Widening our vocabulary (or, The Great Attachment Swindle, part 2)

In part 1, I wrote about why attachment may not be the big deal it can sometimes be presented as, certainly in adoption circles. I definitely don't think we should be ignoring it completely, but I do think we should use vocabulary that is more specific to the problems our children may be facing, and that help us to move forward.

I ended the last post talking about trauma; below are some more suggestions for different ways of thinking about the common issues our children face.


Shame is something that is talked about a lot, particularly in relation to education, reward charts, etc. Nicola Marshall from BraveHeart Education has written a lovely blog about it, and why children can find it hard to move on from that intense feeling of shame.

If you want to go a bit further in to the science, we can have a look at Kohlberg's stages of Moral Development. (Disclaimer - theory, theory, theory. Even with the supporting research, it is never going to be a perfect answer, only a theory.) The bit that interests me about this is the very first stage - obedience and punishment: Children are good, because otherwise they will get punished. (I can't tell you how much this is true for Tickle.) If someone is punished, they must have done something wrong.

Imagine growing up in an abusive environment, being 'punished' constantly but not understanding why. Do you think you might grow up with a feeling like you are just a 'bad person'? How could you have moved through the later developmental stages if you haven't even been able to properly experience the first one?

The Self Concept

Given all of the above, how might all of this affect the development of your self concept? How might you see yourself as different from other children, and how might this affect the way you behave around them? How would it feel to be placed in a new family and to be told that everything you have believed about yourself from the word go is totally wrong?

If you're interested, there's a nice introduction to some theories of self concept here. But to sum it up, the child first develops a sense of themselves as a separate being to everything around them, and that they, as with other objects in the world, have properties that differ from other things. As they grow, children begin to define things as fitting in to categories, and will start to place themselves in to categories as appropriate. Usually the first categories to be defined are age and gender.

The things that are absolutely crucial to the development of the self concept are the chance to interact with the world around them, and the gathering of feedback from those interactions. Put simply, if you never tell a child what red is, show them things that are red, give examples of things that are not red etc, then how are they ever going to know how to differentiate colour?

I once worked with a little boy who was struggling in school, for a few 1:1 sessions. His Headteacher was convinced he was autistic; I knew he wasn't, and so did his teacher. When I reported this to the Head after a few sessions her instant response was "That's interesting. So do you think he has attachment disorder?". What I actually thought was that this little boy had virtually no self concept. (Obviously there were many more issues, but in the four sessions I did with him this was the first thing that jumped up!) It was a strange experience - I asked him to tell me about himself, and beyond his name and age he was totally stuck. He couldn't tell me what he liked doing, about his family set up, where he lived, who he lived with and could only tell me about likes and dislikes by answering yes/no questions about different subjects. He was six at the time, with no identified learning needs.

One of the reasons the Head thought this kid was autistic was because he reacted really badly to change. But when he doesn't even have a clue about who he *is* on a fundamental level, can you blame him for hanging on to the anchor of anything that represents security and constancy in his life?!


This brings us pretty neatly on to another buzz word - permanence. This is another one that makes me cringe when I hear it used by Social Workers, as they often bandy it around without ever a thought to what it really means. (For example, the SW who told me that if we wanted to adjourn our AO to get more support in place the Judge might decide Tickle should be placed elsewhere, to ensure 'permanence'. Yeah, me neither.)

Permanence (in adoption terms) really just means a child being in their forever home, whether that's with an adoptive family, long-term foster care, with relations, or safely back in their birth family.

For our children, it's another matter. For them, permanence is a feeling, deep inside, and one that doesn't come easily.

You can have a secure attachment to a caregiver and still not have a sense of permanence, still not *really* believe that you aren't going to move on again. Tickle still talks about the next house. When we go on holiday we have to explain that we are going back home again.

I think perhaps people sometimes are thinking about permanence when they talk about attachment. For me attachment is quite a superficial, needs-based relationship (I'm including the needs for safety etc in this), but permanence cuts much deeper. It's a feeling of belonging, of home.


This is a pretty important topic, which - in my experience - is all too easy to overlook. I had a conversation with Tickle's class teacher the other day, which went something like this:

Teacher: Yeah Tickle did get a bit crazy and bumped in to another kid and spilled his juice
Me: Yes, that would really upset him
Teacher: Oh no, the juice didn't go on Tickle, just the other kid!
Me: Yes, that would really upset him

Despite knowing Tickle's background, his teacher hadn't made the association that certain actions might cause Tickle to expect particular reactions, ones which might not necessarily be true in his new life. To use this example, Tickle has always reacted massively when any food or drink gets spilled. We can only imagine what reaction his brain is expecting to follow.

We can get a bit sciencey about this as well, if the whim takes us.

In psychology, this idea of having certain 'expectations' about life is known as 'schema theory'. A schema is a little chunk of information that tells you about something that you might experience in your environment. For example, you might have a schema of a dog, which holds the following information: animal, four legs, tail (often wags), often has tongue hanging out, barks. This means that if you see a new type of dog that you've never seen before, you're still able to recognise it as a dog, because it fits in to your dog schema. Children's schemata (plural of schema) are often fairly simplistic, which is why they sometimes miscategorise things. As they learn new information about their environment, their schemata adapt to the new information, giving them more detailed blueprints about life, the universe, and everything.

There are a couple of interesting processes relating to schema theory, which are to do with what happens when you encounter new situations.

Let's say for example that you have a schema about going to a restaurant: go in, wait at the entrance, and someone will come and show you to a table. You choose from the menu, and order at your table. You have a set of expectations which allow you to seamlessly function in any new restaurant situation: you know what's going on, what to expect, and how to react. If you were to visit a new restaurant which works in the way that you expect (based on your schema) then you'll be fine. Schema theory calls this assimilation: using an existing schema to manage new experiences.

If however the restaurant that you happen to end up in one night doesn't work in this way, then you are in a state of disequilibrium. Perhaps you're waiting for a table when the waiters expect you to order at the bar first. It's an uncomfortable feeling, so you need to adapt your schema to deal with this alternative scenario - otherwise you'll just wait at the door all night expecting to be led to a table. Once you've realised what you need to do, you can alter your behaviour, and return to a state of equilibrium. And a nice meal, hopefully.

This process of adaptation is how we grow and learn, according to Jean Piaget, who is basically King of schema theory (and quite a lot of other bits of cognitive psychology). In our restaurant scenario, your schema will now have developed, perhaps to sub-categorise table service restaurants and bar service restaurants.

Whilst remembering that all of this is just a theory, it's quite a useful model for describing my point, so let's assume for a second that it's completely true. The formation of a schema happens naturally, as part of the way that children and adults develop and learn about the world. They are there to help us navigate new situations without having to work things out afresh every time, to help us predict what might happen and plan ahead, and to help us filter and deal with the huge amount of information that we take in through our senses at any given moment.

For our adopted children, schemata have been a survival tool. If they can learn to recognise the link between the spilled food and the slap that follows, then maybe they can avoid it. They may relate sounds, smells, facial expressions to certain actions or consequences that - according to their schemata - will most likely follow.

According to Piaget, when a person's experience of the world can be explained by their schemata, they are in a state of cognitive equilibrium. Everything's cool. I know what's going on. When something in their external environment *can't* be explained by their schemata, this is a state of disequilibrium - uncomfortable, possibly worrying, maybe even scary. In most people, this leads fairly easily to adaptation of schemata and everything is OK with the world once again. However, when our adopted children are plucked out of their home environment, EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT. Virtually NONE of their schemata can explain what is going on in their new life.

Can you imagine how exhausting that must be, if nothing else?! A constant state of disequilibrium, but afraid to adapt because how on earth can you tell whether this is safe or not when it's so different from everything you have learned so far in life? When I even try to comprehend what this might feel like my brain wants to melt.

Everything you know to be true about the world is suddenly not tallying with what is going on around you. 

The closest I can get to imagine this is thinking about going to a foreign country, where I don't know the language, how the money works, what any of the food is, or how the transport system works. But even then, I would be doing that out of choice, with a solid self concept, confidence in myself and my own ability to keep safe, and without having had any traumatic experiences of travelling.

So, there endeth the lesson; I think that's quite enough to be going on with. I've had a few comments and tweets already about Part 1 and it's really great to hear other people's thoughts and opinions, so please do let me know what you thought!


  1. I've had a comment on twitter which I need more than 140 characters to answer(!) so going to have a go here.

    The comment was: "I suppose I would argue that attachment "styles" are really a type of schema and so they impact in that context."

    I've never thought of it like that before, but I can see where you're coming from. Attachment styles are effectively a set of learned behaviours based on past experiences.

    However, you can't really transpose attachment styles directly into schema theory to say they apply 'in that context' because they are two different explanations of the same thing. Attachment styles don't exist in schema theory because that set of behaviours described as an attachment style would just be explained as a schema.

    Furthermore - and crucially - the one thing that attachment theory absolutely doesn't do is attempt to explain how attachments might change over time. Analysing a child's attachment style gives you a snapshot of one moment in time, in one relationship. It's purely descriptive.

    Unfortunately the way it's used at the moment it's become popular to infer more from attachment theory than is really there. I'm not saying it's not useful, but we have to understand it's limitations. A great example is a post I read earlier about eye contact. Bowlby does believe that eye contact is crucial in forming secure attachments, however that does not mean that a child who finds eye contact difficult has an insecure attachment.

    In terms of improving or changing your attachment style, developmental psychologists would tend to assume attachments stay constant over time, but then I've never seen anything specifically relating to adoption (i.e. Reassignment of primary attachment figure) in developmental psychology. Schema theory sits within cognitive psychology which is much more concerned with the mechanics of how we think, change, and grow, but again there's precious little research relating to adoption that I know of.

    The most important thing to remember is that all this is theoretical - it's all very well and interesting and everything, but it is only useful so far as it helps us to understand our children, and help them to heal. Just saying 'attachment issues' is not helpful, and there is nothing that I know of within attachment theory specifically that is actually forward-looking rather than reflective.

  2. You had me at "swindle." I just really love that word! LOL. I love that you use research by Piaget and Kohlberg etc. One of my degrees is in psychology, so I'm totally geeking out. Perhaps you should show the social workers your blog...

    1. Ha! I did mention it once but they totally freaked out about how it was a breach of security. I don't think they really understand the internet either...


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