Positive relationships: Attachment, part 3: Insecure lives

Anne O'Connor
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Practitioners should be alert to children in their care who may lack the sense of secure attachment they need for emotional development, and offer their families whatever support they can, says Anne O'Connor.

- Q: What do we mean by insecure attachment?

If we think of attachment as a continuum or scale with 'insecure' at one end and 'secure' at the other, then we all fall somewhere on that continuum. Our early experiences and the way we were parented will have influenced the levels of our confidence, self-esteem and resilience to stress.

As a 'securely attached' child is able to explore the world confidently from the safe base provided by their attachment figures, an 'insecurely attached' child will struggle to find the confidence to take risks and absorb new information.

A securely attached child will increasingly be able to cope with their emotions and express their feelings appropriately, but an insecurely attached child will struggle to understand or to find appropriate ways to deal with frustration, anger, anxiety, disappointment and sadness. For some, this may mean uncontrollable rages and aggression; others may learn to suppress their emotions and not look to others for comfort.

A securely attached child will be more resilient to stress and better able to cope with the stress of others, while an insecurely attached child will become easily stressed and be more likely to react in antisocial or unhealthy ways.

- Q: How do we assess the quality of attachment?

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed a research technique to assess the quality of attachment in 12- to 18-month-olds. Known as the 'Strange Situation', it allowed researchers to observe a child's reactions to being left in an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar adult. The child's response to separation and reunion with the parent was seen as an indicator of whether or not they were securely or insecurely attached.

A securely attached child has built up a memory of the parent as someone who makes them feel safe, so they will cry when the mother leaves, and be enthusiastic and happy to see them when they return.

- Q: What does insecure attachment look like?

Three categories of insecure attachment have been identified by psychologists.

'Avoidant attachment' is the most common of the three categories. In the Strange Situation test, the child seems not to mind that the parent has left, is easily distracted by toys and shows little or no response when the parent returns. Research suggests that this is because the child has already learned (from the signals and behaviour of the parent) that it is not a good thing to show your emotions, whether it be anger, sadness or even fear.

Although this lack of emotion is often considered to be a cultural approach (for example, the British 'stiff upper lip'), it is likely that it is repeated down generations because parents themselves have never learned to manage their own emotions and are unable to tolerate negative states such as distress, fear and anger in their own children. The parent can't help the child regulate or think about their feelings, so the child just learns to hide or suppress them for fear of upsetting or angering the parent. These children often appear calm and unconcerned, but we now know their heart rate and cortisol levels are raised and they are living with permanent stress.

'Ambivalent/anxious attachment' is identified in the Strange Situation as showing distress when the parent leaves, connecting easily with the unfamiliar adult and then being ambivalent or angry with the parent on return. This child has learned not to be sure of the mother's attention; they can't predict whether she will be comforting or not. The child's strategy is to be permanently on guard and demanding of the parent's attention, either anxiously or angrily, because they don't feel 'held in mind' and are fearful that the parent will forget or abandon them.

'Disorganised attachment', the most severe of the three categories, is, thankfully, also the least common. It is displayed by bizarre or extreme reactions to the Strange Situation. Because the child has developed no coping strategies, they may, when distressed, resort to head banging, rocking or freezing.

So much has gone wrong for these children and their families that even the most basic parental functions have been missing. This is likely to have happened where the parent has been overwhelmed by some trauma that has not been processed properly, such as severe loss, neglect or abuse, and the likelihood is that they themselves are attachment-disordered. Many of these children end up in the care system, where factors such as the changes of placement compound the difficulties in attachment and emotional well-being.

Once again, it means living with unremitting stress and this affects not just well being but also the ability to learn.

- Q: What can early years practitioners do to recognise and support children and families where attachments are insecure and at risk?

1. Be aware of circumstances that can interfere with parents' ability to be physically and emotionally available to their baby in the vital early months, such as:

- pre-natal or birth trauma, premature birth or medical interventions

- extended or repeated separation, such as hospitalisation of the mother

- post-natal depression

- undiagnosed or unresolved painful illness - for example, colic, severe eczema or ear infections

- multiple changes in caregiver, such as foster placements

- immaturity and lack of support for parents - for example, teenage pregnancy or lack of extended family

- parental drug/substance abuse

- parents or carers with their own insecure or disordered attachments.

2. Remember that many of these circumstances may have been beyond the parent's control. Blame and criticism won't help change attitudes, or break a generational cycle of emotional neglect.

3. Find out what training is available locally and nationally (for example, 'Theraplay') and raise your awareness of attachment and nurture so that you can work sensitively with families, modelling positive responses and playful ways of reinforcing attachment.

4. Forge strong links with other agencies who can identify and help with family support - health visitors, outreach teams, child and adolescent mental health services, social services, parenting support groups.

5. Reconsider routines and procedures in your setting that don't support continuity of caregivers and attachments.

6. Be aware of children who are 'looked after' or have been adopted and how their attachments may have been disrupted. Work closely with their families in order to support the attachment process.

7. Make sure your interactions with children are warm, responsive and sensitive to them as individuals.

8. We need to think about our own place on the attachment scale and begin to recognise patterns and issues that have affected our own attachment relationships and childcare practices. This can be unsettling, but the insight it brings can change forever the way we look at children's challenging behaviours.


'Attachment disorder' will be published in Nursery World on 10 January

References and further reading

- The Science of Parenting - Practical guidance on sleep, crying, play and building emotional well-being for life by Margot Sunderland (Dorling Kindersley)

- From Birth To One - The year of opportunity by Maria Robinson (Open University Press)

- Why Love Matters - How affection shapes a baby's brain by Sue Gerhardt (Brunner-Routledge)

- Understanding Attachment and Attachment Disorders by Vivien Pryor and Danya Glaser (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

- 'Attachment in Practice' DVD and user notes by Siren Films

- Key Persons in the Early Years Foundation Stage by Dorothy Selleck (Early Education)

- 'Being Held in Another's Mind' by Jeree Pawl, available at www.wested.org/online_pubs/ccfs-06-01-chapter1.pdf

- Theraplay: Helping Parents and Children Build Better Relationships Through Attachment Based Play by Ann M Jernberg and Phyllis B Booth (San Francisco:Jossey-Bass)

- www.theraplay.org

- www.adoptionuk.org


- UC 1.1 Child Development

- UC 1.3 Keeping Safe

- PR 2.4 Key Person

- L&D 4.2 Active Learning.

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