Attachment Theory

At times attachment theory has been hotly debated. Some even question it exists. I’ve remained silent until now, having no evidence or theories either way. However, due to a change in our family dynamics I now have personal knowledge of attachment theory.

I’ll start with a brief look at the research from John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst, one of the most influential writers on the subject. Bowlby looked at the effects of separation of babies and parents. He concluded that behaviours such as crying, screaming and clinging to parents on separation were related to survival instinct. He determined these behaviours were part of a ritual devised by babies to ensure they received adequate care from the parent or main guardian. They were in fact communicating they needed attention. Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist also worked on attachment theory and wrote about how children respond to being separated from their primary carer. Other researchers have suggested further attachment styles but all have reached a similar conclusion. The most obvious thing to note about attachment is that as the primary adult gives care and attention to the infant a bond begins to form. This bond is the start of a healthy relationship between baby and caregiver.

Bowlby wrote about 4 styles of attachment ranging from disorganised attachment to secure attachment. Now clearly everyone would like a secure and healthy attachment between the primary caregiver and the child. This begins to form early on in a child’s life, usually from a few weeks old. Child recognises their carer and can be soothed by them, begins to smile for them and looks to them when they need pacifying. This is all very rewarding for caregiver and child. However, what if that isn’t the case? What if no bond is formed? What if a child is put up for fostering with a view to adoption. What if that foster carer saw it as a job and didn’t allow a loving bond to form, no point after all when the child is moving on very soon. Every child needs to form a bond with their primary caregiver, it’s a basic human right to feel loved, wanted and cared for. Without that attachment to a primary caregiver how is the child ever going to trust that their needs will be met?

Without delving too much into my private life we now have an absolutely gorgeous 5 year old boy adopted into our extended family. He arrived at 7 months old from foster care. He is gentle, loving, funny and bright. He has some health challenges, some learning needs and in particular he has an expressive language disorder. ELD is exactly as it sounds. He understands everything that is said to him and can act on your instructions for the most part but he struggles to express his needs and emotions. The main challenge he faces is that he isn’t able to be alone, or what he perceives to be alone. He has attachment disorder. This stems from his time with his foster carer who didn’t form that all important bond with him because she had more than one child to care for and she knew she wouldn’t have him for long. For a developing child seven months is a very long time.

So, how does this attachment manifest, and how am I so sure that this is attachment. As soon as he arrived at 7 months it was very obvious that he wasn’t going to sleep without someone very close to him. He cried and sobbed to the point of sickness if left alone to the point where he was making himself ill. There was nothing for it, we had to hold on to his hand or stroke his cheek to make him feel secure until he was asleep. If he awoke and found he was alone the whole process would begin again with the hysterical sobbing. Sleeping and bed time has always been problematic and it continues to be so. He wants to sleep in Mummy’s bed, not beside her but hanging on to her so there’s no escape. Of course this can’t happen and solutions have been found to get through the nights. Five years down the line he sneaks downstairs and sits or lies in the hall rather than be on his own upstairs. That’s a little sad really.

This little boy has very real problems with people that he loves. He is obviously very attached to his Mummy and doesn’t want her to leave him anywhere. So, as much as he loves to sleepover at Nanny and Grandpa’s house he’s conflicted because that means leaving Mummy. He is at times absolutely heartbroken at leaving Mummy yet super happy to be with grandparents. It makes no sense, but it’s distressing to watch. I’ll give a few examples of the struggles he faces. His toothbrush has to be touching his Mummy’s toothbrush and if he’s at grandparent’s house his toothbrush has to be in the middle of their brushes. I’ve lost count of the times all toothbrushes have ended up on the floor because he needs them to be positioned just so. It would be amusing if it wasn’t so sad. When it’s time to go home to Mummy he becomes very distressed again because he can’t bear the thought of being separated from Nanny and Grandpa, yet he desperately wants to be with Mummy.

Our little boy is in YR now and his teacher, SENCo and class TA are doing a wonderful job at making him feel secure. They’ve done all the training and are up to speed with attachment theory. What they are missing is how it affects the individual child and how to deal with it. Part of our little boy’s troubles are centred around his friendships. He has become overly attached to a boy in his class. This is a pattern that is repeated from nursery with another child. He makes a friend and then cannot bear to be parted from him. Recently this desire to be close to his friend has seen him lash out at another child who was blocking his path to his friend. He was unable to adequately ask him to move out of his path. This is not acceptable behaviour and I know that. Social stories haven’t helped with this. Sitting him down and explaining hasn’t helped, visual prompts and even role play have all failed. The two boys also go to football together outside of school. The coach put them on different teams and our little boy was bereft. Totally inconsolable. No aggression was shown that day but I’m always mindful that with his inability to express himself adequately he may resort to violence.

I could give you many examples of his attachment to his friend, in fact I could write about it for days. Another example is with his water bottle at school. His bottle has to be directly next to, if not touching his friend’s bottle. On occasions, all 25 water bottles have ended up on the floor as our little boy attempts to position them just so. If they won’t go in line, there is often an almighty tantrum and all bottles finish up floor bound. So what’s the solution? Making him put his at the end of the row has ended in real tears and a wasted day of learning but is it right to allow him to move them all to make way for his. Who knows? The psychologist is trying to figure it out as we speak. Watching him battle his demons is very distressing, I know that much. One solution is SaLT. Currently there are 3 speech therapists all working with him amongst the many professionals involved with him. The hope is that his speech will develop properly before his attachment demons land him in serious trouble.

I’m not excusing his behaviour, especially when he shows aggression. I know it’s totally unacceptable yet at the same time when you look at his background and his fears of being alone it’s perfectly understandable. I can’t thank the people enough who are working with him. I can’t thank his school enough for their understanding. I just hope that he soon learns to express himself adequately enough to explain what he wants and needs. In his case, his behaviour really is trying to say something that he’s unable to express verbally.

Thanks for reading this tiny snapshot of a little boy living with attachment disorder.