Attachment Theories in Social Work Practice

Demonstrating knowledge of relevant Theoretical frameworks (John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Vera Fahlberg), discuss the challenges faced by social care workers in promoting attachment with clients in their agencies. Essay should include practice examples to support your argument.
Introduction

It is the purpose of this essay to discuss the challenges faced by social care workers in promoting attachment with clients in their agencies. This essay will be broken down into three main sections. Firstly, in understanding the basics of attachment theory as a broad outline to the essay, secondly a consideration of attachment theory in particular in relation to the challenges of social work, and thirdly a more specific consideration of attachment in relation to working as a secure unit for boys aged between 12-16, which is the specific situation faced by the author.

Although the essay will be broken down into these three key areas, it is to be expected that there will be a certain amount of overlap between these three areas, and in particular than an understanding of the issues face by social care workers will also be present in the first section as well as the latter two sections.

Understanding Attachment Theory

Attachment theory, in as far as we understand it here has developed largely from the work of Bowlby and subsequently Ainsworth. Green (2003, p13) notes that ‘The attachment framework has for some time now been very influential and relevant to clinicians. As a theory it has offered a systematic way of understanding and measuring a primary, innate need. It lays emphasis on observable interactions that characterise the qualitative aspects of the inter-relationship between two people’. Not only is it relevant to clinicians but also to those working on the field of social care and welfare, as it seeks to both define and to explain the relationship between a care worker and those in care, providing a framework of action and expectation of the eventual result of the transaction of care.

Holmes (1993, p.67) states that ‘attachment theory is in essence a spatial theory: when I am close to my loved one I feel good, when I am far away I am anxious, sad or lonely’. Many of the problems that are dealt with via the means of social care can be often as a result of a lack of this attachment, a disattachment as it were of the individual from the spatial relationship (often, but not necessarily the mother) that has promoted this sense of well-being and comfort. As Simpson and Rholes (1998, p.6) indicate, ‘attachment theory robustly demonstrates, as Steele argues, the need for a secure base. It posits our drive for a warm, safe relationship as a fundamental motivator. Well-being, in the first instance, depends on the maintenance of a secure bond.’ Therefore, attachment behaviour which demonstrates the lack of this bond, such as that potentially demonstrated by young offenders, shows evidence of either the weakness of lack of this bond, and should be rectified.

An important part of this from the social care workers perspective is an awareness of the family unit of the individual within their care. This is particular the case in our current study of adolescents aged between 12-16, recognising that, as do Simpson & Rholes (1998, p.101) that ‘from an attachment point of view the discovery that the children who were classified as securely attached to their mothers with psychiatric symptoms more often developed later problems than did the children who were insecurely attached to symptomatic mothers’. Working with an understanding of the wider family situation therefore is of vital importance in recognising, diagnosing and treating those with such problems.

Attachment Theory and Social Work Challenges

There are, of course, particular challenges brought about by attachment theory in a social work setting. These raise questions that need to be answered by a social care worker in the context of their clients. There is this sense, already mentioned in the previous section, of the history of the client. This is not just to be dealt with by the social care worker, but will often involve a dialogue between the care worker in the client, for as Fahlberg (1991, p.6) notes, ‘it is difficult to grow up as a psychologically healthy adult if one is denied access to one’s own history.’

One particular challenge in promoting attachment in terms of social work is that the client’s social worker will not practically be available in a twenty four hour way in the same that perhaps the person’s primary caregiver has been in the past (although this may not have been the case at all). If the client has a number of different social care workers, this may make it very difficult to promote attachment if the care worker is intended to be viewed as a primary (or only) caregiver. Atwool (1997) notes that ‘consistency in the response of the caregiver is an important factor in building secure attachments. Where the environment is chaotic and the primary caregiver is not available to the child secure attachment will not be possible.’ It is important therefore in such situations and in the context of attachment theory, that as much consideration is given to the availability of the caregiver as possible, and also that there should be a high level of consistency in the behaviour and action of this caregiver, if powerful and successful attachments are to be made.

There may indeed be cases where a social care worker is, for many reasons, potentially the first secure attachment that an individual has had. This may particularly be the case in terms of adolescents who have had a difficult life thus far. Goldberg, et al. (1993, p.45) note how Ainsworth altered our understanding of this issue, in that ‘Ainsworth contributed the concept of the attachment figure as a secure base from which an infant can explore the world’. Social care work therefore, is a challenge, but can itself if successful provide this secure base from which clients can explore the world anew and afresh.

Attachment Theory in a Secure Unit

This third section will focus more specifically on the social work challenges involved in promoting attachment in a secure unit for boys between the ages of 12-16 who are serving sentences of anywhere between one month and four years in detention. Cassidy and Shaver (1999, p.368) note that ‘adolescent boys from father-absent homes tend to show, relative to father-present adolescents, more antagonistic attitudes toward femininity and toward women, exaggerated masculinity, and a “relatively exploitative attitude toward females, with sexual contact appearing important as conquest and as a means of validating masculinity” (Draper and Belsky, 1990)”’. This will not be the case for all such young boys, but for almost all of them there will have been a sense of disattachment, and quite likely a failure in ability to form a narrative competence. This narrative competence, as described by Holmes (1993, p.9) states that ‘securely attached children tell coherent stories about their lives, however difficult they have been, while insecurely attached children have much greater difficulty in narrative competence, either dismissing their past or remaining bogged down in it, and in neither case being able to talk objectively about it.’

Part of the role therefore of social care work in this context is to begin the process of developing this narrative competence while enabling attachment to gradually take place at a much stronger level than it has done before. We now understand that attachment is so much more than just between two people, but that people develop multiple attachments. In the context of the secure unit therefore, it is important to develop the attachments not only between the adolescent and the social care worker, but also to do as much possible to promote the attachments within the family unit. Clearly depending on the history and nature of the family, this may not be practical, but where it can be done, it should be attempted, and can be a major key in breaking the cycle of criminal activity. Holmes (1993, p.66) states that ‘secure attachment provides an external ring of psychological protection which maintains the child’s metabolism in a stable state, similar to the internal physiological homeostatic mechanisms of blood-pressure and temperature control’.

For those 12-16 yr old boys, they are at the cusp of their childhood attachments and towards making attachments as adults, and they should be taught and shown by modelling behaviour how to achieve these secure attachments and to improve their lives. Providing the correct environment is vital, as detention can be seen as a fearful place for young minds. Ainsworth, et al. (1978, p.20) state ‘how crucial it is in a potentially fear-arousing situation to be with a trusted companion, for with such a companion fear of all kinds of situation diminishes, whereas when alone fear is magnified. Attachment figures are one’s most trusted companions’.

Conclusion

We have considered therefore, a basic understanding of attachment theory, as well as applying it in a wider sense to social care work. We have also considered some specific challenges of application of attachment theory in the case of a secure unit of young offenders. Attachment theory has much to offer social care work, but there are also challenges in promoting attachment in a social care setting.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E. & Wall, S., 1978, Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum

Atwool, N, 2003. Attachment as a Context for Development: Challenges and Issues

Available at: http://www.thelizlibrary.org/liz/attachment.html [Accessed 25th October 2008].

Cassidy, J. & Shaver, P.R., 1999, Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. New York: Guilford

Fahlberg, V.I., 1991, A Child’s Journey Through Placement. Indianapolis: Perspective Press

Green, V., 2003, Emotional Development in Psychoanalysis, Attachment Theory and Neuroscience: Creating Connections. New York: Brunner-Routledge

Goldberg, S. Muir, R. & Kerr, J., 1993, Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental, and Clinical Perspectives. New York: Routledge

Holmes, J., 1993, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London: Routledge

Howe, D., 1995, Attachment Theory in Social Work Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Simpson, J.A. & Rholes, W.S., 1998, Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. New York: Guilford