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Attachment and young people

‘Attachment’ provides a theoretical framework for understanding relationships and how young people seek comfort in times of heightened stress or anxiety. In permanency planning, attachment theory helps in assessing information relating to a child’s behaviour and how they relate to others (Tilbury and Osmond, 2006).

We know that difficulties in attachment are compounded if trauma is suffered at an early age, if the maltreatment experienced is severe, and if a child remains in an unsafe environment for an extended period of time (Howe, 2011).

Usually when we talk about attachment, it is with regards to the relationships babies and younger children have with their caregivers, but attachment relationships continue to develop over the lifespan of a young person into adulthood. Young people have a history of relationships and patterns of attachment, which often reflect a level of continuity from their early years (Howe, 2011). However, these attachments can alter, for example, from insecure to secure, if close relationships change (Bowlby, 1998 cited in Howe, 2011). 

It is important to take this potential for change into account when making decisions about permanency. It is particularly relevant to relational permanency, which focuses on achieving positive, loving, trusting and nurturing relationships with significant others through permanent care arrangements.

Consider that the context for changing attachment patterns is influenced by two things—what the young person brings to the new care arrangement in terms of personality and behaviour, and the carer’s ability to respond sensitively to the young person and provide warm, consistent, reliable care (Howe, 2011).

While attachment theory is important to help contextualise a young person’s safety and wellbeing, and analyse their development within their environment (Brandon et al., 2011), it is not the role of practitioners to diagnose an attachment style of a young person. Attachment theory can be used to assess and analyse relationships within families and consider concerns based on this, but experts in attachment should be engaged to delve deeper into this to determine how this impacts on the different domains of a young person’s life. 

Understanding the developmental changes and needs of young people is important when making decisions about permanency. For example:

  • Brain development and hormonal changes can lead to impulsive, emotional responses that can impact on participation and engagement in discussions and decision making (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019)
  • The impact of trauma, history of instability and disruption of social networks and relationships influence the forming of new attachments (Stott and Gustavsson, 2010)
  • Identity formation and the need for increased independence impacts on relationships with primary caregivers (Stott and Gustavsson, 2010)

A history of instability can also make it difficult for a young person to learn the necessary skills to navigate life. Young people in care are often at higher risk of:

  • homelessness and unemployment
  • having a lower education attainment
  • having mental health concerns
  • becoming a parent at an early age
  • being involved with the youth justice system
  • developing substance abuse issues.

Further reading

Howe (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: A brief introduction.

This text explains important concepts in attachment theory and provides a particularly useful analysis on the scope for attachment styles in infancy to change later in life. Chapter 15 offers a perspective specifically on the care context.

Grief and loss of identity

Young people in care often describe the loss of many things when they first enter care.

  • Young people are often not genuinely involved in decision making about aspects of their lives, and therefore can experience a loss of power over their future.
  • Due to changes in care arrangements and school, because they’ve moved away from areas, young people can lose friends and school connections.
  • When young people move from one care arrangement to another, they often lose personal belongings
  • If young people are not living with sibling,, their relationships with their siblings can be strained.
  • Young people with care experiences often have decreased self-esteem.
  • Young people often speak about a loss of feeling normal.

Young people often feel angry, powerless, nervous, isolated and fearful about being in care. Everything they have known, those they have been connected to, or the culture and traditions that are a part of their sense of identity, becomes forgotten or left behind when they have no stability or permanence.

The loss of identity, safety and belonging is difficult to re build once it has been interrupted, and the effects of this may be experienced throughout the young person’s lifespan.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, maintaining their connection to community and country is vital to their sense of belonging, identity and permanency. It is important for all young people to know where they come from and who their people are. It is essential that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are provided with opportunities to learn their language, participate in ceremonies, spend time on country and connect with family, community and their Elders.

Practice prompt

It is important to consider the five core elements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle—prevention, partnership, placement, participation and connection—and how they intersect with all dimensions of permanency.

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