Lee Hackney and Karen Macmillan
When children do not have stable emotional attachments with primary adult caregivers for whatever reason, there are often severe long-term consequences (Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998; Rosenstein & Horowitz,1996). These consequences are evident in the potential for slower or arrested development (Neufeld & Mate, 2004) and have implications for overall brain function (Perry, 2002).
The attachment dance can be interrupted for many reasons, such as a lack of parental availability to connect with the child. Some infants are not offered a readily available attachment figure as in the case of infants who were raised in multiple placements or orphanages. Other sources of attachment problems experienced by children in care are those that arise as a result of neglect or abuse.
Neglect can occur from something basic such as the parent not knowing how to meet the child's needs. The parent may have been raised in an environment or family that did not offer examples of active attachment dances for them; they may be young parents who are not prepared, skilled or given role modeling related to attachment, and they may not have the emotional resources to reach out. Neglect can also happen when parents suffer from addictions or abusive relationships which keep them unavailable to meet their children's needs.
These problematic attachment relationships can affect children in numerous ways (Rosenstein & Horowitz, 1996). Children may become insecure and in desperate need of care giving. In this case, the child necessarily spends more time seeking out attachment and less time exploring their environment. The child may develop a pattern where they move from constantly seeking out their primary attachment figure to seeking out attachment indiscriminately. Another pattern children may develop is to become detached from adult caregivers. They may choose to seek out other attachments that provide them with predictable attachment patterns although not necessarily healthy ones (i.e. friends, drugs). Often these young people end up living in group care situations due to their parents' inability to look after them or their externalizing or internalizing behaviours. By the time young people enter care they often have set a pattern of attachment behaviours and beliefs that put them at risk and are difficult to replace.
These young people have been deprived of the critical belief that adults can be counted on to care for them and/or that they are worthy of care. Instead, they often come to foster care or residential life with a core belief that caregivers cannot be trusted. This leads to beliefs that include;
What results are behaviours that reflect these beliefs, such as pushing others away, not accepting offers of care, and aggression toward caregivers or self-harm.
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Cooper, M; Shaver, P. and Collins, N. (1998). Attachment styles, emotion regulation and adjustment in adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 5. pp. 1380-1397.
Neufield, G. and Mate, G. (2004). Hold on to your kids: Why parents matter. Toronto, Canada. Alfred A. Knopf.
Perry, B.D. (2002). Childhood experience and the expression of genetic potential: What childhood neglect tells us about nature versus nurture. Brain and Mind, 3. pp.79-100.
Rosenstein, D.S. and Horowitz, H.A. (1996). Adolescent attachment and psychopathology. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 2. pp. 244-253.
Hackney, L. and MacMillan, K. (2006). Relational-based interventions: The medium is the message.
Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 21. pp. 58-59.