The relevance of attachment theory in care proceedings

Mark Allerton, Director Children’s Court Clinic, 12 December 2012

Attachment theory is now generally accepted in the field of child psychology. Following considerable empirical and research validation, it has become a pivotal consideration in the field of child protection and in care and protection proceedings in courts. Under the theory, the earliest bonds formed by children with their primary caregiver/s (particularly before 4 years of age) have a tremendous impact (affecting neurological, physical, cognitive, emotional and social development), which continues throughout life. The theory is most important tenet is that an infant needs to establish a positive relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally, and that further relationships build on the patterns developed in these early experiences.

[1-0050] Definition of attachment

The research literature on child development defines attachment as a relationship pattern between a child and a caregiver. Attachment behaviour anticipates a response by the attachment figure(s), to tune in to the child’s needs for attention, and to remove any perceived threat or discomfort. John Bowlby, who originated the theory, proposed that healthy attachment relationships provide a “secure base”, allowing for the safe resolution of an infant’s need for survival from danger, with the need to learn through exploration (Bowlby,1988).

Attachment behaviours are the means by which infants elicit care and protection. Children are not born attached to their caregivers, but learn how to have their needs met by their experience of being parented (Stafford and Zeanah, 2006). The attachment relationship also helps an infant or young child learn how to manage unsettling emotions. Different patterns and degrees of security of attachment to caregivers result from each individual child’s adaptation to the quality of parenting he or she has received. For example, when the mother has returned after an unexpected separation, a child with a secure attachment (who has learnt to expect comfort when distressed) might cry and want to be picked up, then is comforted and able to settle. A child with an avoidant attachment style (who has learnt to expect rejection or punishment when distressed) might pretend to ignore the mother. A child with an ambivalent attachment style (for whom comforting has been unpredictable) might appear to seek relief from the parent, but resist what soothing is offered, to the point of being inconsolable. The difficulties with these “normal” attachment styles will be complicated in children and infants exposed to high risk environments, where parents are the source of alarm as well as its only solution. These infants and young children, on reunion may show behaviours that appear puzzling, or “disorganised”. They may, for example, withdraw and not seek comfort at all, or may seek comfort from a stranger. Such confusing behaviour might be interpreted as signs of disruptive attachment disorders.

Attachment behaviour, or what is learnt about how to elicit a response to a need for caregiving, provides a foundation for the child’s later mental health, including the ability to manage emotions and impulses, socialisation, cognitive and academic abilities, and personality development.

Relevance to care matters

Awareness of the potential harm that can be inflicted by breaking attachments will influence a court’s decisions relating to the following matters:

  • Removal

  • Safety

  • Emergency placement orders

  • Contact

  • Restoration or long-term care

  • Cultural identity

  • Adoption

  • Sibling placements

  • Permanency planning.

Courts may need to weigh the relative risks of physical, emotional or sexual harm, whether associated with parental mental illness, learning problems, alcohol and other drug dependence, or exposure to domestic violence, against the potential harm that may result from breaking a child’s attachments. The requirement for expedition in care proceedings (as stated in s 94(1) Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998) is a legislative acknowledgement of the critical importance of early secure attachments for young children. One of the reasons for reducing these risk factors (all of which may contribute to attachment problems) will be to provide a safe, nurturing, stable and secure environment that will allow for the safe development of more secure attachments.

Understanding an infant or young child’s attachment patterns can indicate something of the quality of care he or she has received, and of his or her vulnerability to changes in caregivers. Decisions about maintenance of attachments during temporary and long-term placements will also have a significant impact on the child’s present and future adjustment. These decisions may consider such factors as:

  • Amount of time spent in the care of a parent or other caregiver

  • Numbers of placements

  • The quality of the relationships with parents compared to the quality of the relationships with foster carers.

Attachments and changes in placement

The breaking of a positive and secure attachment between a child and primary caregiver/s during the early years of the child’s life can have a seriously detrimental effect on social and emotional development. To break an attachment is distressing, and can potentially place a child at risk. Transient effects are expected when the first change in placement occurs before 6–9 months of age. After 9–12 months of age, there will be distress, with longer-term effects of the change increasing with the child’s age. From 1 to 3 years, separation is a traumatic loss and a developmental crisis. Even if the loss occurs after approximately 3–5 years of age, some persistent insecurity in new relationships is to be expected (IASA, 2012).

Children who have had secure attachments adapt to change more easily than children who have had insecure relationships with their caregivers. When the prior relationship included either abuse or neglect, affecting the quality of the child’s attachments, then the change process is likely to be more difficult, ambivalent, and attenuated. Children can manage to believe that their current placement is permanent through one or two changes. With additional changes, it becomes increasingly difficult for children to form a committed relationship with the new caregiver, because their prior experience prepares them to expect disruption. This means that each successive placement is more likely to fail than previous placements. The changes are likely to be accompanied by an initial “honeymoon”, followed by outbursts of uncontrolled anger, fear, or desire for comfort. The last of these is sometimes displayed as inappropriate sexualised behaviour or indiscriminate affection. Outcomes will vary, but effects of broken attachments may include mental health, behavioural, achievement and relationship problems throughout the lifespan.

Assessments of attachments

The research and clinical literature suggests different ways that attachments are to be assessed. However, it indicates that assessment should involve the integration of an understanding of a child’s history and physical, social and language development, behaviour, mental health, social learning and education, with careful observations of the child with prospective caregivers. Conclusions about the child’s attachment relationships will then be integrated with findings about the child’s needs and the caregivers’ resources. This will help to understand the child, and also the persons who have, or are seeking, parental responsibility.


Bowlby J, A secure base: clinical applications of attachment theory, Routledge, London, 1988.

International Association for the Study of Attachment (IASA), Family Court Protocol, < 2012>, accessed 20 June 2013.

Stafford BS and Zeanah CH, “Attachment disorders” in Luby, JL (ed) Handbook of preschool mental health: development, disorders, and treatment, The Guilford Press, New York, 2006.