Attachment theory in practice

Understanding Attachment

Download PDF

To bridge the gap between what we know and what we do to transform the lives of children who have experienced, or who are at risk of experiencing, abuse and neglect.


To reflect on understandings about attachment that effect practice with children in out of home care

Attachment theory tells us that:

Attachment experiences influence:

* Emotional regulation

* Observed behaviour

* Cognitive-affective structures

* Motivational processes

Attachment Categories

• Secure

• Insecure: avoidant, ambivalent

• Disorganised

Categories derived from structured observation of ‘normal’ children

Reactive attachment disorder

Category derived from studies of institutionalised infants i.e. ‘non normal’ situations

Attachment and emotional regulation

• Recognise, reflect, label and regulate the child’s inner world

• Identify difficulties

• Consider appropriate supports

Attachment and cognitive-affective structures

• Internal working model – self and other

• Recognise difficulties

• Consider appropriate support

Attachment and observed behaviour

• Theoretical link between attachment and behavioural presentation

• Failure of traditional approaches to behaviour management

• Consider appropriate support

Attachment and social motivation

• Socially motivated or resistant orientation

• Recognise difficulties

• Consider appropriate support

What do we know?

• Early childhood well researched

• Older children less well researched

• Out-of-home care

Challenging behaviour and attachment

Attachment is not desired by some?

Attachment as a close, trusting relationship?

Attachment capacity is limited?

Attachment is transferable?

Implications of home care

Attachment as not desired by some children

Children’s behavioural problems were thought to reflect a limited desire or ability to form an attachment bond.

Attachment literature however indicates that compulsive self-reliance reflects an organised (albeit insecure) attachment strategy rather than a sign of being unattached (Rutter, 2008).

Attachment as a close, trusting relationship

Attachment was viewed in terms of the formation of a close, dependent and trusting relationship exhibited by behaviour that demonstrates intimacy.

Older children may need a re-working of their internal model through corrective emotional experiences mediated by co-therapy with carers.

Attachment capacity as limited

Implicit assumption that a child’s capacity for attachment is finite.

Attention is paid to the number, nature and appropriateness of a child’s attachments.

It is not clear how attachment representations are organised in school-aged children; whether hierarchical, integrative or independent.

Attachment as transferable

Attachment considered as a skill to be learnt, practiced or acquired through involvement in a relationship.

However a true attachment bond is enduring and unable to be transferred to another relationship.

• Children have had at least one disrupted relationship

• Attachment is one of several important factors: a foundational building block

• How to strengthen the foundation?


Is a child’s ability limited? Can a child be attached to more than one carer?

What does attachment look like? How do we know about a child’s attachment?

Are there children who can’t attach?

Take away messages

Attachment theory is useful

Gaps exist in research and practice knowledge

The ability to reflect is critically important

Listen to the child

Listen to those important to the child

Be kind to yourself

• McLean, S., Riggs, D., Kettler, L. & Delfabbro, P. (2012). Challenging behaviour in out-of-home care: use of attachment ideas in practice. Child and Family Social Work 2013, 18, pp 243-252.

• Dozier, M. , & Rutter, M. (2008). Attachment issues in foster care and adoption. In J. Cassidy & P.R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment theory and research.

• Mason, J. & Gibson, C. (2004) The needs of children in care. A report on a research project. SJSC, University of Western Sydney and UnitingCare Burnside.

• Infant-mother attachment and social development: 'Socialisation' as a product of reciprocal responsiveness to signals. Ainsworth, Mary D. Salter; Bell, Silvia M.; Stayton, Donelda J. Woodhead, Martin (Ed); Carr, Ronnie (Ed); Light, Paul (Ed), (1991). Becoming a person. Child development in social context, Vol. 1., (pp. 30-55). Florence, KY, US: Taylor & Frances/Routledge, xiii, 358 pp.

• Kiraly, M. & Humphries, C. (2009) Baby on Board. Report of the Infants in Care and Family Contact Research Project. Alfred Felton Research Program. School of Nursing and Social Work, University of Melbourne

Australian Centre for Child Protection