July 02, 2018

Child development is a complex process and cannot be explained simply by one or two theories.  There is an interplay of experiences, relationships and genetic factors in everyone’s lives and that leads to the wonderful rich diversity we see in every community.

However, Attachment Theory is one which has been attracting more attention over the last few years, with more and more schools becoming ‘Attachment Aware’ and Attachment Parenting.  Attachment is a concept that has been around for many years, since the psychiatrist, John Bowlby, began his work in the late 1930’s, but what is it? Why is it important? And what do we need to consider when working with children and young people who have attachment difficulties?


Attachment is the strong, emotional, long-lasting bond which develops between a baby and their caregiver and has lifelong implications linked to feelings of security and safety.  Babies are born with a biological drive to seek protection from an adult figure – someone to look after both their physical and emotional needs.  When these needs are met, the infant ‘attaches’ to their caregiver and this attachment helps them to love and trust others, to understand the world around them, to regulate their own emotions and basically to feel ‘ok’. Photo by Andreas Wohlfahrt from Pexels

They have what we call a ‘secure attachment’ – a pattern of attachment resulting from thousands of daily interactions with their caregiver. With a secure attachment in place, the child is more likely to grow up to be a confident adult who can make healthy connections with others and feel safe in the world. However, when an infant’s physical and emotional needs are not met, the infant learns that they cannot rely on adults to meet their needs, so they must cope on their own, or develop other ways to get noticed. This all happens subconsciously; the child is unaware of it. These children are said to have an ‘insecure attachment’.

Three different patterns of insecure attachment have been identified.  Firstly, the ‘Insecure Avoidant’ style, is where the child has learnt to cope on their own, as their caregiver may have rejected or been insensitive to the child’s needs.  They are often not noticed in school, as they tend to be quiet and self-sufficient. ‘Insecure Ambivalent’ style is where the child’s focus is mainly on the teacher/caregiver, as they have experienced inconsistent and often unresponsive caregiving and so have the need to monitor relationships carefully. These children tend to remain close to the caregiver/teacher and need a lot of attention and reassurance. These two styles are actually survival strategies that the child has developed in the absence of consistent, reliable care. Finally, we have the ‘Insecure Disorganised’ style, where the child has been unable to develop a specific coping strategy, and which is the most complex pattern of insecure attachment. This normally results from a childhood of neglect or abuse where the carer, who is supposed to be the source of support, is also the person who frightens the child. These children may fluctuate between avoidant and ambivalent behaviours, find it difficult to calm themselves down and are often controlling and aggressive.

The Sutton Trust analysis of research (2014) states that 40% of children in the UK have an insecure attachment to their parents.


Attachment difficulties, sometimes known as Developmental Trauma, can lead to a number of consequences, which are becoming more apparent with advances in research methods. The wonders of neuroscience and the explosion of discoveries over the past 20 years has meant we now know much more about how attachment and trauma affects the development of our brain and how early experiences have lifelong implications on emotional and mental health. The human brain is an amazing organ with a complex network of over 100 billion neurons organised into many interconnected systems. In fact, by the time a child is three years old, the brain is about 80 percent of its adult size.  When a baby or child is exposed to constant stress or trauma, the brain releases an abundance of cortisol and over time, this leads to what is called ‘Toxic Stress’.  Brain development is affected and because of the activation of the stress hormone system, these children are living on constant high-alert – they are what we call ‘hyper-vigilant’.  There are many negative effects of this ‘toxic stress’, such as poor emotional regulation, poor working memory, poor immune system and an unhealthy sense of self, which can lead to other possible psychological issues.  However, our brain is a miraculous organ and we now know that it has the capacity to change – it has plasticity. So, with lots of help and the right support, these issues can be addressed and changed.

So what are some of the symptoms you may see and how can you help these sad-219722_1280children?  Once we understand what is going on for these children then we can respond in the best possible way.


There are numerous symptoms that could suggest attachment difficulties or trauma in children and these can be similar to other disorders or even normal child developmental stages, so getting a professional assessment is vital for diagnosis. Often these children can be labelled as ‘naughty’ due to the behaviours they exhibit, but remember, behaviour is a means of communication.  Like any other behaviour management strategy, it’s vital we look behind the behaviour to what is driving it. For these children, their behaviour is often driven by fear and anxiety, as well as a deep-rooted sense of shame.

The different patterns of insecure attachment manifest in a variety of different behaviours, however some of the most common symptoms we see are:

  • Lack of empathy – these children cannot understand the feelings of others. Empathy is normally learned through early relationships by mirroring behaviours, so when early relationships are inconsistent or neglectful, this does not develop. This makes it difficult for children to understand when or why their actions may have upset or hurt other children.
  • Hypervigilance – these children have their fight/flight mechanism constantly switched on, so they can be continually fidgeting and sensitive to noises and distraction around them consequently finding it difficult, or impossible, to concentrate on learning. They can also fly off the handle at the smallest issue, such as having their book knocked off the table.
  • Difficult relationships – these children may feel that reliance on an adult is unsafe, so they show hostility towards a teacher or, alternatively are clingy to a teacher, where caregiving has been inconsistent. Others may have indiscriminate affection with adults as they believe this is the way to get their needs met.
  • Lying, denying or blaming others – this can be a shame-based behaviour which happens as a self-defence when shame is overwhelming for the child.
  • Unable to self-regulate their emotions and behaviour – learning to control anger and other emotions is also something that develops through the interaction and experience of ‘co-regulation’ with a caregiver, where this hasn’t happened children cannot learn to self-regulate.

So, what can be done? As previously mentioned, our brains can be changed throughout life – they have ‘plasticity’.  At home and in schools, there are a number of strategies you can use to help these children.  Here are just a few:

blog_03First, look to address the anxiety before the behaviour. It is important that the child feels safe and secure at school. Behaviourist strategies, such as praise or ‘Time-Out’, are often not successful for these children.  This is because the child feels unworthy of praise, and so it may also destroy any trust you have developed. Additionally, they have not developed cause-effect thinking, so cannot understand sanctions relating to inappropriate behaviour.  Addressing the child’s anxiety, can help their behaviour. Using ‘Time-In’ (moving the child closer to you) rather than ‘Time-Out’ can help relieve anxiety and build security.

Create a trusting relationship by having a Key Adult for the child, creating the secure adult-child relationship the child is lacking with their mother/carer.  Bomber (2011) believes teachers can become a surrogate secure base. This key adult can thus start to help the child regulate their emotions, which is vitally important as children who are able to regulate their own emotions and responses are more popular, have fewer behavioural problems, are more emotionally stable, have fewer infectious illnesses and achieve more academically in schools (Gottman et al 2007).  Relationship-based play is a great way to start building a trusting relationship.  This is where the focus of play is on the relationship not a task (such as a jigsaw) – it is about having fun together.

Differentiate the support for each child according to their needs.  This might mean relating to the emotional age of the child, which can often be a lot lower than their chronological age.  They have missed out on early experiences, so give them the chance now. An older child playing with younger children is ok – in fact they could see it as helping the younger ones,

Use praise but make sure you are specific about what you are praising and keep it quite low key – private praise often works better than public praise.  As Geddes states (2006), “Given the brain’s potential for regeneration and growth throughout life, frequent positive feedback can also help to develop and reinforce more positive responses”.


So, now we know the importance of relationships in a child’s early development, let’s do all we can to secure the best mental health for our children. You can make a difference in someone’s life!

We also offer ‘Attachment Awareness’ training in schools  – contact us if you would like any information on this or any other training.

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