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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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2.3 Attachment theory

This is an image of a family in a therapy session.
Figure 7

Attachment theory is particularly associated with very young children’s development but also contributes to understanding and assessing the behaviour and needs of older children and adults. Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969; Ainsworth, 1969; Ainsworth and Bell, 1970; Bowlby, 1988) has been influential in focusing attention on behaviours and emotions present in relationships between children and their primary parents or caregivers. It has been specifically used to examine and explain how children use a significant relationship to cope with stress or the fear of danger. Children’s attachment behaviour under such circumstances involves ‘seeking the proximity of another (usually an adult but it might be another child) who is perceived as stronger and wiser and who will be able to make them feel safe’ (Aldgate and Gibson, 2015, p. 82).

Secure attachment is considered an important prerequisite of social development. It supports children’s ability to manage their feelings and behaviours and the way they develop expectations about themselves and form relationships with others (Ainsworth, 1989). Insecure attachments as the result of deprivation, separation and unresolved grief can, in contrast, lead to both short- and long-term psychological problems (Guidano, 1987; Guidano and Liotti, 1983). It is recognised that early attachment patterns will influence how children develop relationships with non-caregiving adults, siblings and parents. Attachment patterns have also been closely linked to a number of specific policy and service provision goals. For example, children with secure attachments are considered to be better prepared to enter formal schooling and to have a better chance of succeeding within the education systems (Commodari, 2013; Geddes, 2006). Some early intervention strategies consequently seek to help caregivers support the development of secure attachment patterns. Attachment is therefore an important consideration to be combined with cultural and social context when assessing the current and future wellbeing of children.

Ainsworth has been responsible for moving Bowlby’s attachment theory forward and producing classifications of attachment that can be applied by social workers in different tasks such as safeguarding, parenting assessment or planning support for children within the ‘looked after’ care system. The following summary of attachment patterns classifications is offered by Howe (2001, pp. 201–2) cited in Aldgate and Gibson (2015, p. 86).

  • Secure attachment patterns: children experience their caregiver as available and experience themselves positively.
  • Ambivalent patterns: children experience their caregiver as inconsistently responsive, and themselves as dependent and poorly valued.
  • Avoidant patterns: children experience their caregivers as consistently rejecting, and themselves as insecure but compulsively self-reliant.
  • Disorganised patterns: often associated with children who have suffered severe maltreatment; children experience their caregivers as either frightening or frightened, and themselves as helpless, angry and unworthy.

With regard to attachment, but also in many other aspects of social work with children, as part of the decision-making and assessment process it is important that social workers observe children, draw on the expertise of other professionals, consult with parents and caretakers and combine this knowledge with appropriate theory. Professional judgement also requires social workers to critically reflect on their own experiences and knowledge, and understand the limitations and strengths of different theories and perspectives.

It is essential to check the validity and reliability of observations of children’s development.