Attachment theory plays a vital role in many social work decisions but can easily be misapplied. Community Care Inform Children’s knowledge and practice hub for this topic provides social workers with up-to-date information on the latest research and theory in this area and how to use it in practice with children and families and court work.
Here are three key tips by David Shemmings, professor of child protection research at the University of Kent and visiting professor, Royal Holloway, University of London and attachment trainer who has written nine quick guides on different aspects of attachment and provided tools and videos.
It is important to be precise in your language. Records often say something like ‘Mother does not have a very strong, secure attachment to the baby.’ But when talking about attachment in a professional context, parents shouldn’t have an attachment relationship with a baby; that should be described as a ‘bond’. It is babies who attach to their parents.
Try not to talk about ‘good’ or ‘strong’ attachment – probably you mean secure. A child can have a strong attachment to someone they are very insecure with. For example, the surviving children of Fred and Rose West probably have very strong attachments to their parents, one of whom is dead and one is in jail.
Similarly, avoid using the term “attachment problems” and never refer to “attachment disorders” as this is a restricted psychiatric or clinical diagnosis.
Don’t get preoccupied with ‘insecure’ attachment either
Around 30 to 40% of children (and adults) are insecurely attached to a parent and this is not in itself necessarily a problem. What social workers really need to be concerned about is disorganised attachment behaviour; the specific set of temporary behaviours seen when children are experiencing’fear without solution’.
If your organisation is interested in buying a subscription to Community Care Inform, please email our helpdesk or call 020 8652 3787.
This can be fear of the carer and/or fear for the carer – the person who is supposed to provide comfort or protection so the child has no way of managing their anxiety. If a child regularly experiences this kind of fear, because of abuse (including emotional abuse) or witnessing domestic violence, for example, the effect can be traumatising. Practitioners should ensure they know and have had training on recognising disorganised attachment behaviours.
You don’t need to use the word “attachment” at all
It is quite possible to provide reliable evidence focused on attachment relationships without actually mentioning the word ‘attachment’. Think in terms of providing the court with In-depth observations that detail the interaction between child and parent and capture the ‘child’s eye view’. Observations of different aspects of the child’s routine at different times of the day can evidence a parent’s sensitivity, availability and attunement and provide a rich and invaluable source of attachment-based information.
You can also use observations of the child in other settings such as nursery, school or with foster carers to discuss in detail differences in the child’s presentation and behaviour in those circumstances.
Using specific observations of behaviour helps you avoid ‘lazy’ thinking – a tendency to draw on a simple, global description such as ‘attachment problems’, rather than trying to understand the underlying dimensions of what’s going on. It is also an easier way to explain and justify what you mean to parents or the court.