It seems that concern was growing about the possibly inapt use of attachment, particularly by those who see it synonymous with a ‘bond’. However, in 2021 in the case of TT (Children)  EWCA Civ 742 (20 May 2021)the Court of Appeal issued a stern corrective to the judgment of Mostyn J, saying
It is one thing to find that a particular witness may not be qualified to give specific evidence about a child’s attachments, but it is another thing to question the validity of attachment theory as a whole or to state that it cannot be admissible in evidence. Nor is it correct to say that, if a child’s attachment to substitute carers is so strong as to lead a court to refuse an application to discharge a care order, that would deprive s. 39 of meaning. That approach risks looking at matters from the point of view of the parent at the expense of a rounded assessment of the welfare of the child. The decisions to which I have referred in the two preceding paragraphs make clear that the court has to give appropriate weight to all the relationships that are important to a child, and that there may be a role for expert advice about attachment in cases of difficulty. Insofar as the observations in GM v Carmarthenshire suggest otherwise, they cannot stand [para 49].
How can we deal with these concerns about attachment in practice?
David Shemmings, Professor of Child Protection Research at the University of Kent sets out seven principles for using attachment – based approaches in child protection work:
- The main aim of using attachment-based principles is to help and support families stay together, whenever it is feasible to do so.
- People can usually change and there is, as yet, no firm evidence that there are critical periods of a child’s development after which change is impossible, except in the most extreme forms of maltreatment – although the longer we leave things, the harder it is to overcome abuse and neglect.
- It is preferable to think of disorganized attachment behaviour, not disorganized attachment per se. (These behaviours are temporary and fleeting, not an attachment ‘style’). The behaviours are not predictive of maltreatment: they indicate that additional questions need to be posed urgently, as the child may already have experienced ‘fear without solution’.
- Practitioners need to make sure that they are not constrained by ‘confirmation bias’: forming a viewpoint too quickly and then only taking account of information, which confirms it – we need an ‘open mind, but not an empty head’.
- Where there are concerns, they must be shared in the family (unless doing so might harm a child).
- Practitioners must be ‘culturally competent’ when using attachment-based principles.
- Approaches to help families are more likely to succeed if we demonstrate enhanced relationship skills, specifically ‘intelligent kindness’, ‘unsentimental compassion’ and ‘non-directive curiosity’.
- For a helpful explanation of the differences between psychology and psychiatry, see this from the NHS.
- You may also be interested in this article from The Child Trauma Academy.
- The Yellow Kite offers an ‘attachment support service for schools; their aim is to raise awareness of attachment difficulties and developmental vulnerability and promote inclusion. Services are offered to carers, teachers and social workers to help better understand the difficulties that can arise when children have damaged attachments.
- 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.
- A Quick Guide to Attachment – by David Shemmings – see also his article ‘Never use the word ‘attachment’ again’ in Community Care.
- Indicators of disorganised attachment – also by David Shemmings.
- Important Key Note speech by Dr Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy about the ultimate importance of relationships as protective and healing for traumatised children
- The role of early experiences in child development – the Minnesota Longitudinal Study.
- Interesting article from Professor Elizabeth Meins about how the concept of ‘secure attachment’ is being set up as a benchmark for all toddlers – when the reality is more complicated than that.
- Attachment may not be the massive deal we all think it is– blog post from an adoptive parent.
- Golding, K (2008) Nurturing Attachments: Supporting Children who are Fostered or Adopted. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London
- Madigan S, Moran G, Pederson D R (2006) Unresolved states of mind, disorganised attachment relationships, and disrupted interactions of adolescent mothers and their infants. Developmental Psychology 42(2):293
- Shemmings D and Shemmings Y (2014) Assessing Disorganized Attachment Behaviour in Children. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London
- Beacon House Free Resources re developmental trauma
- Why Disorganised attachment isn’t always an indicator of abuse – October 2017 – New research into attachment theory shows that several pathways can lead to the ‘disorganised attachment’ classification in young children, not just abuse, and the implications of this new evidence are very important for social workers to consider.
- Attachment goes to court: child protection and custody issues Jan 2021 – looks at problems in relying on attachment theories in the family courts and how this can be misinterpreted.