Attachment is a clinical term that refers to the strong bond between a child and their primary caregiver. Children can build attachment bonds with more than one caregiver, but most often the bond with people who cared for them throughout their early infancy is the most significant bond.
These early infancy bonds are developed through attachment cycles, in which the infant has a need, and these needs are met by their carer. These attachment cycles teach infants that they can rely on their carer for safety, comfort, and security.
Children who receive responsive, sensitive caregiving during early childhood develop secure attachments to their primary caregiver. These children are comforted by their caregivers, and perceive their caregiver as a secure base, from which they can begin exploring their environment.
However, when this initial cycle of care is disrupted, children no longer feel stable or secure within their attachment bond.
Unfortunately, many children in the care system suffer from broken attachment bonds. Many of them suffer from varying degrees of attachment trauma, as the disruption or loss of attachment bonds can have profound psychological and emotional impacts on a child.
How are Attachment Bonds broken?
Attachment bonds can be broken in a variety of different ways. Certain circumstances make it more difficult for children to form healthy attachment patterns.
- Abuse, maltreatment, or trauma in child or caregiver
- Caregiver substance abuse
- Caregiver mental health difficulties
- Household stressors, such as financial troubles
- Multiple care placements or living in care
- Prolonged hospitalisation
- Neglect of child needs
- Loss or bereavement of caregiver that child had an attachment with
Even though some of these circumstances are unavoidable, the effect on a child’s psyche and development is the same. In the breaking of their attachment bonds, children learn to believe that their needs do not matter as they will not be met.
What are the warning signs of Attachment Issues?
Attachment issues or disorders, such as Reactive Attachment disorder (RAD) or Disinhibited Social Engagement disorder (DSED) can manifest in children in a variety of different ways. Issues with attachment can have an effect on a child’s behaviour and emotions.
The signs of attachment related trauma can vary with a child’s age.
Signs of attachment issues in infants include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Inconsolable crying
- Don’t reach out to be picked up
- Not smiling or laughing
- Don’t respond to efforts to comfort or calm them
- Don’t seem to notice or be bothered when left alone
Signs of attachment issues in children include:
- Problems with control
- Manipulative behaviour
- Inability to regulate their emotions
- Aversion to touch or physical affection
- Struggle to focus on tasks and instructions
- Failure to show guilt or remorse
- No fear of strangers or unfamiliar places
- Violation of social boundaries
- Unresponsive or detached
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
Looked-after children are at greater risk of developing ongoing attachment issues than the wider population. They are affected by the separation they experience when removed from their primary birth caregiver, regardless of whether their attachment to them was healthy or problematic.
What are the long-term impacts of Attachment Issues?
If a child doesn’t learn how to form healthy attachments and build positive relationships, it is likely these issues will continue throughout their life.
People that grow up with unresolved attachment trauma often find it difficult to regulate their emotions and may act rashly and impulsively. Life skills such as budgeting and career planning will be difficult, and they may be prone to high levels of stress, leading to substance abuse and an increase the risk of long-term health conditions.
Adults with attachment trauma also continue to struggle forming interpersonal relationships. They may also become overly dependent on other people in their lives, and struggle to recognise the abusive and manipulative behaviours.
How can I help my child with Attachment Issues?
It can sometimes be challenging to connect past disruptions to the attachment bond with a child’s current difficulties. Caregivers sometimes state that they feel ‘blamed’ or ‘confused’ when confronted with the fact their child may have attachment trauma. It is important to remember that each child is an individual with their own unique set of experiences that may have nothing to do with your relationship with them.
If you suspect your child is suffering from attachment trauma, you should seek professional guidance. A professional will be able to help advise you how best to support your child and may help in developing a therapeutic treatment programme. If you are a foster carer, we also recommend talking to your Social Worker about any concerns you have.
Alongside professional support, there are various things that you can do to help support your child while they learn how to get over attachment issues.
One of the most important things you can do is create a secure base for your child. This means being available for them and sensitive to their needs, all the while remaining firm in your routine and boundaries.
How Foster Carers can Help Children with Attachment Trauma
At Compass, we encourage our foster carers to take a therapeutic approach to their parenting. Therapeutic training embraces four principles of communication, called PACE (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy). PACE provides a framework for supporting children in crisis.
Playfulness means keeping communication fun, open and light. A playful approach creates a safe, engaging environment that invites closeness without asking too much of your child.
Acceptance means validating your child’s experiences and emotions. Instead of trying to change or censor how they’re feeling, acceptance asks that you merely acknowledge, sit and experience it with them.
Curiosity invites you to ask questions about why your child is feeling or acting the way they are without judgement or blame.
Empathy reminds you to always approach difficult situations through your child’s eyes, whether or not they are misbehaving or acting in a way you do not condone.
Your goal should be aimed at helping your child transition from a dysregulated state to a regulated one. As they learn to trust you, your relationship will begin to form a new blueprint for what a secure attachment looks like.
We see this process happen frequently with our foster carers. Foster carers can have a huge influence in helping foster children learn to understand and manage their feelings. The relationship between foster carers and foster children helps children learn how to build strong and secure attachments for the future.
- Learn more about attachment trauma at the Attachment & Trauma Network
- NSPCC Learning
- Learn more about therapeutic parenting at the National Association of Therapeutic Parents
- Beacon House has numerous online resources to help support children with developmental trauma
- The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has additional resources available for foster parents.
While dealing with attachment disorder can be difficult for foster carers, it is also one of the most significant ways you can have a positive impact on the life of a child in care. If you’re ready to find out more about becoming a foster carer, please get in touch today.