Attachment – when it goes wrong…

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Danielle71

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Danielle71

In a previous post we looked at attachment, asking the question: What is it?

The conclusion was that it is the mechanism by which children learn to be people. And they get it through their interactions with those who care for them.

It effects everything. How they perceive others, themselves and their own place in the world.

Here, I want to look at what happens when care is poor and attachment goes awry.

When attachment goes wrong…

Some children don’t get the right kind of care. This is when attachment goes wrong.

When the caregiving a child receives is inconsistent, unpredictable or inappropriate, and particularly where it is neglectful or abusive, the child will not trust the carer to be able to provide safe boundaries and the security from which the child can explore.

Without this security, children adapt their behaviour to deal with the situation. To deal with the threat or neglect, or whatever…

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Such children can experience a range of difficulties. Because they have had to adapt their learning to an environment that is inadequate or even unsafe, their development reflects this. In turn, their behaviour is affected.

As such: Children and young people with attachment difficulties are often perceived by others to:

  • have a “bad attitude”
  • be “attention-seeking”
  • be “manipulative,” or…
  • “controlling,” or as having…
  • “emotional and behavioural difficulties” or
  • “challenging behaviour” 

Despite the possible accuracy of some of these terms when describing children’s behaviour, note the very negative labels here.

Cause and effect…

Nothing in these terms really gets to the source of the issues – poor or abusive care in the early years.

Instead, there is a tendency to pathologise the child – to make the problem behaviour solely about them. This misses the point.

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When dealing with young people I have often used the following illustration:

If you take a new plant and place it in some fertiliser. If you feed and water it regularly, dust it with leaf-shine occasionally and place it in the sunlight. It will thrive.

If you take the same plant and place it in a pot of gravel. If you “water” it with battery acid, tear the leaves and keep it in a cupboard in the dark, it will struggle to cope. It will be a shadow of the plant it might have been, had it been cared for properly.

Children are the same. With the right care, they will do well and have every chance of fulfilling their potential.

But if they are not responded to sensitively, consistently and with affection, they will  adapt to cope as best they can.

These adaptions may look like poor behaviour of different kinds, but in the context of threat, danger or neglect, they make perfect sense and make survival more likely.

Problems arise when children behave like this out of the harmful context. Then, compared with the more functional behaviour of peers, they necessarily show up badly.

Such children need to be supported to re-adapt their behaviour to the non-harmful context of their lives. They certainly don’t, in most cases, need to be punished!

Treat the cause, understand the effect…

Any therapy or other efforts to help young people recover from traumatic histories, has to take account of the attachment relationship experienced and the behaviours that have emerged as a result.

Failure to do so results in the child being labelled negatively. This is turn can only compound the problem.

Though a little simplistic, there are two things necessary to deal effectively with these young people:

  • Remember the cause of the behaviour – We have to remember the story about the plant. This child, with all his/her struggles and challenges, was not born this way. They were made this way by those who failed them early in life. This attitude will help us to remain patient and calm – things that can be very difficult to achieve when working with attachment disordered children.
  • Remember that the behaviour can change when the adaption is no longer necessary – whilst this may take a significant amount of time, we have to hang in there for the long haul. The environment the child lives in and the relational quality of the carer/s and worker/s will be the key indicators of likely success. A punitive, overly-cognitive and challenging approach will merely put progress on hold. Or undermine it altogether.

Attachment treatment and therapy is a lot more complex than this – that is without question. But the principles outlined here are necessary for any form of intervention to have a chance of going the distance and making a real difference.

Final thought…

A short post of this kind can only summarise and briefly address the issues surrounding attachment problems. The subject is broad and very complex.  To compensate for the incompleteness of this post, I would urge readers on to further exploration of the subject.Attmt Network Wales

There are lots of books around and papers on attachment. To help you navigate through it all, I make some initial recommendations here.

Stuck with what to do with a troubled child or young person? Help is at hand – click here…

Please let me know your thoughts…

  • Do you have questions about attachment?
  • Have you applied attachment-related practice to your work with children & young people – please comment…
  • Are you an “attachment parent” – what are your views?

Please let me know what your thoughts are… Leave a comment below or click here.

Related previous posts…

Two of the following posts don’t address attachment directly. However, they make comment about the failure of attachment and how this can contribute to behavioural problems later on, and also on the need for relational working with troubled young people.

For more information…

© Jonny Matthew 2013  (With thanks to Dr Tricia Skuse – Highly Specialist Chartered Child & Adolescent Clinical Psychologist)

Disclosure of material connection: The “Attachment Resources” and “initial recommendations” links on this page are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click the link and purchase an item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.


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