Attachment Theory and Children in Care
Every parent will be all too aware of the cries and protests of babies and young children when they are separated from family members who they have a strong emotional bond with. The distress the child demonstrates from this separation is one of the best indicators of an attachment relationship the child has formed with the person.
Put simply, when a baby is born, they need help wiring up all the connections in their brain that form their understanding of themselves and their relationship to others. Through the love, care, and connection of a mother or father, the adult makes themselves available to the baby both emotionally and physically, forming an intimate relationship where the adult helps the child to feel loved and understood. From this, a strong foundation for other interpersonal relationships develops as an organised set of behaviours that can be called an attachment relationship.
The reason this relationship occurs at one level is a biological reaction, young children are defenceless and need help and resources from adults to protect them. Therefore attachment relationships are essential for survival. A child’s cry is meant to keep an adult nearby to ensure their protection. However, the way the child experiences this physical closeness is as security, comfort, support, and love.
Through this closeness, both physically and emotionally, essential psychological processes are wired up in the brain which contribute to early brain development. Attachment experiences in early childhood can therefore be thought of as core to the physiological development of a child and their approach to relationships and meaningful connections with others.
Why is it important for children?
Attachment theory describes how children’s early experiences with their primary caregiver affect their emotional and psychological development and therefore their capacity to form relationships later in life.
Through receiving consistent and responsive care as a child, they are learning to recognise their own emotions, emotional states, and how to regulate their own behaviour. Experiencing this type of sensitive care is extremely important in a child’s development of social interaction, emotional intelligence, and how to relate to other people. A positive experience with a primary caregiver creates a deep feeling of belonging and being loved. This basis is how children learn that they can rely on others for help in later life and is a secure grounding for feeling safe in later experiences.
By feeling protected in early childhood, children can develop confidence that lets them explore, experience, and learn. This attachment provides a secure base for play, interaction, and social relationships. Free from fears and anxieties about abandonment and safety, children are enthused with energy about life, curiosity to learn and grow, and a deep desire to explore the world around them.
These early experiences are believed to have an impact on how a child perceives themselves through their middle childhood, teenage years, and even beyond. It affects how they feel about themselves and what they think about how others perceive them.
A strong attachment grounding helps teenagers to grow into confident adults and to explore other intimate relationships with friends, coworkers, and those around them. It helps in developing a sense of autonomy from parents and creating your own path in the world. Of course, other experiences throughout your formative years will also have a huge impact on personal development, but these early experiences can be crucial and certainly have a significant impact.
Through attachment theory, parents and those who work with children have a framework to help understand the importance of close relationships in early development.
What are the different patterns of attachment?
Children react in different ways to emotional distress; the way they react to these situations can be used to categorise attachment security in a relationship.
These different patterns have been classified into:
Secure – This pattern refers to when the child’s behaviour is oriented to communicating their needs for reassurance and security because the child has experienced sensitivity and expects the attachment figure to respond appropriately. In other words, the child and caregiver are in ‘tune’ with one another, sensitive to what the other needs and clearly communicating with each other.
Avoidant – This is when a child’s behaviour does not communicate their need for comfort because the child’s learnt behaviour is that the attachment figure is unlikely to respond appropriately. The child may downplay distress and try not to provoke the caregiver. It can sometimes appear as self-sufficiency but emotionally the child could be feeling insecurity.
Ambivalent – This type of behaviour is due to inconsistent responses from the caregivers, resulting in feelings of anxiety for the child about the caregiver’s availability for sensitive care. As the child can’t rely on the caregiver to respond appropriately, they may amplify their distress or be fussier. However, they may also withdraw and refuse the affection they are given, showing avoidance and indifference.
Disorganised – In this situation, the child will have experienced the attachment figure as threatening, potentially even a source of danger. They may be feeling overwhelmed and have felt severe distress for long periods of time, leading them not to have a clear strategy for dealing with their emotions. The child may still turn to the parent for comfort but in doing so, they will feel risk and therefore show contradictory behaviour.
It is unhelpful to think of these patterns as either normal or abnormal. Instead, the child simply alters their behaviour to best fit the approach of the parent or caregiver they are presented with. Each one can be considered an appropriate coping mechanism for the circumstances they are presented with.
Also, it is important to remember that adults who are performing the role of attachment figures are doing so based on their own experiences in childhood, life, and their own history and circumstance. Different factors may affect the way they act as a parent including poverty, addiction, past abuse, mental illness and a whole host of social circumstances that have affected them.
The breakdown of patterns that are exhibited can be used for childcare professionals, social services, and indeed parents themselves who want to understand how their behaviour has an impact on children’s development. The pattern framework can be used to maximise opportunities for adults to learn how to behave sensitively and respond lovingly to a child’s needs.
How does this help us understand children in care?
For children in care, their early experiences of care are often negative. Many children who enter the care system have experienced neglect, abuse, abandonment, or other forms of trauma that will have affected them deeply. This can lead looked after children to develop attachment disorders.
Attachment disorders can develop in toddlers, children, or teenagers. Young people with attachment difficulties will struggle to develop emotional attachments to others and face severe issues in bonding with and trusting others. This can severely impact their life, causing them to struggle to make friends, have issues at school, and face their own mental health issues.
These disorders / difficulties can present themselves in a few ways. Some children in care may be withdrawn, distant, and emotionally unavailable. They may rarely interact with people and will not seek comfort from caregivers or others when upset or distressed.
Children who enter the care system may never have experienced sensitivity and love, therefore they expect that those who will care for them will be the same. They may believe that foster carers or care homes will be detrimental to them and have the intention of harming them. It will be difficult for them to understand that their new caregiver is nurturing and available for support when all previous experiences of care have been either unresponsive or dangerous. Because of this expectation, foster children may react to their new caregivers in the same way as they did when they were being neglected as they associate care with negative memories.
For some children, their past life experiences of attachment will manifest differently and they may appear emotionally needy, rather than unavailable. They may perceive themselves to be starved of attention and so seek out situations where they can meet new people and gain approval. This can lead them to dangerous and vulnerable positions. This over-friendly behaviour often extends to strangers and can be considered the result of the absence of an attachment figure in early childhood.
The importance of foster carers’ role
Those who wish to be a foster parent play an extremely important role in changing a child’s life for the better. When a child has only had negative experiences of care, a foster parent has the chance to change their perception of care, through, love, acceptance, patience and support.
As a foster parent, you have the opportunity to build a brighter and happier future for a child who struggles to form strong connections with those around them. As foster carers take on full responsibility for the day-to-day care of their foster child, they are often the first to see and experience signs of protest and distress in a looked after child. They will be the one to comfort them and try to help them make sense of the way they feel and how they should process their emotions.
Foster carers have the chance to begin new routines and start building the groundwork for a new approach to healthy and happy relationships. They will have to manage the child’s daily routine including school, meal times, bedtimes, and all interactions with others. It is through this relationship that the child can learn to trust again. The safety and security foster families offer is, therefore, invaluable.
As the person who is closest to the child, foster carers will learn about the child’s needs, growth and development, and emotional wellbeing more so than the social workers and professionals who are responsible for the child. This makes them an essential resource for care services who will be working on the child’s care plan. That’s why foster carers are so valuable and play such a crucial role in the care industry!
Key considerations for foster carers
For those who are interested in becoming a foster carer, attachment theory and the responsibility of providing therapeutic care to a child can feel a little daunting! Independent fostering agencies are aware that foster care is a huge responsibility and a life-changing decision, but that’s why they offer high levels of training and support!
At Fusion Fostering, we are committed to recruiting carers who are passionate about childcare. That’s all it takes to be an amazing carer. Our team will provide full, in-depth fostering training to prepare you for the role, and our social workers are available to offer 24/7 support to all our carers.
Some of the things you’ll learn about as a foster carer at an attachment-focused agency include:
- The importance of the link between a child’s behaviours and their early attachment relationships.
- How attachment affects a child from birth through to adolescence, and adulthood.
- How to recognise signs of attachment difficulties, even when a child doesn’t show obvious signs.
- That some children exhibit unpredictable and challenging behaviour, including self-deprecating strategies, due to their early experiences.
- That learned behaviours in early childhood are hard to change and children may show resistance.
- How to monitor your own responses to separation and attachment by understanding the child’s response.
- How to use information from professionals and social workers to best offer support to the foster child.
- How to develop a consistent daily routine to help the child develop a sense of security.
- That even though a child has had negative experiences, including abuse, they may still have intense feelings towards their attachment figures.
Ready to change a child’s life?
If you think you could help make a difference to a child’s life, then we’d love to hear from you. We’re an independent fostering agency with a family approach who are dedicated to improving the life chances of children and young people in our care. Please call 03301 239 355 or click here if you would like to receive more information.
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