Attachment Theory? What's that? In my work I regularly encounter significant lack of understanding amongst professionals and parents about the meaning or relevance of Attachments for those who work with children. However in my view Attachment Theory is one of the most important areas of psychological thinking for anyone who works with children with complex needs. It is one of the key foundations of the practical framework that I call The I Matter Framework.
Attachment Theory refers to a body of work first developed by a researcher John Bowlby and by a research group which included Mary Ainsworth best known for her work on something called The Strange Situation Studies. This specific studies are some which I think it is vital for all professionals and parents to understand. The original works, listed below, deserve a read if you ever have a very long holiday as they represent an extraordinarily detailed piece of careful observational work, but, if you don't have time for this, even a basic understanding can take you forward.
Attachment Theory is now a very well-established body of work which describes the relationship that a child has with the adult figures on whom he or she depends. It makes a very clear distinction between children who have a secure relationship with their key carers and those who have an insecure relationship. This research has clearly established a powerful link between patterns of early attachment relationships and a wide range of educational and mental health outcomes.
Here are 5 reasons why I think Attachment Theory is so important:
1. Attachment Theory provides a universal framework - that helps us to understand ourselves and our own reactions, not just those of our children
An attachment refers to the relationship that a younger vulnerable person develops with a bigger more powerful older figure that he/she depends upon - it is usually used to describe the relationship between a infant and his or her first primary carers. Attachment Theory draws our attention to the fact that for young children this need to depend on someone else for care is as universal and fundamental as hunger. As children we all had a basic need to look to the adults who were responsible for our care and to whom we depended totally for our safety and survival. The challenge of growing up is to learn to transfer some of these needs for assistance to ourselves. However, loss of access to the adult we depended upon when we were small was very alarming to all of us. As adults, we know this rationally to be true, but it is interesting to me how as adults we can forget that we are now the adults on whom our children legitimately depend for their experience of safety and well-being when they are feeling wobbled. Attachment Theory invites us to think about ourselves and our own reactions as they are influenced by our own past experiences and this awareness can increase our sensitivity to why so many of our most complex children really are struggling in their relationships today.
2. Attachment Theory helps us tie many diverse observations together in educational practices and in mental health
A huge body of research has now demonstrated that early attachment histories are powerful predictors of educational and mental health outcomes. Children with a relatively secure attachment history with key carers (ie children who have parents who are responsive and helpful in attending to their physical and emotional needs) tend to be more prosocial and skilled in co-operative relationships, they tend to feel better about themselves and have better mental health and they tend to experience greater ease of learning in the classroom. Relative security of attachment clearly is an important variable.
3. Attachment Theory provides a developmental understanding for a wide variety of challenges seen in complex children that become labelled as if they are discrete issues.
In work with complex children there is a very powerful drive to try to label behaviour that challenges adults as discrete psychiatric disorders: ASD, ADHD, ODD, OCD, Anxiety Disorder, Depressive disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder. This labelling tends to suggest separateness. Implicit is the belief that if we can give a cluster of symptoms a name, we may be able to find a useful discrete drug or 'treatment' that helps. Apart from the obvious concern about more and more children being prescribed medication because a certain label appears on file, this labelling of the child too often prevents adults from thinking about the relationship issues in which they are personally involved, and the way in which these difficulties are so often connected.
4. Attachment Theory encourages us to focus on relationships between children and their key carers not just on the child.
As a psychologist and an educationalist, I am interested in understanding how different patterns of behaviour develop in the context of relationships. We know there can be genetic vulnerabilities to specific challenges, but more often than not, challenging behaviour, poor learning, or mental health issues develop when there has been a sensory processing issue, a disruption to the relationship or more critically a poor fit between the fundamental needs of a child, and the adult care and life opportuntiies that is and have been provided. We have very little control over a child's DNA or sensory processing (at least not yet!) and even as adults there are a lot of things we cannot controrl, but adults do have control over their own choices. So learning to fit our care provision to the needs of the child rather than expecting them to adapt to us, beyond their capabilities, is a process that can make a powerful difference to a wide variety of outcomes.
5. Attachment Theory provides a very clear and practical direction of travel for therapeutic and educational work
it is important to remember that the distinction between secure and insecure is NOT a value judgement - a securely attached child or adult is not BETTER than an insecurely attached person. On the contrary, insecurity in attachment relationships can become a powerful driver for achievement in business for example. However, given that there is such a powerful body of evidence of the benefits of greater security in our key attachments, for both mental health and for educational outcomes, attachment theory can provide a very strong framework to guide the priorities of our policy making and practices. Thus any step that can be taken to encourage key adults to respect and respond appropriately to a child's attachment needs and thus increase their attachment security will be fundamentally important ones.
Attachment Theory is an extremely powerful organising framework. In The I Matter Framework therefore, attachment relationships form one of the most important organising ideas in the frame, but attachment is not the only organising idea. I have found that by adding in ideas that are well-described or more elaborated in other psychological approaches, an even more powerful and practical framework can emerge. More on this in future blogs!
How much have you read about Attachment Ideas? Let me know how they have influenced you, or what you would like to know more about! Or why not join a course to find out more about how attachment theory is built into the I Matter Framework.
The excitement about having your own blog is that you can write about whatever you want... And you can go hunting for the perfect picture!
This one jumped out at me today - she looks a lot younger than me (!) but I liked this image because she looks as if she is enjoying the process of thinking, and is about to enjoy the process of writing and this is how I am feeling right now.
I have committed myself to writing a regular blog about........well that is the question....... I think I would like this blog to be based on the material that has inspired me over the years as I studied psychology, then education and then clinical psychology, and looked for material that would be really practical in helping me approach the challenges that arose in my professional and personal life around children with complex needs. There is a lot of material!
I was looking at my bookshelves the other day at all the amazing books that I have read over the years and I got really excited at the prospect of being able to explore and share some of what I have learned using this medium.
The I Matter Project is simply my attempt to draw all these ideas together into some sort of practical framework that can help front-line professionals and parents who are wondering which way to travel, but I still a sense of excitement when I look at the original works. What excites me is that people from widely differing traditions and disciplines are starting to converge on similar conclusions. I get a buzz when people get a burst of insight for themselves that takes them forward!
I think this is going to be fun! So what activities give you a buzz?! Can you make some time for them?
Pearls in the mud - raisins in the tea cake! Have you ever caught yourself knowing deep down that there is a pearl or maybe even several in an experience that you are having but that you DON'T WANT TO LOOK FOR IT OR OPEN TO IT RIGHT NOW - THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Not only that, but if anybody, DARES to suggest that you might try doing that you might just WOP them one...
The trouble with teaching something as challenging as I Matter is that I have found there is very little place to hide, especially, especially when you are just wanting things to be different, or go the way you want - NOW. What do you do with all of those feelings of frustration and overwhelm when you are FED UP with how things are? You are just feeling sorry for yourself - even though - blooming heck - there is a little bird on your shoulder saying, "for goodness sake, what about the opportunities here, can't you just look for the jewels..." AAAGGGHHHH!! WOP!!
Sometimes when you dare to look - even just a little peek - , you can realise that there are probably even more jewels than even you dared to imagine BUT YOU STILL DON'T WANT TO LOOK AT THEM - THANK YOU VERY MUCH - AND IF ANYONE DARES TO EVEN SUGGEST IT....... In I Matter of course this is RED ROUTE - with the Boss or Loving Adult well 'OUT TO LUNCH'!
So how do you support yourself in going out to pick up the jewels in the muddy situation - how, when you turn round and discover that you have fallen into the trap of Red Route and of feeling a bit of a grumpy or irritable or weepy old victim, do you admit to what has happened and change your way of being without being crushed by excruciating shame - which can erupt in anger if anyone draws your attention too forcibly to the failings you can see only too readily?
The experience has reminded me of a young very overwhelmed client, who once told me that she could see no reason at all to do Green as it was just too much effort, and so she would stay in Red. And, this, I finally discovered, for me, has been one of the jewels in a recent experience. It has taught me about the experience of helplessness and taught me that it can also be REALLY painfully hard and embarrassing to admit to others and to ourselves how we have behaved under pressure, and why. It has taught me why, as a result, it really can be almost easier to stay in Red than shift out to Green.
How did it happen? When I decide to be less critical of myself, it has reminded me that in challenging situations, it really is important to keep reaching out for and seeking support from the right people - people who will support you but not join you in the Drama Triangle - sometimes for much longer than you think is necessary. I learned that without the right support, for long enough, it is easy to become overwhelmed and to lose touch with the person you really want to be.
I also decided it was no bad thing at all to be reminded of the way in which consistent unresolved challenge and uncertainty can grind a person down, and why - and that unless we have become advanced Buddha's in our ability to stay mindful and in the present = we all at times need to reach out to others when it has become too much for us.
Finally, it has reminded me that perhaps collapsing is also not a terrible thing to do - particularly if you like to be the confident strong type. Some situations really are tough and a collapse simply is - surely - an indication, that something has to change.
So, things have changed, externally and internally. They are not what I expected, but I have got some of what I really wanted and that is amazing. So, I have decided to swallow my pride, and go out to pick up the jewels again. Green feels easier again. In fact now that I have agreed to look again, there are so many jewels I am astonished to find them everywhere and I can't help wondering how many I must have missed before. But I can see them now, and that is wonderful!
Have you found yourself being or becoming a person you don't want to be? If so, remember "I Matter" and ask yourself what support you might need to move forward again in your journey?
Dr Cathy Betoin
Dr Cathy Betoin
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