by Professor David Shemmings OBE PhD
There are a number of problems that emerge from the recent judgment that criticised the use of attachment.
I will restrict my thoughts and observations to those concerning the use of attachment theory, except to say that, for me, some of the most important points to note from Mr Justice Mostyn’s summary are his reminders that decisions made under Sections 39 and 31 of the Children Act 1989 must not be based upon ‘less than perfect parenting’ and that, furthermore, the principles of ‘necessity’ and ‘proportionality’ always need to be uppermost in local authority assessments.
I think this is where the social worker’s use of attachment theory begins to falter.
As an explanation of the three attachment patterns – secure, avoidant and ambivalent – the first section of the first social worker’s report was, I thought, reasonably clear. It was the conclusions drawn that caused problems. Simply put, because around 40% of any representative population is insecurely attached (adults and children) this is nowhere near the threshold levels to keep children away from their parents.
The social worker explicitly acknowledges this when using the term ‘less optimal parenting’. In other words the existence of insecurity is given far too much weight.
Additionally, from recent research into separated identical twins it appears that attachment organisation is not as stable through the lifespan as it was once thought to be: we can change our attachment patterns later on, depending on who we meet through the life course. Similarly, if carers change their parenting style, a child’s attachment behaviour can also change.
Surprisingly, perhaps, recent research also indicates that change is more likely if the child shows ‘disorganised attachment behaviour’. But, unwittingly, when referring to this phenomenon in her report, the social worker makes a number of errors, as the construct has undergone a major revision over the past few years.
There are other circumstances when a child’s behaviour – disorganised attachment is not so much a ‘pattern’, as with the other three, than a set of behaviours – can indicate attachment disorganisation, but which may be less to do with parenting and more about the circumstances in which they are living e.g. adversity, which can leave their carers emotionally drained and unavailable (but through no ‘fault’ of theirs). For more information see the work of Professor Pehr Granqvist et al, 2017 and Dr Robbie Duschinsky.
We also need to bear in mind that to ‘assess a child’s attachment’ is only possible after very extensive training. For example, the training needed to administer the Strange Situation Procedure with a 12-18 month-old toddler is 10 days. But that only enables the practitioner to administer the procedure.
To become fully accredited to ‘assess’ attachment requires the practitioner to rate a number of tapes to a very high level of concordance with acknowledged experts in the field. Other approaches are required as children grow older, including Representational Doll-based techniques, the Child Attachment Interview, the Adolescent Attachment Interview and the Adult Attachment Interview (and they also require extensive training and expert-assessed accuracy in rating to gain accreditation).
For these and other reasons, I have come to the view that an understanding of the three main patterns of attachment i.e. secure, ambivalent and avoidant should be far less concerned with trying to categorise children’s behaviour and more about helping practitioners learn about their own attachment history, especially how they process powerful emotions.
Doing this enables them to become more aware of how, when their own attachment system is activated – as it is most of the time when working with families – they may, inadvertently, end up emotionally unavailable.
My advice to practitioners is actually not to use word ‘attachment’ in their records and reports (I encourage them to substitute ‘relationship’, as it usually does the trick).
It’s important also to remember that any assessment of a child or young person’s ‘attachment’ can only be done with any confidence if their attachment system has been activated. Serendipitous observations of parent-child interactions in the home or elsewhere are not reliable.
‘Say what you see’
Additionally, I also advise practitioners to take heed of Professor Sue White’s tip ‘to say what you see’. Of course, that may assume that we all see the same thing but if we then expose fully what assumptions we are making, including the use of theory, then we remain accountable, both to the court and to family members.
Being clear about how one interprets parent-child interactions and relationships is essential in social work. Unfortunately this judgment is peppered with examples of problems with the specificity – and arguably at some points the relevance – of the observations. Similarly, the conclusions drawn are sometimes flimsy. Judge Mostyn commented as follows:
“This witness statement was very long on rhetoric and generalised criticism but very short indeed on any concrete examples of where and how the mother’s parenting had been deficient.”
Mr Justice Mostyn asked her to name her ‘top four criticisms’ of the mother’s parenting of her son, referred to as M and L respectively, which were: “ i) The mother’s questionable ability to meet L’s emotional needs; ii) The dynamics of M’s relationship with L; iii) The dynamics of the relationship between L and his siblings; iv) The mother’s questionable ability or willingness to work with the local authority.” But when pressed to give examples, she struggled.
“(The second social worker) was asked to identify her best example of the mother failing to meet L’s emotional needs. Her response was that until prompted by the local authority mother had not spent sufficient one-to-one time with L and had failed on one occasion to take him out for an ice cream. This struck me as utterly insubstantial criticism … A further criticism in this vein was that the mother had failed to arrange for L’s hair to be cut in the way that he liked …”
So do we conclude that attachment theory and research are irrelevant? Not in my view, in fact quite the reverse: used properly, contemporary attachment theory and research can offer powerful insights into parent-child interactions, especially when they involved challenging situations.
They are used best when aimed at helping family members understand some of the complexities of what’s going on; but too often, it seems, attachment theory is used as a stick with which to beat them.
David Shemmings is a professor of Child Protection Research, at the University of Kent and is a visiting professor at Royal Holloway, University of London