Family Relationships & Attachment Theory
Written by Lauren Mewett, Family Case Work at Dandelion Time
What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory, considered a key component in children’s development, was initially proposed by John Bowlby. Bowlby considered this as partly an innate survival tactic existing within babies to ensure their needs are met by their mother, but also a process whereby children’s first experiences of relationships set the template for future relationships. Bowlby strongly believed that attachment had long term impacts on behaviour and focused on how the disruption of this process may lead to emotional difficulties and what he referred to as ‘anti-social’ behaviour.
Child Development & Attachment Styles
In more recent years attachment theory has been touched upon by many theorists and has become a complex facet of child development. At Dandelion Time the fundamental principles of attachment theory are key considerations within our therapeutic methodology and how we help families to heal from trauma. For many of the children who attend Dandelion Time, experiences of what Bowlby called a ‘disrupted attachment’ is evident in their early life experiences. Examples may be post-natal depression, traumatic births, periods of being unwell and possible hospitalisation, and in some cases abuse and neglect.
We know that forming what is called a ‘secure attachment’ with a primary caregiver is integral to development. Forming this type of attachment takes place through cycles and repetitions within the relationship of a baby and their carer. As a babies needs develop the consistency of their carers responses are tested and reaffirmed through repetition e.g. babies may explore and return to their safe base, they’ll cry in the hope for their carer to respond appropriately such as settling their hunger or need for warmth. These repeated cycles instil a certainty in a baby/child that they are loved, understood and are safe to explore their world, knowing that they can return to their safe base.
Sadly, this isn’t the case for all babies and insecure attachments are formed. This might look like a carer who is struggling with being consistent and available for the child. The carer might be mis-attuned and unable to recognise the needs of their baby or respond appropriately. An example could be a baby that is crying through hunger, but a carer responds by stimulating them through play in the hope that will settle them. A carer might be inconsistent with their responses due to a variety of contributing factors such as mental health difficulties or substance misuse.
What does this mean for children who have been unable to form secure attachments?
As our knowledge of attachment has developed it has been noted that being unable to form a secure attachment does not lead people to be unable to function within society. It does however mean that there may be areas of life and relationships that they find more challenging. Consequences of insecure attachments vary from individual to individual based upon their experiences. Often, children may be more likely to struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem. As they grow older they might be more vulnerable to forming unhealthy relationships with peers or romantic partners and be at greater risk of depression. However, these early life templates are not concrete and secure attachments can be formed outside of the conventional window in a child’s first few years. Children’s brains are always developing and a change in patterns and repetitions can contribute to what is referred to as ‘learned secure’. This means there are ways for attachments to be built upon through experience, with the hope to enhance a stronger and more secure attachment between child and caregiver.
Finding New Paths at Dandelion Time
Dandelion Time’s therapeutic work supports a child’s journey in healing from past experiences and finding new patterns in relationships. During sessions, families are encouraged to find a new way of being. The change of context, set within the natural world, often opens avenues for parents or carers to develop their attunement to and understanding of their children. Inviting them to be present and connected through shared experiences, encouraging new patterns of interaction to emerge. For children who may have spent time in their early years feeling frightened and mis-understood, experiencing connectedness and safety in a relationship allows them to focus on other areas of development and enhances their bond. They may then begin to develop their inter-personal skills, practicing relating to others on an emotional level. Metaphors within our work such as caring for animals, gardening and harvesting, promote nurture, empathy, and connection. Our activities often encourage side-by-side, low pressure working which enables families to experiment with their interactions and develop safety in their relationship.
Children and their caregivers engage in new experiences and tasks that allow them to assume or challenge roles or patterns in their relationship, enhancing their self-awareness along with awareness of others. These experiences as a family, can build upon confidence and self-esteem and allow resilience to be developed in order to continue building upon these experiences to continue generating a new narrative for both children and their care giver.