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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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The impact of early experiences

Recent developments in neuroscience (the scientific study of the nervous system) have confirmed Bowlby’s original findings. They have also allowed us to extend our understanding of the importance of the relationship between responsive early care giving and the development of the human brain. The brain develops differently depending on what kind of experiences it receives. From the last three months of pregnancy up to two years of age is a crucial time, as this is when the brain is most malleable and when its pathways first form. But neuroscientific evidence also suggests that change is possible throughout the lifespan. We might never completely erase our previous experiences, but we can build new experiences, new expectations and new pathways in the brain (Music and Miller, 2006).

Critics of Bowlby’s theory have argued that attachment theory can appear to ‘blame’ mothers and place too little emphasis on the whole range of influences throughout people’s lives, such as life circumstances and peer interactions. Despite criticisms and modifications, attachment theory remains a powerful influence in social work. As Howe (2002) claims, an understanding of how attachment works can help social work practitioners

… to make sense of the way children and adults react to and deal with the social and emotional demands of others.

(Howe, 2002, p. 175)

For social workers, the role of attachment figures in early childhood requires careful thought, particularly in relation to children in need of protection. However, they must also make careful judgements as to the kind of interventions they make with all children. While children often exhibit amazing flexibility and strength in the most difficult of circumstances, poor decisions made during this period can undermine a child’s ability to form future attachments. These relationships may also have untold implications, both for individuals and the quality of parenting they subsequently offer their own children.

Attachment theory can be a useful framework for understanding and working with individuals at any point in their lives, particularly when they might be going through a change or transition, such as becoming parents themselves. It has also proved a useful approach to working with adults in mental distress, especially those who are trying to make sense of their own identities in the face of childhood trauma and abuse (Bateman and Fonagy, 2003).