Introduction to Attachment -

September 18, 2014


Attachment is the relationship and bond a child has with a caring adult or adults. Levy & Orlans (1998) tell us,

Attachment is a deep and enduring connection established between a child and caregiver in the first several years of life……Attachment is not something that parents do to their children; rather it is something that children and parents create together, in an ongoing reciprocal relationship.

In 2006 when I began the assessment process to become a foster carer for the local authority in Wiltshire I knew very little about attachment theory, trauma or brain development, despite the fact that I had been working with children and families with complex needs for some years by then. I had come across it during training and in my studies but had never really related it to those I was supporting which, knowing what I know now seems like a builder saying they had built a few houses in their time and knew they had to put cement between the bricks but not why!!

Fortunately, my assessing social worker directed me to read “any and everything you can on trauma, attachment and the brain”. Thank goodness a) she advised me to do this and b) I did!! I began with a not so lightweight but fascinating, Attachment, Trauma and Healing, Levy & Orlans and then went on to the remarkable book by Kate Cairns Attachment trauma and resilience. Talk about light bulb moments, it was like Blackpool illuminations and stood me in such good stead for the children who were to enter my home, my heart and to challenge me to dig deeper and learn more.

I had heard of the people who are seen as the founders of attachment theory, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby and Barbara Ainsworth, but now I got to know their work and apply it to what I saw in the children and in response and care of them in a way that changed everything. So let me share what I have taken from their work more fully.

Psychoanalyst and parenting expert Donald Winnicott was interested in studying tiny details of interactions between mother and child and other carers too and offered a less rigid black and white view of raising children than some of his contemporaries. He was all about ‘good enough’ mothering and care within the all-important relationship. So I learnt to look for this capability in myself and in others.

John Bowlby was curious about the similarities there were between the relationships the young offenders of his day had with their mothers. He also looked at why during the Second World War evacuation process some children coped much better than others and thirdly at how the rigid hospital visiting policy of the time meant that children rarely saw their mothers or family during their treatment. His conclusions were that the initial relationship for a child with their mother was foundational and vital to all aspects of their life and development. I have seen the impact of fractured relationships in many children, teenagers and adults which explains so much about behaviour and needs.

Barbara Ainsworth, who worked alongside of Bowlby, wanted to test out what attachment looked like in a child’s reaction and way of relating to its mother and in doing so she defined different types of attachment style. She developed the Strange Situation Test to look closely at how a child coped with the mother leaving the room and the all-important re-entry and reunion. Depending on the child’s reaction their attachment style could then be defined.

So why and how have I found looking at attachment theory helpful as a foster carer and in all areas of my work and life? For the following reasons:
• It underpins all relationships and shapes all interactions and reactions
• It helped me see complex behaviour as just that not as personal, manipulative or defiant
• It helped me look beyond any behaviour to see the child’s confusion and distress which comes in a range of disguises!
• It taught me that building relationships with traumatised children takes great patience, repetition and time as they have never been able to trust adults
• It highlighted the vital role of self-care as Heather T. Forbes says,
“It takes a parent with the inner strength of a bulldog and the heart and compassion of a golden retriever to raise a child with trauma.”

Jane Evans is a trauma parenting specialist, trainer, speaker, writer and blogger (also mum, step-mum and step-nana!), fortunate enough to learn about raising children from those she has worked with and nurtured. @janeparenting

Jane’s book for children impacted by growing up with domestic violence in their early years is a useful tool in building attachment and finding names for feelings.
How are you feeling today Baby Bear?