Child social development attachment theory : Social Development

Child social development attachment theory

Attachment theory

A knowledge of attachment theories can be invaluable in helping children's social workers solve many of the issues facing them, Judy Cooper finds

A knowledge of attachment theories can be invaluable in helping children’s social workers solve many of the issues facing them, Judy Cooper finds

Attachment theory focuses on how children form a bond with their primary caregiver and the influence it has on emotional development, growth into adulthood and parenthood. Half of all children show their first specific attachment between the ageS of six to eight months, developing a fear of strangers and then attaching to other key figures afterwards.

According to US-based academic Dr Patricia Crittenden (pictured), a fundamental understanding of attachment theories is one of the most important weapons in any social worker’s armoury. Crittenden might be expected to say as much, being the chair of the International Association for the Study of Attachment. But, speaking to Community Care ahead of a five-day training course for UK social workers in December and January, she says attachment theories can solve many of the issues facing children’s services.

“It offers a better form of assessment. Good, thorough, expensive assessment can make a huge difference to outcomes and the cost of care pathways, ” Crittenden says.

“Yet social workers end up apologising for taking too long to undertake a complex assessment of a complex situation. If it is carried out properly, using the theories of attachment to understand everybody’s motivations, then it becomes much easier to identify those parents who have the wherewithal to change quickly and those who may be able to change but not quickly enough or within a timeframe that can help the child.

“Once that decision is made we need to move quickly to a permanent placement. This idling in foster care doesn’t help anyone.”

She also points out that the body of research on attachment theory is growing and changing all the time, and her training course will offer some new ideas.

“Attachment theory is the parent-child process by which a person learns how to respond to the world and how they learn from the world, ” she says. “So using it is all about listening to a person and trying to reframe a presenting problem – a child’s behaviour, a parent’s inappropriate behaviour – in terms of what was the original intention. What are they trying to do but perhaps failing badly?”

Dangerous assumptions

In child abuse cases this may mean that appearances and natural assumptions can be wrong. “It’s the case that sometimes a child will smile and smile again, such as in the Victoria Climbié and Baby P cases, ” Crittenden says. “Social workers noted that the children were happy and smiling (see box). But this is a learned defence mechanism. These children have learned that a smile puts their adult carer at ease and makes the child safer.

“So when a child is smiling or appearing happy, in a dramatically inappropriate situation such as following a serious injury, you need to view it as a possible warning sign that you should look a little deeper.”

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