Attachment

Bit of a departure from my usual style of blog today, to talk about one of my pet topics...

'Attachment' is a really fashionable word at the moment, and it's bandied around a lot in the adoption world. As a Psychology graduate with some post-grad experience as a Research Assistant in Developmental Psychology, attachment is one of my favourite topics; unfortunately during my adoption journey I've encountered a lot of mis-use of the term, and it's been winding me up. I have actually heard Social Workers dismiss attachment theory as something akin to 'pop psychology'; something they *have* to teach in the preparation groups but which isn't actually that useful in real life.

For my own satisfaction (mainly just to see if I can), and for anyone like my Husband who has been baffled by all of this seemingly-important-but-definitely-not-making-any-sense information, I'm going to try to explain attachment theory, and – more importantly – how it's relevant to you and your adopted child.

In order to do this properly I feel like I need to start at the beginning, with some of the background and history of attachment theory. It might seem a bit unnecessary at first but bear with me...

What actually *is* attachment anyway? 

Attachment refers to the relationship that a child has with a care-giver. It can be a descriptive term which refers to the quality of the relationship (e.g. a secure attachment) or it can simply indicate that there is a dependent relationship present. Virtually every single person on this planet will have attachments to at least one person, most likely more than one. Having a relationship with a caregiver is one of the things that keeps us alive as young babies; when we're unable to look after ourselves it's important that we can identify the people most likely to take care of us.

Attachment doesn't have to be between a baby and an adult – it can describe any sort of dependent relationship, whether it's between siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, childminders, foster carers etc. It's not based (entirely) on physical dependence, and it's not as simple as loving the person who feeds you; it's about emotional dependence, support, the need to feel safe and secure, etc.  Forming attachments as infants helps us with the development of our self-confidence, the ability to regulate our emotions, forming relationships with others, the ability to empathise, and much more. (There's a whole load more fascinating stuff on attachment disorders, but I'm going to stick to the very general stuff here...)

The background of Attachment Theory 

One of the things that's really important to remember when thinking about psychology is that it's all about people – feelings, emotions, behaviours, thoughts – and because of that it's virtually impossible to ever get a clear and definitive answer on anything. All we can really do is observe, speculate, and try out a few different theories and see what fits best. That's all it is when you hear people talk about attachment - a theory.

In the late 60s and early 70s there were a lot of developmental psychologists working on attachment and early relationships. One of these was a nice lady called Mary Ainsworth, who devised an experiment which has had a huge influence on how we think about different types of attachment today, particularly in the context that I've heard it used relating to adoption.

In her famous 'Strange Situation' experiment, Ainsworth and her colleagues invited mums and young children in to their lab, where they had devised a 'situation' which would be novel for the children – playing in a strange room, an unknown person entering the room, the child's mother leaving (so they were alone with the stranger), and then coming back.  They wanted to see how the children would react in a new situation, and in particular how they related to their mother during that time.

It may be worth bearing in mind that these children weren't 'diagnosed' with attachment of a particular type; the attachment styles which you may have heard tossed around today were actually developed and defined by simply observing the behaviour of the children in the study, and looking for patterns and similarities between them. In other words, the behaviour came first, and this led to the development of the theory.

The other important thing to ponder over as you're reading this, is that the attachment relationships observed as part of the study were specific to each particular infant-caregiver pairing; in other words, it may have been observed that a child had a secure attachment to their mother during the study, but it is absolutely impossible to say whether or not that child would have displayed the same behaviours with a different caregiver. (This is in fact why only mothers were used in the study - so that the researchers could be as sure as they could that any differences they observed were down to attachment styles, rather than the fact that one child was with their dad, one was with their gran, etc.) During the adoption process I have heard children described as having a 'secure attachment style' - which just doesn't make sense. When you use the term 'attachment' you are describing a set of behaviours which embody the relationship a child has with a particular caregiver; therefore it is perfectly possible for a child to have a different sort of attachment to different adults. You could say, for example, that a child has a secure attachment to their mother, and an insecure attachment to their father.

Anyway, back to the study. Ainsworth found that the vast majority of the children displayed a very similar set of behaviours, which she grouped together and termed 'secure' attachment behaviours. These children were really happy to explore the strange environment, provided their mum was nearby to act as a safe base. They were a bit wary of the stranger (although happy to interact when their mum was around), and were pretty upset when their mum left – but very pleased to see her when she came back, and were fairly easily consoled by her. This is generally accepted to be a fairly healthy relationship; a wariness in new situations and when meeting new people is quite a normal thing, and very useful in an evolutionary sense (Oooh, a really deep dark hole, I wonder what's down there..?) but the important thing in this situation is that the child is reassured by the mother's presence, and is happy to explore the new environment with her nearby. Similarly with the mother leaving the room - we see the children comforted by her presence when she returns.

Around 30% of the children in Ainsworth's original study didn't behave as described above, and were labelled as having an 'insecure' attachment. Insecurely attached children could be split in to two fairly distinct groups: One group of children were pretty upset by the whole thing; they were frightened of the stranger, really distressed when their mum left the room, and not really sure how to treat her when she came back – sometimes approaching her but also pushing her away. Ainsworth termed these behaviours 'insecure-ambivalent'. The other group, on the whole, were quite un-bothered; they weren't that fussed when their mum left the room, or that interested when she came back, and were equally as happy to play with either the stranger or their mother. Ainsworth described these behaviours as 'insecure-avoidant'. (Interestingly in a later version of the study Ainsworth added a fourth attachment type, which she called 'disorganised' – meaning there was no consistent pattern of behaviour for that child.)

That's all very interesting, but what does it mean for me...?

Funny you should ask, because I'm just coming to that. The Strange Situation experiment has been replicated an enormous number of times by different researchers, and the results that Ainsworth found have proved to be pretty standard across all of the studies. This means that we can say with a fair amount of confidence that the behavioural differences observed in the study are caused by the one major thing that makes each mother-child pair different - the parenting style.

I will say once again we are very firmly *in theory* here, but based on the behaviours that we've seen from children in the experiment, it is possible to speculate about some of the adult behaviours that the child is regularly exposed to.

For example, with the children displaying avoidant behaviours (not bothered) we could speculate that the children are not used to getting much response from their caregiver, so have pretty much given up trying. The fact that they are not wary of the stranger and played equally as happily with them as with their own mother could suggest that the child feels a stranger is just as likely to respond to their needs as their mother is. They didn't seem fussed when their mother left the room, or when she came back; perhaps they are used to spending a lot of time playing on their own.

For children displaying ambivalent behaviours (one extreme to another); perhaps they are not getting a consistent response from their caregivers - sometimes it may be warm and loving and at other times cold and rejecting. This is likely to make them quite anxious about approaching their caregiver, as they genuinely have no idea how they are going to react, which could explain why they cling to them one minute and try and push them away the next. They are very frightened of the stranger - perhaps they have learnt that people are unpredictable, and are not sure what the stranger might do or say.

As adoptive parents, we're often playing detective, unpicking the clues that our children drop about their former lives, and piecing them together with what we've learnt from the social workers. I believe that an understanding of the basics of attachment theory can help us delve a bit deeper, and start to imagine what sort of relationship our child may have had with their birth parents - and therefore what they are likely to expect from us. It might help us to look past a child who is supposedly 'coping' and investigate what is actually going on for them.

In my case, there's some things about Tickle's behaviour that I find really striking. Tickle goes to a local Special Needs school, so there is a high proportion of adults in his class. As he's settling in he's assigned an adult to work with him 1:1 every day - a different one each day so that he has a chance to get to know them all. You might expect this to be incredibly overwhelming for Tickle, but in fact from Day 1 he has been perfectly happy to wander off with a virtual stranger each morning. Looking at the attachment behaviours above, this is classic for the insecure avoidant group. It's likely that T is used to a fairly non-responsive caregiver, which can explain why he jumps at the chance to have a chat with anyone who seems receptive to him.

Tickle also does a lot of the "I don't want to play with Daddy!" "OK, I'll go away..." "NO I want you to play with me!!" This is often seen with the ambivalent attachment style, and suggests inconsistent responses from a caregiver - which fits with what we know about his birth parents, dad in particular. We've been told that birth dad would sit and watch TV at contact visits, and then occasionally grab Tickle and try to hug him, when T was in the middle of playing with something else.

What can I do about it?

Frustratingly, there's probably not an awful lot you can do that you aren't already doing. These behaviours are instinctive, and they are there for a reason - to protect your child.

Attachment is not something that you make a decision to do, it's instinctive, and it's survival based. All the behaviours that your child exhibits have developed because they gave your child the best chance of survival in the environment they were in. If a child is continually and painfully rejected by a caregiver, the only thing they can do to protect themselves from the pain is to stop depending on the caregiver. For me, understanding where these behaviours come from plays a big part in helping me to accept them, as well as taking it a step further and looking at ways I can adjust *my* behaviour in order to give Tickle the best chance of learning that Husband and I aren't going to treat him like his birth parents did.

As I answer the question "Where are we going?" for the 67th time on the 15 minute journey to school that we make five days out of every seven, I will try to remember that the adults of Tickle's past life didn't spend time interacting with him. As he tells me to go away but screams at me when I do, I will try to remember that he's probably trying to reject me before I get a chance to reject him - but terrified of that actually happening. As he screams "TALK TO ME!!!" when I am taking three minutes out from our game to ask Fairy how her day at school went... I will try to remember that he may have *had* to scream in order to get attention in the past.

I'm going to leave it there for the moment; I hope this will have been of help to some people, please do comment and let me know what you think, if you want more details on any of it, or if I've made any glaring mistakes..!

Thanks for reading :)

P.S. There's loads of great stuff on the web about promoting secure attachments; this article is quite a nice simple introduction, and if you want to get in to it a bit more then this is a fantastic book. If you like all the sciencey stuff, try this one!

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