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Attachment representations of adolescents in institutional care

R. Schleiffer and S. Müller

According to the law, residential care is a measure of the youth welfare system whose purpose is “to support the development of children and adolescents by means of an association of everyday life with educational and therapeutic provisions” (Section 34 of the KJHG), thus contributing to the young person's ability to realize his or her “right to support in his or her development and to an upbringing into a personality capable of bearing responsibility and living in a community” (Section I, Subsection 3, KJHG). Consequently, residential care should not only be concerned with ameliorating the psychopathological problems, but also with improving attachment representations.

The latter goal can be pursued only if the adolescents in the residential home receive an opportunity for experiences that are incompatible with their internal working models and therefore stimulate change. Ultimately internal working models of attachment are likely to change only if they are “corrected” by attachment experiences. Insofar the assumption seems plausible that such “correcting” experiences will take place by encounters with staff members who function as attachment figures. Therefore caregivers in a residential home should be available as attachment figures. However, such a prescription may be seen as too optimistic because the development of attachment relationships to residential staff is anything but self-evident. As Schuengel and Van Ijzendoorn (2001) in their thorough discussion of the attachment in mental health institutions put it one should be “cautious in predicting that taking adolescents or adults from their families and treating them in an institution will always lead to searching for alternative attachment figures within that institution, even if caregivers try to foster attachment by offering secure base support”. Nevertheless the assumption that child-staff relationships are important in determining the progress of residential youth (Moses, 2000) are well substantiated. For example, in the Gehres' study (1997) of former residential youths the subjects believed that their development was mostly influenced by the relationships with the staff. In a similar way Wieland et al. (1992) found that former residential youths gave a positive judgement about their residential experiences if their relationships with the staff was exclusive and therefore relevant with regard to attachment.

Because of their natural tendency to form attachment relationships adolescents in residential treatment facilities should express a serious need for close personal relationships with adults (Jaffe, 1967). This does not mean that an attachment relationship will develop automatically. As Schuengel and Van IJzendoorn (2001) stress “using a staff member as a secure base, being involved in an (insecure or secure) attachment relationship with a staff member, and feeling attached to a particular staff member need to be distinguished”. The development of an attachment bond (Cassidy, 1999) takes time. Most adolescents investigated in this study were living in this residential home for many years. The residential home was definitely their centre of life. The relationships between youngsters and their parents were in most cases rather weak. Therefore they had to direct their attachment behaviour to the members of staff.

However, the youths' respective attachment representations determined their attachment and their willingness to form subsidiary attachment bonds. These innermost models decide to what extent the young people are at all willing to venture into correcting their attachment representations. They must at least have acquired a minimum of trust in attachment if they are to profit from the educational aids provided for them in this regard. This is the basis of the well-known paradox that those who “objectively” have the greatest need of assistance are psychically least able to make use of the assistance provided.


Cassidy, J. (1999). The nature of the child's ties. In J. Cassidy, & P.R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (pp. 3-20). New York: Guilford Press.

Jaffe, E.D. (1967). A study of effects of institutionalization on adolescent dependent children. Israel Annals of Psychiatry and Related Disciplines, 2, 169-180.

Moses, T. (2000). Attachment theory and residential treatment: A study of staff-client relationships. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70, 474-490.

Schuengel, C., Zegers, M., Jansma, J.B.M., & Van Ijzendoorn, M.H. (2000). Pedagogical policy dilemmas in residential treatment of disturbed adolescents. In H.-J. Schulze (Ed.), Stability and complexity: Perspectives for a child-oriented family policy (pp. 75-92). Amsterdam: VU University Press.

Schleiffer, R. and Müller, S. (2004). Attachment representations of adolescents in institutional care.
International Journal of Child & Family Welfare, 7
.1. pp.60-77

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