Attachment theory will be a familiar concept for social workers who work with children; a model to understand how early experiences of care influence a child’s strategies for gaining protection and comfort. But it may be less well known that the theory can also be of use to practitioners who work with adults.
Attachment strategies aren’t just used in childhood, but continue across the whole course of a person’s life. So if social workers can understand the strategies an adult is using, and the behaviours that can result from this, they can make assessments and plans that are more likely to help the person make changes and access support.
Clark Baim, a psychodrama psychotherapist and co-director of training provider Change Point Ltd, has developed Community Care Inform Adults‘ guide to using attachment theory to work with adults.
Here, we outline some of the top tips from Baim’s guide to help social workers understand and use attachment theory in your work. Community Care Inform subscribers can read the full article here and also listen to a webinar on the topic.
- From birth, infants display a range of instinctive behaviours to signal when they are hungry, tired, cold or otherwise distressed. They will cry, cling and reach out to a protective person, such as a parent or carer – their attachment figure. So attachment refers to a number of related processes: staying safe, seeking comfort, regulating proximity to the attachment figure, and seeking predictability.
- Patterns of attachment develop within the context of thousands of everyday interactions between an infant and their attachment figure. The infant’s attachment behaviour is their best solution for obtaining protection and comfort. The way their attachment figure – a parent or carer – responds or, crucially, does not respond to the infant’s distress creates a template. This template then regulates how the infant recognises and responds to their own emotions, and how they interact with their attachment figure.
- Early attachment patterns become deeply embedded in the neural pathways of the brain and the central nervous system. So our attachment strategies from childhood can profoundly affect our ability in adulthood to regulate our emotions in relationships – especially intimate and sexual relationships. So an adult who was abused as a child may not realise they are being harmed when abused as an adult. Or they may even find some safety in the predictability of the abuse. If the situation is predictable, at least they can organise a strategy to survive within it – a strategy proven to work by the fact that it has kept them alive so far.
- Attachment behaviours are adaptive to the context they are developed in. In childhood, they are what helps keep the infant alive. But later in life, if an adult is still using these same strategies and behaviours, they can become maladaptive and harmful. For example, a child who compulsively complies with the demands of an abusive parent is just doing their best to survive; their compliant behaviour is keeping them alive. But if in adult life they continue using the compulsively compliant strategy, they can easily be abused or exploited in relationships.
- As social workers, we must never think that we are “treating” a strategy or set of behaviours. We must recognise the value that strategy had in keeping a person alive when they were facing significant dangers. Our role is to help them over-applying that strategy in adult life, while also helping them add different strategies to their repertoire.