Attachment theory and looked after children

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    Wednesday, 16 September, 2015 - 16:02

Attachment theory has become the dominant approach to understanding early social development, and has given rise to a great surge of empirical research into the formation of children's close relationships. Of course attachment theory isn't something exclusive to working with looked after children (roughly a third of the UK population are thought to have attachment insecurity) but is often particularly relevant, and understanding it can be very useful when working with looked after children.

Click on the dots on the visualisation below to find out more about attachment theory.

Waypointwaypoint/attachment-theory-and-looked-after-childrenAttachment theory and looked after children133.5180.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/introduction-attachment-theoryIntroduction to attachment theory436.5390.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/secure-attachmentSecure attachment165.5411.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/insecure-attachmentInsecure attachment726.5399.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/some-causes-insecure-attachmentSome causes of insecure attachment541.5532.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/indicators-attachment-difficultiesIndicators of attachment difficulties689.5242.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/attachment-and-looked-after-childrenAttachment and looked after children410.5824.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/attachment-and-children-elevated-riskAttachment and children at 'elevated risk'635.5825.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/practical-guide-music-making-looked-after-children-1A practical guide for music making with looked after children12.519.2""#0000002

Attachment theory has become the dominant approach to understanding early social development, and has given rise to a great surge of empirical research into the formation of children's close relationships. Of course attachment theory isn't something exclusive to working with looked after children (roughly a third of the UK population are thought to have attachment insecurity) but is often particularly relevant, and understanding it can be very useful when working with looked after children.

Click on the dots on the visualisation below to find out more about attachment theory.

Click here for a text version of this visualisation

Attachment theory and looked after children

Attachment theory has become the dominant approach to understanding early social development, and has given rise to a great surge of empirical research into the formation of children's close relationships. ( accessed 2.4.2012)

In trained hands it can

  1. aid understanding of a child or young person’s behaviour formed by early relationships with its primary care givers
  2. inform accurate intervention to help the young person develop alternative behaviour strategies which may serve them better in changing environments.

25-40% of the population experience ‘attachment insecurity’ - and these cross class and culture boundaries . In that children and young people ‘at elevated risk’ may experience attachment insecurity disproportionately, some introductory thinking to attachment theory is set out below. The section is based on the thinking (often reproduced verbatim) of

  • Mary Ryan (taken from Understanding Why,: understanding attachment and how this might affect education published by the NCB)
  • Lisa Pedersen, a clinical psychologist, writing in Social and Emotional Learning Update E-Bulletin (Nov 21st 2011)
  • Pat Crittenden, Developmental Psychopathologist at the Family Relations Institute, University of Miami, Chair of the International Association for the Study of Attachment and author of the Dynamic Maturational Model (DMM) of attachment and adaptation;
  • Ruth Butterworth, a clinical tutor in the Division of Clinical Psychology  at the University of Manchester.

The section closes with a brief look at the possible implications for those working as community musicians with children and young people with insecure attachments.

Introduction to attachment theory

Psychologist John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist and he believed that early childhood experiences have a significant influence on development and behaviour later in life. Bowlby defined attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’ (Bowlby, 1969). All children are born in a very immature developmental state and attachment theory suggests that their development occurs within the context of their key relationships.

Ultimately, the child is focussed on their own safety and survival and their behaviour with other people is designed to make sure that their basic needs are met. 'Every behaviour is a communication'. Carers, in the meantime, are doing their best within the boundaries of their own experience to pick up on the child’s cues and meet their needs. The extent to which parents are able to ‘tune in’ to their children and meet their needs ultimately affects the way in which that child will learn to relate to others and to the world around them.

In some instances, the strategies that children develop within their family of origin are less effective in the wider world (and when they carry forward these learnt behaviours in later adolescence), and may impact on their own physical, social, cognitive and emotional development as well as making it more difficult for others to connect with them. A child’s experiences within early relationships will also impact on how able he or she is to reflect on these experiences and find new ways of relating to others.

Attachment theory can help explain behaviour that is not helped by imposing firm boundaries and positive behaviour management strategies. Attachment difficulties are not easily remedied and take a lot of time and patience from many sources to see significant change. However, identification and understanding of students with attachment difficulties is the first important step to helping these individuals.

The theory does not suggest that a child does or does not attach with his or her caregiver; it does however suggest that the attachment can be either secure or insecure.

Secure attachment

According to attachment theory, the first year of a child’s life is the most crucial period for forming a secure attachment with their parent / caregiver, and the next most important stage is up to age five. A secure attachment develops when a child’s needs have been ‘tuned into’ and responded to consistently and sensitively. The way they have been cared for  during this time teaches them about how the world works: that it is a place where they will feel loved, cared for and know they are safe. Secure attachments allow children to feel worthwhile and they develop the confidence to learn and experience new things. They have the potential to experience academic success.

Caregiver behaviours commonly observed in secure attachment relationships include:

  • Positive, warm and encouraging responses to child’s behaviour (both verbally and physically)
  • Making a lot of eye contact with their child and using touch to communicate reassurance
  • Providing appropriate supervision
  • Understanding that their young child has thoughts, feelings and needs that are separate from their own
  • Reflecting on their child’s behaviour and altering routines to help avoid situations that cause anxiety
  • Acting as a good role model by managing and expressing their emotions appropriately in a calm and patient manner

Insecure attachment

Insecure attachment develops when a child’s physical and/or emotional needs go unmet. These children have a very different experience of the world: that it is a place full of anxiety and feelings of being unsafe.

They begin life feeling rejected, afraid and worthless. Individual children will respond to their experiences in individual ways, although their responses typically fall into one of two broad categories

  • Category C: those who exaggerate their difficult feelings, become clingy or ‘needy’ and generally ‘make their presence felt’ (a strategy designed to draw in carers who are inconsistent in their responses), and those who
  • Category A - cut off difficult feelings, becoming unusually independent and externally-focussed (to avoid being rejected or harmed when they learn that expressing feelings is dangerous in some way).

(Children with more secure attachment in this ABC model are Category B). Children who have developed these different strategies can look quite different from one another but those in the latter group often go ‘under the radar’ because they have learnt not to bother others with their own needs.

Being in either of these states also causes distress in the brain, releasing high amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone. This causes the child to be hyper-vigilant and frequently in a state of distress (which may or may not be visible to the outside world). Frequent release of cortisol can also impact on the child’s overall brain development.

Insecure attachment can have a huge impact on every aspect of a child’s development, including physical and cognitive as well as social and emotional consequences. Of course, insecure attachment falls on a continuum and while some children do experience extremes of abuse and neglect, many show more subtle vulnerabilities in response to less extreme experiences with carers.

Caregiver behaviours commonly observed in insecure attachment relationships include:

  • negative, insensitive, inconsistent responses to a child’s behaviour (both verbally and physically)
  • avoiding eye contact and/or avoiding physical contact with their child
  • being overly critical of their child and having unrealistic expectations of their child’s behaviour
  • neglecting and ignoring their child’s needs and cues
  • putting their own needs before their child’s
  • acting aggressively, unpredictably and being unable to manage their own emotions.

Some causes of insecure attachment

It is important to remember that in almost all cases, even parents who behave in abusive ways are trying to do the best for their children. They have typically experienced insecure attachment relationships themselves and these patterns of relating are handed down within the family.

The ‘cause’ of insecure attachment is a child’s needs being inadequately or inconsistently met by primary (and potentially subsequent) carers- but there are any number of reasons why this might happen, including:

  • Neglect; physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • Primary caregiver suffers from depression
  • Sudden separation from primary caregiver
  • Child suffers from pain or an illness that has been unrecognised by the primary caregiver
  • Child has a disability
  • Numerous changes and/or placements (can be the case for children who move around in the foster system)
  • Pre-birth stress/trauma
  • Domestic violence
  • Premature baby
  • Bereavements in the familyAlcohol/drug taking during pregnancy
  • Poverty
  • Young parents with poor parenting skills

Indicators of attachment difficulties

Individuals with an insecure attachment style may present in any number of ways and it is always important to reflect on a child’s presentation in the context of their historical and current context. It can, however, be helpful to have some concrete examples of ways in which insecurely attached children might present. The NCB report, Understanding Why, includes the following table:


Why is...Maybe because...
Katie constantly turning around in class?Danger often comes from behind.
Jodie often ignoring the teachers’ instructions?Jodie is so alert to everything around her that she cannot hear the teacher’s instructions.
Jamal always exploding during maths or spelling?Jamal finds it difficult to be wrong or make mistakes, and it is always obvious when answers in maths or spelling are wrong.
Rebecca not wanting to go to school?The exams are about to start and Rebecca is very
worried about failing or not doing well.
Kelly in trouble at playtime or during moves between classrooms?Kelly feels more secure in small groups – preferably
with people she knows. She feels panicky in crowds.
Wesley refusing to be helped with new work?Wesley wants certainty in his life and never wants to
feel helpless again, so he finds it very hard to accept
any help.
Harrison often taking other pupils’ belongings?Stealing is often linked to early loss, especially of
caregivers, and this can lead to a more general
misunderstanding of the difference between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’. Harrison had little of his own in his early life.
Sarah constantly asking the teacher trivial questions about her work?Sarah has very low self-esteem and needs to feel an
adult is close to her constantly. She may feel she
cannot bear to get it ‘wrong’ or the teacher may
‘disappear’ like others have in her life, for which she
blames herself.
Ben’s behaviour suddenly getting much worse?Something has happened that is hard for him to
cope with. Perhaps a new sibling has arrived, or
there is a painful anniversary, or a visit to his birth
family, or changes at home. Stress can be in the past, now or in the future.
Adam being sulky and refusing to speak with the teacher or others in authority about difficulties?Adam has no words to describe how he feels, so looking sulky is a communication.
Merline telling lies?Telling lies is often linked to early loss, especially of caregivers, and leaves children with difficulties distinguishing between fact and fantasy. Merline’s
early life had no boundaries and she has difficulty
describing her feelings. She is also desperate to be
liked and will say what she thinks will please.
Charlie sometimes very quiet and withdrawn; he often seems to be in a world of his own?Charlie finds it safer not to respond to or engage with others, especially adults, when he finds a situation stressful.


Attachment and looked after children

Every child is of course an individual with their own story to tell and labelling a child as having  ‘attachment difficulties’ in itself does little to help us understand how they think, feel or behave. Attachment theory does, however, provide a framework for helping us to think about a child’s past and current experience of relationships and the enormous impact that this has on their day to day experience in the world.

It is important to remember that not all looked after children have attachment difficulties and not all children with attachment difficulties are looked after by a Local Authority (NCB 2007 pg2). However, because of the circumstances which have led them to be taken into care, looked after children may be particularly likely to present with attachment difficulties. Unfortunately, the nature of the looked after system often means that attachment difficulties are compounded, for example:

  • Carers have inadequate information about a child’s previous experiences which mean that they find it especially difficult to make sense of or ‘tune in’ to their individual needs
  • Children often experience frequent changes in carer. Although the vast majority of these carers will be warm and compassionate, each will have their own style of relating and so children will have to ‘relearn’ how to relate or risk continuing to feel disconnected
  • Children often have a whole host of professionals trying to form relationships with them based on different rules and expectations - adding to their confusion about how to relate most effectively to others.

Attachment and children at 'elevated risk'

Community musicians, when working with primary age children at elevated risk on music projects, will usually be co-working with social care professionals and (where relevant) foster carers. The musicians’ involvement may seem relatively peripheral in the life of the child: perhaps 90 minutes a week for 6 weeks. Their impact, however, can be substantial. In such projects the significance of attachment theory may lie in:

  • sensitising the community musician to the idea that ‘every behaviour is a communication’.  All children adopt behaviours to enable them to survive. Children with attachment difficulties may adopt behaviours (for example, those identified in the table above) in order to survive in their immediate environment. When that environment changes e.g. going to school, when interacting with adults and children outside the home, that same behaviour may be seen as dysfunctional , causing the child (and often the adults around them) to become confused and anxious. A change of environment, though, can also be a new opportunity - for an adult to tune into the child’s needs and the child to experience having their needs understood and responded to. Even where children appear to reject this experience (because it doesn’t fit with their previous experiences, or they don’t feel safe enough to trust it), it can nevertheless have a powerful and important role helping them move forward.
  • helping explain ‘the need for total consistency and good solid boundaries around the child. The modelling of security must be absolute and unwavering despite all the child will throw at it.’ (Osiris 2012
  • encouraging the musician to delight in the child (if not always in their behaviour) and acting as an authentic Artist Pedagogue on social pedagogical principles
  • emphasising to the musician the importance of developing consistently respectful and constructive relationships both with the young people in the group and with other adults in the project team. Modelling such behaviour can be powerful.

The community musician who sees themselves as a youth worker and who may have more of an ongoing relationship with young adults at elevated risk( e.g. those aged 16+), perhaps through Music Mentoring projects, may find similar benefits in attachment theory.

Working if at all possible with the professionals who may have referred the young person to their music mentoring project, they may also become significant figures in the young person’s ‘zone of proximal development’ , possibly one of the first adults in the young person’s life who is not an authority figure (not a birth or foster parent, not a teacher, not a social worker or criminal justice worker).

Pat Crittenden, a leading international authority on attachment insecurity, notes that late adolescence offers an opportunity for change:

"Abstract thought makes this a viable possibility. For the first time in their lives, adolescents have the potential to think about relationships, about their own and others’ behaviour in relationships, and about how they might want to change these. These changes that occur in late adolescence create the first real opportunity for individuals to take charge of their lives, to actively maintain the benefits of a safe and secure childhood or, conversely, to extricate themselves from the suffering of an unfortunate childhood."

Interviewed in Community Care , Crittenden is critical of the US and the UK systems for assuming that the best intervention work can only be done before the child turns five.

"Adolescence, for example. I agree that early adolescence is difficult to deal with. These children still need their parents, even if the home is not adequate, and they have not yet got full adult intelligence in how they process events and emotions.

“But the place that should be far more exciting for social workers is between the ages of 16 and 26. This is when the mind is relatively mature. These young people can take care of themselves physically – they could move out of home and survive and they are learning how to do so. That gives us a special chance to work with them before they have that first baby or relationship based on inappropriate need. If we can catch them in that window of opportunity we have the power to instigate big changes.

“Yet both the US and the UK have almost no services to fill this gap. We drop people right at the time we could be doing the most effective work with them. We don’t have services attuned to this transitional period. Instead, we take them out of tough homes, where they have learned their coping strategies, and we expect them to survive and become responsible citizens. Unsurprisingly many turn to drugs or casual sex – which is a sign of a stressed and depressed adolescent.

“So we have two windows of opportunity in a child’s life – when the baby is very young and again when the child makes the transition to becoming an adult. We must not neglect either of them.”

How the community musician should ally his or her mentoring skills to the therapeutic interventions of social workers, psychologists or psychotherapists needs further exploration but there would seem to be substantial opportunities.

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