Providing a secure base for troubled children

Attachment is at the heart of family life and at the heart of adoption and fostering. Close, loving relationships offer the essential care and protection, nurture and support that children need, from infancy through to adulthood. Looked after children have had to cope with difficult relationships in their birth families and they bring their complex coping strategies into their new families.

Warm and committed close relationships not only ensure that children feel loved and valued, they affect whether children go on to fulfil their potential for success and happiness at school, with friends, in work, as parents, and as participants in their community. The caregiving offered by adopters and foster carers is focused both on meeting the child’s current needs, and on healing the past and building for the future. There are many challenges, but also plenty of evidence that care in new families can turn troubled children’s lives around.

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Attachment and children’s relationships

Essentially, attachment theory suggests that dependent infants and children seek adult care and protection to survive. They only feel safe and secure when they know that they have at least one loving, protective and reliably available caregiver, a familiar and predictable secure base for enjoying their world. This secure base helps children to manage their anxieties and be free to explore their world and become confident in their relationships with people. This sets up a positive cycle, so children are free to explore because they know they can return to their secure base if they are anxious or have needs they cannot meet alone.

Secure attachment patterns

During their first year, children form attachments to their primary caregiver(s), those adults to whom they turn for closeness, food and comfort. If children have experienced care that is available, sensitive and responsive to their needs, accepting and co-operative, they are likely to have a secure attachment pattern.

Secure children develop an internal working model in their mind, a belief that they are lovable, that their caregiver is available and protective, and that relationships can be relied on. This enables them to manage their feelings and face new situations with confidence. They can try out the new toy without fear of failure. They can meet a new person with positive expectations and a smile on their face, encouraging the other adult or child to approach them with confidence and warmth. This in turn increases the likelihood that the child will form rewarding relationships. New secure attachments can be formed at any age.

Avoidant attachment patterns

However, some parents – perhaps because of their own experiences of poor parenting, mental health issues or other difficulties – find it difficult to be sensitive or respond to an infant’s emotional needs and demands. They may deny the significance of those needs, and ignore or reject the infant’s attachment behaviours – their crying or demands for attention. The caregiver may also show insensitivity to the child’s feelings by being intrusive, taking over the child’s play in order to show them rationally how to do it rather than having the patience to support the child’s tentative efforts.

The child eventually learns that it is better not to display their emotional needs and easier to be self-reliant, and develops what is known as an insecure avoidant attachment pattern. For these children, self-reliance and not showing emotions are a strategy for achieving some degree of closeness with a caregiver who finds emotional demands too much to cope with. Avoidant children may seem cool and unemotional, but are likely to be rather angry and anxious inside, and to doubt their lovability. When children with this pattern come into foster and adoptive families, they can be hard to get close to, and will need a great deal of patient care before they feel safe enough to trust their caregivers.

Ambivalent attachment patterns

In contrast, a parent may respond to the infant’s needs and emotional demands, but not in a reliable or predictable way. The child may sometimes be treated as the centre of the parent’s world, but at other times find it difficult to gain the parent’s attention or interest, often because the parent is preoccupied with their own emotional needs. It is hard for the child to develop a strategy for getting their needs met when a parent is unpredictable, but they are likely to resort to making constant demands and showing their feelings, in order to force the parent to attend to their needs at least some of the time.

A child with this insecure ambivalent attachment pattern feels needy and anxious about their lovability, but also angry, and resists comfort when it is offered because they don’t trust that it will last. These children may be very needy and clingy when they come into care, but sometimes they are ‘bubbly’ and affectionate at first, later becoming angry and coercive when told ‘no’. They will need a very warm, predictable and steady environment, with clear boundaries, to help them relax, calm down and begin to trust.

Disorganised attachment patterns

Infants and children with both avoidant and ambivalent attachment patterns are able to develop some strategy for gaining some degree of parental closeness and care. However, children who experience a parent who is at times frightening or frightened face a situation where the person to whom they turn for comfort and safety is actually a source of anxiety. In response to this combination of uncertainty and fear, the infant can do little but cry and perhaps shut down on all feelings, withdrawing emotionally and physically. But, as the child grows through the pre-school years, they learn that it is necessary to monitor parental behaviour closely, and stay in control of the situation, in order to feel safe.

This insecure disorganised attachment pattern can lead to a number of different controlling strategies. There is often a child-caregiver role reversal, in which the child orders the parent about in an aggressive way or tries to look after the parent so as to feel or stay safe. These strategies do not meet the child’s emotional needs for a secure base and the child will feel too anxious to explore and learn – but will try to conceal these feelings.

The child’s internal working model is of an unlovable self, of other people as potentially hostile, and of relationships as risky and not to be trusted. Not all disorganised children will have been maltreated but maltreated children are more likely to be disorganised and controlling. Controlling, disorganised children will test a carer’s patience and commitment, and professional support and advice is likely to be necessary to help carers remember the child’s fear and need for comfort and support.

An attachment-based model of foster and adoptive parenting

Early experiences of neglectful or abusive parenting and loss will therefore cause children to distrust close relationships. All children who are placed in foster or adoptive families will have a sense of loss and dislocation, making them wary and defensive for a time. For many, however, more serious experiences of neglect and maltreatment have a more profound effect. They will transfer negative expectations of adults into their new environments, along with the patterns of defensive behaviour that have functioned as survival strategies in the past.

In such circumstances, children will find it hard to let adults come close enough to establish trusting and supportive relationships. But when fostered and adopted children talk about what they want from a new family, it is clear that the basic attachment relationship needs of reliable care, comfort, protection, and encouragement to explore and play are central.

I wanted somebody to look after me and love me and do all that kind of stuff and basically look after me and bring me up properly. Someone who will look after me if I’m hurt and sad and someone who will play with me. (Mandy, eleven) (1)

I wanted a family that would take care of me and not leave me alone. And when I want them, they always come. And feed me properly, and look after me and be kind. (Jenny, eight) (1)

Attachment theory suggests that there are four dimensions of parenting associated with children becoming securely attached. We have added a fifth dimension, family membership, which is particularly important in adoption and fostering. Each dimension has a particular developmental benefit, and the dimensions work together to help the child thrive and progress.

Being available – helping children to trust

It is important for the caregiver to convey a strong sense of being physically and emotionally available to meet the child’s needs, whether they are together or apart. From this secure base, the child begins to trust that they are safe and that their needs will be met warmly, consistently and reliably. Anxiety is reduced and the child gains the confidence to explore the world, safe in the knowledge that care and protection will be available in times of need.

Responding sensitively – helping children to manage feelings and behaviour

This refers to the caregiver’s capacity to ‘stand in the shoes’ of the child, to think flexibly about what the child may be thinking and feeling and to reflect this back to the child. The reflective, ‘mind-minded’ caregiver also thinks about their own feelings and shares them sensitively with the child. The child thus learns to think about their own feelings, as well as the thoughts and feelings of others, and is helped to reflect on, organise and manage their behaviour.

Co-operative caregiving – helping children to feel effective

The caregiver needs to think about the child as a separate person, whose wishes, feelings and goals are valid and meaningful, and who needs to feel effective. The caregiver therefore looks for ways of promoting the child’s capacity to make choices (within clear boundaries), but is also working to co-operate with the child wherever possible. This helps the child to feel more effective and competent, and able to compromise and co-operate.

Accepting the child – building self esteem

All caregivers need to give the message that the child is unconditionally accepted and valued for who they are, for their difficulties as well as strengths. This forms the foundation of positive self-esteem, so that the child can experience themselves as worthy of receiving love, help and support, and able to deal with challenges and set-backs.

Promoting family membership – helping children to belong

The capacity of the caregiver to include the child socially and personally as a family member is important for the child. The caregiver needs to help the child establish an appropriate sense of connectedness and belonging to their birth family. The child who is likely at times to feel uncertainty and divided loyalties can then be helped to develop a comfortable sense of belonging to both families.

Ideas from attachment theory can give adopters and foster carers confidence and a sense of direction. Although difficult early experiences are likely to continue to have some effect on development, children can change their ways of thinking, feeling and behaving with help from new families. When a child first asks for a helping hand or accepts praise, it is possible to see the power of caring relationships to transform their life. With parenting strategies which help children to feel more trusting, to be better able to think through their feelings and to manage their behaviour, we can be hopeful that children from even the most difficult backgrounds can become more secure and resilient.

Dr Gillian Schofield Co-Director of the Centre for Research on the Child and Family, University of East Anglia. Dr Gillian Schofield and Mary Beek are co-authors of The attachment handbook for foster care and adoption. A training programme and DVD/video on attachment for foster care and adoption are also available from BAAF.

(1) From Adopted children speaking, Caroline Thomas and Verna Beckford with Nigel Lowe and Mervyn Murch. BAAF 1999.

Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in May 2006.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 07 January 09

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