What is Attachment?

The term Attachment in human development refers to the way every baby, child, teenager and adult learns how to be safe in the world when they feel under threat.  For a baby this might mean they are hungry, for a toddler that they have hurt themselves while playing, or for a teenager when they have had a blow up with a friend.  As adults we continue to use our attachment system when we feel under stress in any way.

So how do attachments develop?  Well, all attachments begin at the beginning.  The first carers for a baby, usually her parent or parents, respond to her needs consistently, responsively and sensitively.  So, when you see a parent picking up a crying baby, soothing them and telling them what’s wrong “oh, you’re hungry!! Let’s get you something to eat quickly!”  “You’re alright, mammy’s here”, those parents are teaching the baby that they can trust that someone will look after them and keep them safe, knowing what they need and giving it to them.  Babies with parents such as this learn to trust that the world is a good place, and the people around are safe.  They also learn that ‘L’Oreal’ moment “They’re worth it” They learn that they are a lovable person who people want to be with, because not only do their parents care for them when they cry, but also play with them, cuddle them rock them and take time with them even when they don’t demand it.  These fortunate children learn to have a positive view of themselves and of others in the world.  They have what we term a Secure Attachment pattern.

Also important is exploration and learning.  You can think of Attachment and exploration as two sides of a coin.  You can most easily see this in a toddler, that first great age of exploration.  Imagine a group of toddlers who are all playing in a room with their parents chatting at the other side.  One little boy gets upset about a toy.  He runs back to his daddy, has a quick cuddle, daddy says “you’re ok.  Here, play with this toy instead”, and the child returns to play.  What he has done is use his attachment system to be reassured by his dad that all is well, and then he can get back to the exploration of play.  It is only when any of us feels safe that we can explore and learn.  When we are under stress, all we can think of is getting safe.  We cannot learn when we are under threat.  The child who is securely attached is able to spend more time in a calm but alert state, and therefore has more opportunity to learn and explore.

Unfortunately some children don’t get this positive start in life, and their parents are unable to be sensitive to their needs, unable to respond to their early cries, or inconsistent in responding.  These children have to learn different ways to get to safety, to reduce the sense of need that they have.  Depending on the response of their parents, children may either have to minimise any displays of need because their parents will only be close with them if they don’t cry, or else do a lot of crying to attract the attention of a parent who doesn’t notice them or is inconsistent.  These patterns of Attachment are known as Insecure Attachments.

In some situations the parent that the child turns to for safety and security is either frightened or frightening.  This is an intolerable situation for a baby.  They can find no way of feeling safe (unlike the insecure pattern where the children find a less flexible way of feeling safe).  The very person who should be their protection is also a source of fear for them, and small babies have no way of escaping.  They cannot organise any attachment pattern, and this is known as Disorganised Attachment.  This can lead to great emotional difficulties for a child, unless they receive help.

The sad reality is that many children who come to live with Foster Carers have difficulties with Attachment.  They need skilled and sensitive parenting to help them.  We call this Attachment Based Parenting.  Such children may have learned that adults are not dependable, trustworthy or safe.  They may have learned to look after themselves and not depend on adults as they should.  They may feel that the only way to get any attention is to make a huge fuss.

So, what helps children with attachment difficulties?  The answer is you, foster carers who can provide a stable secure base for troubled children, who can meet their sense of fear and distress with calm.  That, more than anything, is what they need.  It is through experiencing a loving, consistent, and sensitive environment that they can learn to rewrite their image of themselves as worthless, or bad, and come to trust that adults will be there for them, and will care for them as they should be cared for.  Because every child is worth it.

At Fostering First Ireland we provide high level training in Attachment and Attachment based parenting for our carers, alongside the support of a link social worker and therapist to enable you to achieve a high level of skill in looking after a child you really care about.

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