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Foster Carers' TSD Standards covered:

Author Details


Name: Amber Elliot

Job Title: Clinical Psychologist and PAFCA Creator

Current place of work: PAFCA and The Child Psychology Service, Lichfield

Attachment Theory is one of the most influential theories that informs the work of adopters and foster carers. It provides a great theoretical foundation and many of the recent advances in caring for abused and neglected children have stemmed from this theoretical approach. This article offers a summary of the most influential researchers and writers in the area, an overview of the different attachment styles, including; parenting styles which trigger them, and typical child behaviours.

Key figures:

There are many names that you may associate with understandings of attachment theory. Here is a summary of the key figures.

John Bowlby (1,2 & 3) was the man who developed attachment theory in the 1940s and 50s. His ideas stemmed from the ideas of Freud and his colleagues in that he formally and empirically demonstrated that children who experienced emotional difficulties in early life often went on to suffer psychological, behavioural and mental difficulties in later life. He went on to draw more precise conclusions about the predictable pattern of distress behaviour displayed by babies when they were separated from their mothers, even for short periods.

Bowlby moved on to conclude, from his observations, that babies form a strong bond with their primary carers which, when broken, causes immediate distress and the potential for long-term psychological damage.

Mary Ainsworth (4) worked as a researcher with John Bowlby and then went on to contribute significantly to our current understanding of attachment, particularly the attachment style classifications that we use today (see Attachment Styles Map).

Ainsworth developed this classification system via her use of “The Strange Situation” protocol. This is an experimental procedure that enabled her and her colleagues to assess the reactions of young children to separation and reunion with their primary caregiver.

This ability to classify attachment behaviours has contributed to a better understanding of optimal and problematic parenting and therefore enabled us to improve our childcare strategies and parenting interventions.

Ainsworth also developed the idea of “Internal Working Models” which is the premise that infants’ experience of their relationship with their primary caregiver becomes internalised as a template for future relationships. This template provides us with expectations of our involvement in relationships by enabling us to hold an idea of, ourselves, other people and the relationship between ourselves and others. It therefore gives us a guide as to how to judge, our own behaviour, other people’s behaviour, our lovability and self-worth and others’ emotional availability, interest and ability to protect. In summary, the idea of internal working models helped to extend our understanding of how our experience as infants extends into our relationship patterns throughout life.

The ability to classify attachment styles was taken further by researchers such as Jay Belsky (5) and Pat Crittenden (6).

Attachment Pattern map v. 2

Summary of Attachment Styles:

Attachment Styles are patterns of adaptive (i.e. sensible and helpful) ways for a child to respond and adapt to the environment into which they are born. Children develop their attachment styles by the age of 3 years old; this is often called the critical period (link to glossary) developing attachments. Therefore, the pattern developed in the first three years of life is then fixed unless therapeutic parenting or intervention is used to change the person’s way of relating.

The following is a summary of the four basic attachment strategies.

1. Secure Attachment

Securely attached children are confident to approach their carers and expect that their distress will be understood and responded to unconditionally. This sense of trust extends into the child’s expectations of other relationships.

Research indicates that 55% of the population display a secure attachment pattern (7 & 8).

2. Avoidant Attachment

Children who have an avoidant attachment pattern have learnt that their emotions are not responded to empathically. Such children have learnt to anticipate that expressions of their emotions will anger or irritate their carer. Their cries, anger, neediness or frustrations have typically been ignored or punished and so their attachment seeking behaviour has generated the opposite of what is needed from their carer i.e. distance rather than closeness.

In order to cope with such parenting, children who have an avoidant attachment have learnt that in order to avoid distance and have the best chance of proximity to their carer they should deny and/or repress their emotional needs i.e. they minimise their attachment behaviour and become insular. This can be seen as a “flight” strategy.

Children who display avoidant attachment are, at least, able to work out an organised way of achieving some access to their attachment figure.

Research indicates that 23% of the population display an avoidant attachment pattern (7 & 8).

Typical Avoidant Attachment presentations:

  • Detachment in relationships;
  • Excessive independence;
  • Disappearing into a bubble;
  • Eating disorders;
  • Self-harm;
  • Depression etc.

3. Ambivalent (or Resistant) Attachment

Children who show an ambivalent attachment style have typically experienced a primary carer who is inconsistent and unreliable in their ability to meet the child’s emotional needs. This may be due to the adult’s preoccupation with their own difficulties, for example depression, drug and/or alcohol use or more subtle difficulties in tuning into the meaning of the emotional expressions of their child (which can be due to the adult’s own attachment difficulties).

Children with an ambivalent approach will work very hard to get their needs met by their primary carer by any means necessary e.g. angry, exaggerated, threatening, clinging behaviours. This is borne of a learnt expectation that they are undeserving of automatic, unsolicited attention.

When such children are successful in gaining the attention of their hard-to-reach carer they are typically angry and rejecting of that carer, thus resulting in a constant “push-pull” battle between children with an ambivalent attachment and their carers. This simultaneous anger and desperate need for the care of another person is constantly infuriating for such children. This can be seen as a “fight” strategy.

Children who display ambivalent attachment are, at least, able to work out an organised way of achieving some access to their attachment figure.

Typical Ambivalent Attachment presentations:

  • Overreaction to hurts;
  • Excess energy;
  • Difficulty in regulating emotion, all emotions go straight to maximum level;
  • ADHD;
  • Anxiety and reassurance seeking etc.

Research indicates that 8% of the whole population display an ambivalent attachment pattern (7 & 8).

4. Disorganised Attachment

The most extreme and disturbing style of attachment is the Disorganised pattern. This is typically displayed by children exposed to a parenting style which does not allow them to develop a “safe” response to their attachment needs i.e. their carer is typically the cause of their distress as well as being the child’s only figure for resolving distress.

No matter what the child does in response to their own needs it does not bring proximity, safety and comfort from their primary carer.

Children who have a disorganised attachment will typically be somewhat bizarre in their way of relating to others because they have not learnt any clear way to relate and regulate their emotion through relating. They can show chaotic, confused, incoherent and angry ways of relating to others. This can often be seen as a “freeze” strategy.

Typical Disorganised Attachment presentations.

The only thing that is typical is the atypical nature of the behaviour. Behaviours may include any of those cited in the previous sections.

Children will often be:

  • Chaotic;
  • Fearful;
  • Angry;
  • Dissociative;
  • Often the behaviours will have a bizarre element to them;

Research indicates that 15% of the whole population display a disorganised attachment pattern (7 & 8).

PAFCA's Attachment Theory Top 5 Tips


Understand and recognise from the information above which attachment pattern your child is most likely to be displaying.

Understand your child’s behaviour in light of their earlier experience. Their “problem behaviours” are likely to be attempts to solve the relationship problem they had when they were tiny. For example, excess energy is a good solution for dealing with a hard-to-reach-carer (ambivalent attachment), while self-harm can be a necessary way of dealing with distress when it cannot be communicated to a rejecting carer (avoidant attachment). Finally, seemingly inexplicable anger can be a sensible reaction to internal and relational chaos.

Attempts to discipline your child out of an attachment strategy using reward-punishment strategies are rarely successful. They will result in either diverting the need to another (perhaps more severe) strategy or making the original problem worse as it increases the need for attachment behaviour.

If your child is displaying a behaviour that is attachment-seeking (according to their particular pattern) don’t feel you need to overtly stop them, give them as much access to you as you can without burning yourself out. Empathy is the key!

Be aware of your own attachment style (we all have one!). Use the information above to work out how your attachment behaviours clash with and/or compliment those of your child.

Reading List

  1. Attachment and Loss: Volume 1
  2. Attachment and Loss: Volume 2
  3. Attachment and Loss: Volume 3
  4. The strange situation
  5. Maternal, infant, and social-contextual determinants of attachment security
  6. Internal representational models of attachment relationships
  7. Intergenerational transmission of parenting
  8. Attachment representations in mothers, fathers, adolescents, and clinical groups
  9. Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern.

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