Assessing attachment

Understanding Attachment

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Formal assessments of attachment styles determine the quality of the bond between an infant and their carer. Specialist expertise is required to assess attachment styles. It is important for both specialists undertaking formal attachment assessments and practitioners evaluating the quality of the relationship between a child and their carer, to consider many possible influences on parent–child relationships when making judgements and decisions about a child’s safety and protection needs.

Clinician assessments

  • If you are concerned about a child’s attachment, it may be helpful to consult with a psychologist.
  • Children’s Court clinicians also assess attachment relationships when making recommendations about placement and contact.
  • When assessing attachment the clinician observes the interactions between the child and the caregiver.
  • The clinician looks for the meaning of the relationship between the child and caregiver, not just the attachment style. They observe how the child acts when they are separated and then reunited with their caregiver and how the caregiver responds to the child’s distress and calls for comfort.
  • Secondary sources of information that inform the attachment assessment include case history, the child’s development, the caregiver’s capacity, and the child’s interaction with other caregivers.
  • Clinicians look at patterns of behaviour over time and in different settings.
  • Before reaching a conclusion the clinicians consider alternative explanations for a child’s behaviour. They rule out conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disorders.

Considering the relationship between a child and their caregiver

  • Caseworkers often need to consider the nature and quality of the relationship between a child and their caregiver as part of a holistic assessment and case planning.
  • Consider both the child’s needs and the caregiver’s resources to meet these needs and the social environment in which the child–caregiver relationship occurs.
  • Some issues to consider when observing the interactions between a child and their caregiver include:
  1. What are the child’s physical, emotional and safety needs? What does the child need in order to feel cared for and cared about?
  2. Is the child at a critical age for developing attachments?
  3. Have repeated disruptions in care placements made it hard for the child to trust and commit to new relationships?
  4. Is the child able to regulate their emotions?
  5. Does the child have role models who show them how to behave, rather than just telling them what to do?
  6. What has the child learnt about the values of their community and how they fit into society? What do they still need to learn?

Some things to think about when considering the influence of the parenting style and parental  capacity on the child–caregiver relationship include:

  1. Responsiveness of the caregiver to the child’s needs for physical care and safety. How do factors such as mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems, or domestic violence impact on their capacity to provide responsive care?
  2. Caregivers need to understand that a child’s behaviour and emotions are different from theirs. Does the caregiver help the child to understand their own emotions? Do they recognise a child’s needs?
  3. Does the caregiver have a bond with the child? Is the caregiver able to put their own emotional needs aside and be emotionally available to the child? Do they soothe and comfort the child when distressed?
  4. Does the caregiver effectively manage the child’s behaviour in the moment?
  5. Does the caregiver allow opportunities for the child to learn the values of the wider community? Does the caregiver demonstrate these values to the child?