John Timpson, businessman, foster carer, adoptive parent, attachment disorder expert

Businessman John Timpson tells Camilla Pemberton why he wrote a practical guide for foster carers about attachment disorder

Despite his achievements in the business world as the founder of Timpson, the national chain of key-cutting and shoe repair shops, John Timpson says that fostering and adopting children has been the most rewarding job he’s ever had. It’s also been one of the most difficult.

One of the reasons it had been so difficult was made clear when he and his wife attended a one-day course about attachment disorder (AD). “The penny dropped,” Timpson says. “We recognised the challenging behaviours outlined and the reasons behind them. It was clear that AD applied to many of the children we’d looked after.”

Timpson and his wife Alex, a qualified nursery nurse, have five children, including two adopted children, and have fostered a further 85 children throughout their 40 years of marriage. After learning about AD, Timpson said he and his wife realised they had been “inadvertently parenting many of these children in the wrong way.”

“Children with attachment disorder are always testing those around them to see if they can trust them. These kids defy logic. They find rules hard to stick to, and sometimes no matter how much you do to support them they appear to reject help and deny themselves opportunities. They can be angelic in front of other adults, leaving parents feeling bewildered and frustrated.

“You have to look at different ways to praise and reassure, and put them into situations where they will succeed. They often have negative core beliefs about themselves so you must not allow for them to be in situations where these will be reinforced.”

Parents not at fault

Learning about attachment also reassured the Timpsons that they as parents and carers were not at fault. “As parents, to know that our children’s difficult behaviour wasn’t our doing was a great relief,” he says. “I don’t think parents and carers, or even the support teams working with them, have enough understanding of AD. It made such a difference to our lives so it seemed obvious that a more thorough understanding would make life easier for other families.”

However, Timpson found that the literature on AD was “full of jargon”, and often written by academics, for academics. “It wasn’t very accessible.” He saw the need for a short, illustrated book so that parents and children could learn what the signs of attachment difficulty were and how to create healthy attachments.

So, with the idea that if you want something done you should do it yourself, Timpson wrote a short book entitled A Guide to Attachment. Once finished, he showed the book, which only takes 10 minutes to read to his daughter, a teacher, and to a worker at Manchester charity After Adoption. Both contributed to the final draft.

Healthy attachments

The short, fully illustrated book takes readers through what healthy attachments mean and the effect that attachment difficulties can have, using everyday language, speech bubbles and pictures.

The first person to read the finished book was Timpson’s oldest adopted child. “He looked at me and said ‘that’s me isn’t it’,” says Timpson. “Other adoptive parents who have read the book have said ‘if only I’d known this before’.”

Timpson’s objective is “to get the book into the hands of parents, children and professionals – social workers, teachers, doctors, magistrates. The more people know about attachment the greater the chance of providing the right help”. But he points out that foster carers and adoptive parents are the most important recipients. “We need to be given the information and the support that helps us to do our job better. We must help the people who are actually doing the job.”

What is attachment disorder?

Attachment disorder occurs when children have not formed healthy attachments with primary carers, often due to neglect and abuse. When early attachments fail to satisfy children’s needs, their behaviour, well-being and relationships can be affected. But attachment-related behaviours may present differently with different adults, for example with a social worker or with a parent.

Timpson’s other interests

John Timpson is the chair of the £150m business, shoe repair and key cutting chain Timpson. The company also funds training centres in Liverpool and Wandsworth prisons, with a view to employing offenders upon release.

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