Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Wanting every child to have a secure attachment - does it make sense?

Whenever there is a discussion about children’s emotional wellbeing, the desire that all children should have a “secure attachment” with their parents and with their key people is usually stated. This desire is well-meant; it is also misguided.

It is wrong in principle for early years practitioners to start defining the types of relationships that parents should have with their children. Firstly, if we say that we want one style of attachment relationship, then we overstep the line between being professionally responsible, and intruding into people’s right to a private family life. Secondly, in trying to categorize children’s attachment, without a proper training in psychotherapy and attachment theory, we would get out of our professional depth.

The desire for every child to have a “secure attachment” does not make sense. Attachment theorists (for example, Ainsworth et al, 1980) have consistently found that infants can be grouped into a number of different categories of attachment. Some have secure attachment relationships, and others have avoidant attachment, and so on.  Wanting all children to have a secure attachment, is rather like wanting all adults to be 6 feet tall – we can wish it all we like, but the nature of human growth and development means it is not going to happen. It is inevitable that some infants will not have a secure attachment; and those who are categorized as having avoidant and resistant types of attachment are no more likely to have emotional or behavioural problems later in their childhood (Fonaghy, 2001).

Anyone who has been a key person knows that some children come into nursery, avoid any type of hello or welcome, and want to get involved straight away in an activity. These children do not need to be stopped and made to behave differently; they need to be supported, and their key people need to find ways of building a relationship alongside them as they play. Parents with grouchy babies need to be encouraged to hang on in and carry on being warm and caring, not feel that everything is going wrong because their relationship does not look like a secure attachment.

But we should look out for those children whose response to parting from their parents or being reunited with them is very unpredictable, who show fear or who seem to “freeze”. Research (for example, Zeenah et al, 2003) suggests that they are often in great need of help; and if help is not forthcoming, they are likely to experience continuing difficulties in their emotional and behavioural development.

First published in Nursery World