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Attachment, Safety & Identity

What is attachment? 

When babies are born, they need to attach to their primary caregiver in order to keep safe both physically and emotionally. This parent-child bond is a two-way thing and Bowlby, who is well known for the theory of attachment, proposed that the way we experience relationships with our primary caregivers early in life, creates the foundations for other key relationships later in our lives. When a baby is born their parents are designed with an inbuilt sense of caregiving and in response, the child uses their inbuilt attachment behaviours to ensure their parents attend to them.  

Attachment is “an affectionate bond between two individuals that endures through space and time and serves to join them emotionally.” (Klaus & Kennell, 1976)

Attachment is a response to danger

If you think about it, in the wild, animals have to react to danger quickly, otherwise they don’t survive. Young animals need to stay near their parents otherwise they are in danger of starvation or predation. When human babies are newly born, they are dependent on parents for everything and they need to have a safe caregiver in order to survive. They need a caregiver who is available and that doesn’t just mean present physically, but also emotionally available.


Imagine having parents who don’t look at you or cuddle you? Babies need comfort as well as physical protection. If they don’t think that they will get these things, then they develop subconscious ways of behaving so that they can be sure that their parents remember to attend to them and meet their needs. They quickly form ways to attract attention, for example they may cry or move their limbs. Later they will smile, gurgle and generally learn to act cute so that adults stay close by. Then if all else fails they might retreat and withdraw into their shell, perhaps inhibiting any emotion. Here lies a more serious problem: fear of rejection. They organise their behaviours around not being rejected. Other children organise their behaviours around not having to be separated. A cycle of need, fulfilment, rupture and repair forms.

Attachment cycle.png

“This crucial relationship at the beginning of a child’s life forms the basis of all subsequent relationships for the child throughout their lives. The quality of a child’s attachment can be compromised by outside factors and interfere with healthy development.”

(Vera Fahlberg,1999)

The dance:


Attachment has been likened to a dance where two people are in step with each other. This has been named the dance of attunement. When a parent and child are attuned, the parent is available to meet the child’s needs and the child feels able to easily make their needs known to the parent. An attuned parent will be aware of when the baby needs something and will generally respond appropriately at the right time. Other parents will have experienced a lot of danger when they were young and so may not be able to pick up the signals of distress that their baby shows. Of course, no parent is perfect, and parents are not right about their baby’s needs all of the time. 

What we might notice:


Attachment difficulties often go hand in hand with developmental trauma. Poorly attuned care in itself can be very traumatic. When we meet children or young people who have not had good, attuned care early in life, they may noticeably struggle with security in their relationships. We may spot that they are withdrawn, or even super well behaved in order to please others. They may even be the one to always be comforting or caring for others in the group. That sounds lovely on the surface but it can be a sign of an inner need to mask their own needs by caring for others. On the other hand we nearly always notice those young people in our group that are loud, aggressive, coming up close and personal to others all the time or generally behaving in a way that gets them noticed. 

Attachment is dynamic:

More recently attachment theory has developed further by Dr. Crittenden in the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment (DMM) to focus on the function of behaviours. Many behaviours serve the purpose of gaining either safety, comfort or stability. By focussing on the underlying reasons for behaviours, we will grow to understand what drives the children or young people that we are working with. It can help us to understand ourselves better as well. Most of us value our relationships and want to preserve them and so we try to do that in the best way we can. However due to our past experiences we might either act out of fear of separation or out of fear of rejection. These driving fears can lead us to behave in unhealthy ways in our interpersonal relationships. 


Supporting those with attachment difficulties:

The first thing we need to do is learn to spot those who are struggling. It is very common to label those young people who are loud, aggressive and overtly demanding as having behaviour problems. It is important to notice those young people who mask their difficulties by putting on a good show or retreating too.

  • Try to think of behaviours as attachment seeking not attention seeking. The best thing we can do is try to find out what happened. 

  • Getting to know the family and support the whole family is vital for a good outcome.

  • Try to create teams of healthy attachment figures: the more safe, secure adults a child/YP has around them, the better they thrive.

  • Showing unconditional love/positive regard is always the way to go.

  • Pray for them.

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