Attachment may not be the massive deal we all think it is...

I am aware that in the circles I move in this will be a contentious post, but I'm hoping that people can read it with an open mind... here we go:

I wrote a post about attachment some time ago, mainly because I was fed up with the massive mis-appropriation of the term, and the lack of understanding surrounding it. Unfortunately this sort of stuff is still being pedalled, so it's worth having a quick recap with some of the key points of what attachment is, and what it is not.

Attachment is a descriptive term which denotes a dependant relationship, i.e. the relationship a child has with a care-giver. Attachment is not a term for the relationship you have with your partner. (I have heard of people being given 'attachment questionnaires' by Social Workers to determine what their attachment relationship with their partner is like. While this may be useful on some levels to reflect on the relationship you have with your partner, and while yes, there is a school of thought that your early attachment relationships will influence your expectations of romantic relationships in adulthood, it remains true that the relationship you have with your partner is NOT an attachment relationship, and anyone who says it is could probably do with, *ahem*... going away to do a little more research.)

Attachment refers to an instinctive relationship you have with someone who can meet your basic, primal needs.  Needs like provision of food, shelter, warmth, safety, comfort and protection. You can have an attachment to a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a grandparent, or all of those at once.

Attachment is a very basic term, for a very basic relationship; it does not attempt to describe the complexities of the relationship, just to acknowledge that there is one there. Sometimes people talk about 'improving' attachment, which is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion - you can't improve an attachment because attachment is a description of a collection of behaviours. It's like saying you can improve yellow. You can change the behaviours, change the level of connection, the quality of the relationship, which may lead to a different sort of attachment - like adding in a bit of red to make orange. You may find you have improved quality of life, level of satisfaction from the relationship, etc etc, but you haven't improved the yellow to make it orange, you've just changed it.

Attachment as a descriptive term can be further broken down in to different attachment types, and again there is something to be taken from this, but we must also be aware of the limitations of what it can usefully tell us. Firstly, it's perfectly possible to have a different type of attachment to different caregivers. Secure with mum, but ambivalent with dad, for example. That in itself is interesting, as it can give you clues about the type of relationships they may have been, and about the expectations your child may have of future relationships. But at the same time it is utterly incorrect to label a child as having an attachment 'style', and it is also incorrect - and a bad habit that seems to have emerged - to label anything other than a secure attachment as an 'attachment disorder', or at the very least 'attachment issues'.

Attachment issues. Now there's a phrase. Adopted children have attachment issues. Of course they do. They have been removed from their primary attachment figure, and handed to a stranger. They don't know who is going to feed them, where they are allowed to sleep, whether they are safe... But gradually they work out where they are in their new world, and they form new attachments. They can't help it - it's instinctive, it's a survival mechanism.

In the original Strange Situation experiment, Ainsworth classified around 30% of the children as insecurely attached - a figure that has been found to be consistent in further experiments. I very much doubt that those 30% were all adopted children, and only adopted children, in every iteration of this study over the decades - therefore we must conclude that biological children, at home with their biological parents, and living a life normal enough not to be deemed unsafe by the Child Protection authorities, can also have insecure attachments. By the definition above, these children then also have 'attachment issues', and yet, do they display the same behaviour patterns as our adopted children?

Let's look at this from another angle. Tickle has all the signs of having a secure attachment to me. He gets upset when I go away, he is happy when I come back. If something scares him, he takes comfort from being physically near to me. He prefers to be with me over strangers. He's reasonably happy to explore new environments with my help, but he does like to know where I am, and will bob back to me every now and again to check in, make sure I have seen his latest descent down the slide, etc.

So, if you subscribe to the 'attachment issues' theory, you would assume that Tickle should be fine, right?

He is *so* far from fine. And this is my point - by simplifying everything in to 'attachment issues' we are actually losing sight of some of the really important things that are causing big problems for my adopted child.

If we are going to have any chance at all of helping Tickle, and thousands of others like him, we must stop using 'attachment' as an excuse. 

Don't misunderstand me - attachment is a real issue. But it is being used as an excuse for for not digging deeper. An excuse for not helping him (Well of *course* he's going to find it difficult to behave, because, you know, attachment...). An excuse for not helping parents (You just need to build your attachment...). An excuse for lazy advice from professionals who have jumped on the latest bandwagon without bothering to understand it first. An excuse to not carry out a thorough assessment of need (because clearly, he has attachment issues), to not try to understand what is really going on.

I could go on, ad infinitum. As always, it is down to us, the parents, to be the detectives, the therapists, to take the time to dig deeper. But in the case of the great attachment swindle, we often don't have the correct vocabulary to articulate what our gut feeling says, and attachment has become the hook on which to hang every problem that adopted children have.

I'm going to make a suggestion. I'm not saying that we never use the word attachment again, but let's widen our vocabulary. Let's use the word attachment, understanding what it really means, why it's useful, and where it's usefulness ends. And let's explore some alternative words...

Trauma

This one's my favourite. I went on a course about trauma a while back, and it was really good. I wrote about it here, so I won't repeat the whole lot, but there are a few salient points worth picking out. 'Trauma' comes from the Greek word literally meaning 'wound', and these days can be used to describe a distressing experience, an emotional shock following a stressful event, or an actual physical injury. Obviously this also is quite a wide-ranging definition, but it's easier to follow up with specifics.

Experiencing trauma doesn't automatically mean a child is going to have lots of problems. The impact of the trauma on the child can depend on lots of other factors such as the child's level of understanding, their environment, their support network, etc, as well as the type of trauma experienced. In our case, as I'm sure is the case with a lot of adopted children, Tickle experienced a variety of different traumatic episodes, in some cases sustained over a significant period of time. In our children these traumas can range from not receiving care such as bathing and cleaning, not receiving food, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, and many more. Some of the experiences will have been less traumatic in themselves, but when they happen repeatedly over a long period the level of distress caused can increase significantly.

The brilliant psychologist on our course told us that she didn't worry too much about the 'whys', the 'hows', and whether a child was 'right' to be traumatised. There are no rules around trauma.

She suggests we focus on these three key questions:

1) How has an event affected (or is affecting) a child
2) What barriers are limiting the child's recovery, and what we can do about them
3) What resources are available to the child to aid their recovery, and how can these be used effectively

I like this approach very much. Not only does it empower us to take action for moving forwards, it allows us to be specific about what is happening, and what needs to happen. We don't need to worry about defining whether this is 'attachment issues' or 'trauma' or anything else. Just answer the questions, and you have a plan.

A practical example from our own case would look like this:

1) Tickle has grown up in an abusive environment where adults often physically hurt children. At the moment this is affecting his behaviour at school to the point where he is hitting other children and adults.
2) With our understanding of the trauma that Tickle has experienced, we believe that Tickle is behaving like this in part because he doesn't understand 'normal' interactions between children, and sees any raised voice or playground scuffle as threatening to his own safety. The staff at school are all lovely, but somewhat limited in their understanding of trauma, and therefore are not making the situation any better with their handling of it. They know that Tickle is adopted, but the bland phrase 'attachment issues' is not going to give them any useful information on how to deal with the situation. We are planning to share some more details about Tickle's trauma and abuse with the class team, to help them approach the situation with more understanding of where he is coming from, and - hopefully - more empathy and patience.
3) We are in the process of arranging for our lovely psychologist to come and deliver some training to the classroom staff (and are using PPG to fund this) on the impacts of trauma, and how they can adapt their approach to support Tickle. In particular, we are going to focus on them explaining what is going on in everyday interactions, to hopefully avoid him forming incorrect ideas about adults or children being 'dangerous' and causing his fight or flight response to trigger.

The difficulty with our children (well, certainly with mine!) is that there are *so* many issues, and *so* many factors, that it can seem overwhelming. That's one reason I really like the above approach, because it helps you to focus in on one problem at a time, in a specific, and practical way.

I have a lot more vocabulary to suggest, but I'm going to pause here for a moment (a) because this post has got a bit long, and (b) in the hope that some of you may feel moved to apply the three questions above to a scenario in your own families. I'd love it if you could share some with me in the comments :)

Click here to read Part 2: Widening our vocabulary.

Comments

  1. I found this really interesting. I am wondering if the states are very different in their available services?

    I wrote a post about the same thing, but with a different conclusion. And yet we agree on most points. How odd!

    https://heardingchickens.wordpress.com/2016/10/06/why-do-adoptive-parents-care-about-attachment/

    Our children have trauma focused therapy both in-home and out. They've done TF-CBT which was an absolute game changer for us. But I always come back to connection. We use a therapeutic parenting method called TBRI which is research-based and designed for children who have experienced developmental trauma (like Tickle, and like my own children.) It's a great program and it focuses heavily on attachment with the caregiver to improve "felt safety."

    I wonder why attachment/trauma have to be in either/or categories? They seem to go hand in hand for our kids. For the other 30%? As a public school teacher I have seen this first hand. Yes, indeed, those kids tend to have difficulty forming reciprocal relationships with peers and trusting relationships with adults.They may not have the trauma triggers or fight/flight responses my children have, but relationships are still difficult for them.

    I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Daniel Seigal speak at a seminar about his book Parenting From the Inside Out. He spoke about a 90-year-old man who he worked with to improve his attachment style. This, in turn, improved his relationship with his wife. He wasn't traumitized like our kids. We tend to parent how we were parented. TBRI is very different for me but I am LOVING the connections I'm seeing.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for your comment, and the link to your post. I have to say I think we pretty much agree on everything, except the actual definition of 'attachment'. I think when you say attachment, you mean what I would call connection, or the quality of a relationship - my understanding of attachment is that it's simply a term used to denote a dependent relationship.

      I totally agree with what you say, I would just use different terminology - relationships and trauma go hand in hand. And again, I don't quite agree with saying you can improve someone's attachment style - it is what it is, but what you can do is improve the quality of their relationships. I'm half way through a follow up post which will hopefully make things a bit clearer, and I might actually use some of this to edit my original post as well! I always think hearing other people's opinions helps me to formulate my thoughts more clearly!

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    2. I've just added this paragraph, what do you reckon?

      Attachment is a very basic term, for a very basic relationship; it does not attempt to describe the complexities of the relationship, just to acknowledge that there is one there. Sometimes people talk about 'improving' attachment, which is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion - you can't improve an attachment because attachment is a description of a collection of behaviours. It's like saying you can improve yellow. You can change the behaviours, change the level of connection, the quality of the relationship, which may lead to a different sort of attachment - like adding in a bit of red to make orange. You may find you have improved quality of life, level of satisfaction from the relationship, etc etc, but you haven't improved the yellow to make it orange, you've just changed it.

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    3. What an interesting and insightful post! As a mom of 2 adopted children and a foster mom of 35+, I've been using these terms for years. One of my children has severe behavior issues from early childhood trauma. Our experience with therapists and other experts has been somewhat different from yours. Most are ignorant about attachment issues almost entirely. They've heard of RAD, and since our son doesn't have a full-blown RAD diagnosis, they don't know what to make of any of his attachment stuff. And they really don't have any concept of how early trauma impacts him. And this is therapists we are talking about here -- let alone others in our life like teachers and social workers. Thankfully we have found one or two really good professionals to work with us, but it's been a long uphill climb.

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    4. Thanks for commenting! Interesting about your therapists but I'm not really surprised- 'attachment issues' is a totally made up concept, and there isn't really anything equivalent to it in psychology. Hence why I don't think it's a particularly helpful term!

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