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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Daring to try again: The hope and pain of forming new attachments

Monica Lanyado

... But what I have just described relates to attachment relationships when all is going reasonably well. When we think about trying to provide the opportunity for a child who has formed mostly insecure attachments, to form a secure “secondary” attachment, what as professional caregivers is the “care” that we are attempting to give? This is a very complex question, no doubt with a complex answer as there are many roots to the wish to care for others. What I wish to draw attention to in the context of this paper and our discussions as the day progresses, is that I think that there is a strong derivative of Bowlby’s biological caregiving (Bowlby, J.), that is activated when trying to enable a child to form a secondary attachment. This is a lesser form of the intense feelings stimulated in new parents, but is nevertheless at times an extremely powerful motivational factor, for those who choose to work in the “caring professions”. One could argue that adult social responsibility is built on these same foundations, that is, the need for and wish of the stronger individuals in a civilised society, to look after and care for the weaker members of society, rather than subjugate them to their own more powerful will.

Having said this about some aspects of the motivational processes going on within the carer, it is important for those who try to help children to form new attachments to be realistic about what can be achieved. We can take very damaged children some of the way towards greater emotional health, and hopefully enable them to become more receptive to the positive relationships and experiences that they encounter when they leave our care. This is tremendously important. However as emotional growth continues throughout life, our help must be seen in the context of being (hopefully) an important step or turning point along the way. The frustrations of not being able to achieve as much as one had hoped with a child, and the difficulties that must be faced up to if treatment has to stop in some respects “prematurely”, will be discussed later in this paper.

It may be helpful to consider whether “secondary attachment” can only ever be of a less intense and more defended nature than primary attachment. However, if it is possible to move the quality of this attachment in the direction of a more secure attachment – a sort of sliding scale of attachment as opposed to the distinct attachment categories that are currently useful in research terms – this is a great achievement. In addition, it is now recognised that whilst the attachments to mother and father are likely to be the strongest, babies and young children (and indeed all of us, throughout life) in fact form many less intense but nevertheless important attachments. Research suggests that the quality of each attachment is quite independent – that is for example, a child may be insecurely attached to his mother but securely attached to his grandmother. Attachments to siblings are also often of great importance. It is probably more realistic to think in terms of a hierarchy of attachments, and this in turn implies that it might be possible to be securely attached to a care-giver to a greater or lesser intensity.

Maybe it is expecting too much of people who have suffered so severely from broken and insecure attachments so early in life, to ever trust fully in one person again. Maybe they will only be able to find some emotional security if they have a benign circle of people they feel they can rely on – one of the major benefits of communal as opposed to family living. It may be that the best and possibly wisest form of attachment that a child can manage is an attachment to a place or a group or community – such as yours, and that this is in itself an achievement. The forming of deep attachments to particular members of staff brings with it all the transferred past ambivalences of love and hatred and may become extremely difficult for a therapeutic community to handle. Considerable thought, wisdom and realistic appraisal are required by communities such as yours, when considering what kind and intensity of attachment can be facilitated and lived with, within the boundaries of the healthy functioning of the community (Juliet Hopkins, personal communication). This is a question of emotional closeness and distance for the care-worker and the institution. In the next section of this paper, I will consider this same question from the point of view of the child.

What I have in mind is that there are many stages of recovery from broken and insecure attachments. The experiences gained in a therapeutic community or psychotherapy can then be seen in the context of providing the crucial turning point from giving up on any hope of recovery, to the courage to try again and let go of some of the defences that prevent secondary attachments from growing.


Bowlby J. (1944) ‘Forty-four juvenile thieves: their character and home life’. Int. Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 25, 1-57 and 207-228.

Bowlby J. (1953) Child Care and the Growth of Maternal Love. London: Penguin.

Bowlby J. (1988) A Secure Base. Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Bowlby J. (1969) Attachment and Loss, Vol 1 Attachment. London: Hogarth Press; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1971

Bowlby J. (1973) Attachment and Loss, Vol 2, Separation: Anxiety and Anger. London: Hogarth Press; Harmondsworth,: Penguin. 1975

Bowlby J. (1980) Attachment and Loss, Vol 3, Loss : Sadness and Depression. London : Hogarth Press; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1981

Hopkins, J. (2000) Personal communication.

Lanyado, M. (2000). Daring to try again: The hope and pain of forming new attachments. Extract from a paper first given to the Annual Care and Treatment Day of the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities on 20th September 2000.

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