Expert in attachment theory Joe Nee highlights some of the impact a child’s attachment experience can have on them and their foster families.
As children develop, from conception to adulthood, they need support from those responsible for protecting them during this journey.
When going through the various stages in this developmental process their experience of attachment plays a crucial role.
This continues throughout the young person’s development, from absolute dependence, to independence and autonomy as an adult.
And the different needs of children at each stage demand differing responses from those charged with their care.
Each develops at their own pace — from being unable to let their main carer out of their sight to the ‘terrible twos’, ‘sibling rivalry’ the ‘lazy teenager’ and so on.
Studying how a child attaches to their parents/carers helps us understand how this process is affected by the nature and quality of our early experiences.
This is particularly true of children who have experienced early trauma and/or neglect.
All children need to develop a secure emotional attachment to their parents or their primary/main carer at an early stage.
Young people may seem ‘unable’ to learn, or understand consequences, behaving in ways that seem to guarantee they won’t get what they want.
They may even feel responsible for their problems and those of their parents, believing themselves to be ‘bad’ or deserving of punishment.
The quality of the attachment relationship a child develops with their key caregiver is a good indicator of their ability to cope and adapt.
And as the child grows, this relationship means they continue to view this caregiver as a potential source of comfort in any stressful situations.
Unfortunately, this can continue to be the case even if the caregiver proves to be abusive, neglectful, fails to protect them, or their life seems to be in chaos.
For foster parents, this can clearly prove a challenge, as the child seeks comfort and approval from whichever caregiver to whom they have been attached.
The effects of attachment on foster parents
Attachment relationships are a biological inevitability, designed to ensure a child’s protection and survival.
But a child or young person’s ability to attach and form a bond with a caregiver often depends on the type of care they received from others earlier in their life.
It’s important that foster parents get appropriate support to promote healthy attachments for the children and young they care for in their family.
And where young people are removed from birth parents permanently, it’s vital that the appropriate matching and training takes place.
Foster parents looking after children who have disorganised or extremely anxious attachments can experience similar emotional upheaval.
Of course, fostering can be challenging at any time — but the stress involved in caring for some children can have a serious impact on the placement success.
In such situations, support from social and/or professional networks is typically a major factor in alleviating carer stress.
Particularly important is access to timely and effective support from social workers and other professionals.
Research has shown that the absence of this can exacerbate the strain on carers and their families.
Meeting a young person’s needs
Some younger children with a history of maltreatment can respond quickly to changes in their emotional environments, forming secure attachments to carers.
But research and experience tells us that this will not always be the case with certain children.
Some appear to resist support, continue to distrust adults and seem unable to seek care or comfort when distressed.
In these cases, if foster parents wait for a ‘signal’ or sign from a child to provide care, the young person’s needs may remain completely unmet.
We know that looked after children benefit greatly if they can develop secure attachments with their caregivers.
To enable this for those with attachment or trauma issues, foster parents can aim to engage with them at their emotional age (rather than chronological).
In order to ensure that young people with attachment issues are cared for most effectively during foster placements, several measures can help:
- Capacity of prospective carers to recognise/tolerate difficult behaviour and remain sensitive/responsive to a child’s needs should be evaluated
- Regular training and support to ensure carers can reflect on a child’s behaviour with reference to their needs rather than react immediately to their behaviour
- Carer access to reflective space and non-judgmental listening to promote sensitive, responsive care and alleviate the strain on all concerned
Any professionals, including foster parents, who are asked to care for or work with looked after children should have basic but specific training.
This should concern the impact of early attachment issues and trauma on those children.
And the support available should be proactive — not crisis driven or occurring only when stress levels are unacceptable.
Attachment and teenagers
A young person may appear to be settled, happy and thriving in a foster family environment.
But one of the triggers that can disrupt the situation for all concerned can be the onset of puberty.
The stresses and confusion for a young person during this time and their teenage years, can pose problems in terms of changing behaviour.
Another potential influential factor is young people’s vulnerability to harmful external influences.
A teen’s early experiences of mistrust, inappropriate attachment and confusion about relationships can make them an obvious target.
The potential threat of controlling relationships, sexual exploitation or gang associations increase for those with an inability to manage social relationships.
Learn more about attachment
Understanding the impact of attachment and how it can affect the fostering experience for young people and carers is important.
Find out more about the available training and support available by using the bibliography below, contacting Brighter Futures, or see further resources on attachment from the Fostering Network.
About the author
Joe Nee is an independent psychology professional with extensive experience in the education and child protection sectors.
He has worked with local authorities, government departments, the police, prisons and voluntary organisations throughout the UK.
As a renowned authority on child protection, families, fostering and adoption, his expertise as a consultant is both insightful and invaluable.
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Dozier M, Peloso E, Lewis E, Laurenceau J P and Levine S (2008) Effects of an attachment-based intervention on the cortisol production of infants and toddlers in foster care, Dev Psychopathology, 20, 845-859
Fonagy,P. and Target, M. (2002) Early Intervention and the Development of Self Regulation. Psychoanalytic Inquiry. V 22,Issue 3
Furnival, J. Practice with looked after children and young people IRISS Insights no.10. May 2010
Hughes, Dan (2006) Building the Bonds of Attachment
Holmes, J (2001) The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. Routledge
Hosking G and Walsh I (2005) Wave Report 2005: Violence and what to do about it, Croydon Wave Trust
Kochanska G, Barry RA, Stellern SA and O’Bleness JJ (2009) Early Attachment Organization Moderates the Parent Child Mutually Coercive Pathway to Children’s Antisocial Conduct, Child Development, 80, 1288-1300
Millward R, Kennedy E, Towlson K and Minnis H (2006) Reactive attachment disorder in looked-after children Emotional & Behavioural Difficulties, 11(4)
Steele M (2006) The ‘added value’ of attachment theory and research for clinical work in adoption and foster care, in J Kenrick (ed) Creating New Families Therapeutic approaches to fostering adoption and kinship care, London: Karnac Books
WilPerry B and Hambrick E (2008) The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, Reclaiming children and youth,17(3)
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Zeanah C (2001) Evaluation of a preventive intervention for maltreated infants and toddlers in foster care, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(2), 214-221