Interview with Chris Taylor
How does understanding attachment help childcare and social workers?
I think we have to caution against suggesting that an individual’s attachment is a catch-all for their current condition. Development is a pathway, and each individual is where they are because of a huge and complex array of innate and environmental factors acting on each other. However, that basic biological drive to be close to the primary caregiver for safety, comfort and reassurance is a powerful mechanism in an individual’s early development. Although initially the attachment relationship is a descriptor of the dyadic relationship between child and caregiver, as the child becomes older, the pattern of attachment becomes increasingly an aspect of their individual functioning. Our attachment history affects us all, and children who have had sub-optimal early care are likely to be anxiously attached and to carry this anxiety as a self-fulfilling prophecy into other relationships, developing behavioural coping mechanisms that may make them difficult to care for. If the caregiver is also frightening, the child cannot organize their coping strategy in a coherent way. Such a child presents a huge challenge to be adequately cared for. Understanding attachment allows professionals charged with this task to unpack the child’s adjustment and work out ways of responding to the child that answers their attachment need and switches of the child’s self-defeating behaviours. Understanding caregivers’ attachment history can give us insight into the kind of support they may need to adequate parent a trouble child.
Would you be able to tell us about your work in a therapeutic unit?
For the last ten years, I have managed a four-bedded therapeutic unit. In that time, every child who has been resident has had some degree of attachment difficulty. The children (or young people) may access individual psychotherapy, but, helpful though that can be, therapeutic means something more than that. The model is one of supporting and enabling development whilst challenging maladaptive coping mechanisms. We promote a holistic, planned environment that provides a secure base for the child to explore their past and current relationships in the here and now. Working as a symbolic attachment figure, the staff team provides the sensitive attunement to enable the child to begin to use information from both emotions and cognition in a flexible way, to gather a coherent understanding of their attachment history and gradually possess “earned security”. We also think about the staff’s needs from an attachment perspective. The children we care for challenge the secure representations of their caregivers; support needs to be matched to the internal pressure exerted on the caregiver by the child’s coping mechanisms. Adult attachment models provide a powerful framework for doing this.
What developments have been made in the area since you first started working with children with attachment difficulties, and what is your hope for the future?
Many foster-carers, residential workers and social workers are now hugely interested in Attachment theory, which has become one of the foremost paradigms in child development. It is now more common to see at least an attempt to think about the child’s current experiences in the light of their attachment pattern. I think some fostering agencies have gone a long way in thinking about both the foster child’s and the carers’ attachment styles when trying to make placements. I also now see more placement decisions in residential care where the child’s attachment needs are mentioned, but there still seems to be little serious thought about what to do with this. What this means is that there is often a description but little idea what may help, perhaps a vague idea that something therapeutic is required. I’d hope that in the future we may continue to develop holistic, psycho-social models for promoting recovery; children develop anxious attachments in their first relationships, recovery takes place in supportive and enabling relationships and social environments. I also hope that the resources careful and effective work requires are forthcoming; social are budgets are going to be under pressure, but these children deserve a chance to have useful and fulfilling lives.