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What is attachment?

Permanency planning is based on a number of research-supported rationales (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006).

Attachment theory underpins permanency planning. This theory holds that early childhood relationship experienced with significant caregivers can have positive or negative psychosocial outcomes. Although there may be cultural variations, the nature and quality of the interactions between child and carer can lead to different attachment relationships: secure, avoidant, ambivalent or disorganised (Bowlby, 1969; 1982, Howe, Dooley & Hinings, 2000; Main & Solomon, 1986; Jordon & Sketchley, 2009; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters & Wall, 1978).

Children who receive consistent, loving, responsive and nurturing caregiving are more likely to develop a secure attachment. This experience for a child creates an internal representational model (a cognitive schema) that adults are trustworthy and that they, in turn, are worthy and valuable (Bowlby, 1969; Berk, 2000).

Research suggests that children who have secure attachments are more likely to develop into socially competent adults and experience a range of positive life outcomes (for example, good interpersonal relationships, scholastic achievement, pro-social behaviour) (Howe et al, 2000).

In contrast, children who experience caregiving characterised as inconsistent, insensitive, unresponsive and erratic can develop insecure attachment (avoidant, anxious or disorganised). The implications of insecure attachment on an individual are relationship difficulties, interpersonal problems, challenging behaviour, emotional and mental health problems and poor educational and scholastic achievement, all of which adversely affect life outcomes (Berk, 2000).

Children who have been maltreated have been recognised as particularly vulnerable for developing insecure attachment.

‘Children in care are at very high risk of attachment insecurity (Marcus, 1991) and of attachment disturbances (Minnis, Everett, Pelosi, Dunn, & Knapp, 2006), given their common experience of emotional deprivation, loss, and inconsistent caregiving’

(Tarren-Sweeney, 2008, p. 2).

The links between attachment and permanency are therefore important. Children need opportunities to develop positive and secure attachments with significant others. If this cannot be afforded by birth parents, it is crucial that children are given opportunities to develop positive relationships with others. Responsive and sensitive caregiving can assist in repairing attachment difficulties with time and care.

Attachment—brain development

Another rationale for permanency planning is research on brain development. Maltreatment can have neurobiological impacts on a child’s brain functioning, with lifelong consequences for learning capacity, mental health and wellbeing (Twardosz & Lutzker, 2010; Teicher, Andersen, Polcari, Anderson, Navalta & Kim, 2003).

The first three years of a child’s life are particularly critical to brain development and functioning (Harden, 2004). The impact of trauma (which includes maltreatment) can create physiologic changes to hormone levels and neurotransmitters. This can lead to heightened arousal in children and an inability to manage emotions.  

Children who experience trauma are likely to be stressed. Highly stressed children may have unusual cortisol levels (the stress hormone) compared to non-stressed children, which can impact on brain functioning (Harden, 2004).

This has been described as ‘toxic stress’ because, if prolonged, it can have significant impacts on the brain’s architecture and stress regulation mechanisms (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2001; cited in Bromfield, Gillingham & Higgins, 2007, p. 35). However, stress effects can be buffered by positive relationships with parents or significant others (Harden, 2004).

The foundation for a child’s later social, emotional and cognitive development stems from their attachment experiences. A child’s attachment experience is shaped by how consistently and reliably a caregiver responds to their distress signals, with the ideal attachment experience being a result of consistent, reliable and responsive caregiving (Cassidy, 2008 cited in McLean, 2016). Such attachment experiences assist in forming the basis for self-concept, self-esteem, and social, emotional and cognitive development (McLean, 2016).

The concept of attachment has developed over time, with Bowlby (1969) considering attachment as a strong need to seek closeness to and contact with a preferred caregiver, and including the responsiveness and emotional availability of the caregiver (McLean, 2013 cited in McLean, 2016).

Mary Ainsworth and colleagues (1978) further broadened the concept of attachment by highlighting the young child’s internal representations of the world (self and other), and considering the child’s understanding of whether or not the caretaker would be available when needed (McLean, 2016).

The organisation of attachment

Ainsworth observed children’s responses to a structured, experimental setting, referred to as the ‘strange situation’ (Ainsworth et al., 1978 cited in McLean, 2016). Three clear patterns of attachment behaviour were identified within this setting: secure, insecure ambivalent and insecure avoidant. These classifications were connected to predictable attachment behaviour within this experimental setting and based on the child’s interaction with their caregiver on separation and reunification, with the child’s behaviour considered a reflection of ‘internal working models’ about the availability of the caregiver under stress (Ainsworth et al., 1978 cited in McLean, 2016).

Secure attachment

A ‘secure’ attachment reflects an expectation of the caregiver’s emotional availability. A secure attachment is thought to develop when a caregiver is consistent, responsive and attuned. A securely attached child learns to regulate distress, with the confidence that they can get help from their caregiver when needed (McLean, 2016).

Insecure attachment

‘Insecure’ patterns of attachment include ‘avoidant’ and ‘ambivalent’ attachment. The child with ‘avoidant’ attachment has developed an expectation that expressing their emotions and need for comfort will result in conflict or rejection. This child learns to hide distress for fear that vulnerability or need will anger or drive their caregiver away (McLean, 2016).

Angry, resistant or passive behaviour is demonstrated by the ‘ambivalently’ attached child as a response to their uncertainty about their caregiver’s ability to meet their needs (McLean, 2016). This child learns to exaggerate their feelings to try and gain a response from the caregiver, while feeling angry and needy at the same time (McLean, 2016).

Disorganised attachment

A fourth group was identified by Main and Solomon (1990) to describe those children who lack an organised approach to addressing their attachment needs: the ‘disorganised’ group. A child with this form of attachment may be scared to go to their caregiver as they are unsure what response they will receive, resulting in a relationship with their caregiver that can be a source of both comfort and fear (McLean, 2013 cited in McLean, 2016).  

Understanding a child’s attachment needs and gathering information regarding the child and significant family relationships is critical in case planning for permanency. This video describes attachment theory and how to use it.

Children's Attachment Theory and How to Use it

Practice prompt

We seek to understand the impact of the past, but stay focused on the present and the future. Refer to the principles in the handout Strengthening families Protection children Framework for practice.

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