Attachment Theory: Concept Of Attachment In Relation To Social Workers

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Attachment in Social Work
  2. The Essence of Attachment Theory and Its Relevance to Social Workers
  3. John Bowlby's Pioneering Work on Attachment Theory
  4. Applying Attachment Theory in Social Work: Case Studies and Strategies
  5. Challenges and Limitations of Using Attachment Theory in Social Work
  6. Case Study Analysis: Practical Application of Attachment Theory

Introduction to Attachment in Social Work

Social work is a profession which aims to improve the lives of people by supporting them with social needs, personal difficulties, promoting human rights and wellbeing. Social workers also protect vulnerable people from harm. (BASW 2015) In this essay, I will be illustrating how social workers do this through the use of the concept of attachment. I will also be analysing how the concept of attachment is beneficial for social workers as well as highlighting some limitations. In order to do this, I will be demonstrating how social workers use the concept of attachment in relation to children and families and I will be giving some examples of how attachment theory is used in social work practice today by using a case study.

The Essence of Attachment Theory and Its Relevance to Social Workers

Attachment is a type of emotional bond which is made between a mother and a child from when a child is born. It is usually the ‘main’ person that is consistently meets a child’s needs. This connection does not come to an end after birth but continues and has an impact on relationships for the rest of a person’s life. (Bowlby, 1969). According to Lopez (2009), attachment is made up of three factors which consists of the mental construct that permits a relationship with a sense of belonging and unconditionality to form, the emotional bond that happiness and well-being brings, and an attachment behaviour system focused on maintaining privileged contact. It is essential for social workers to use attachment theory in practice as it helps social workers organise their thoughts, understanding and views of a situation regarding children and families for example.

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John Bowlby's Pioneering Work on Attachment Theory

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby (1953) who was interested in understanding the anxiety and distress that children experience as a result of being separated from the primary caregivers. Bowlby believed that there are four types of characteristics of attachment which include proximity maintenance so the desire to be near to people that we are connected to and a safe haven which is returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of fear and threat. It also includes secure base so the attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment and lastly separation distress which is anxiety that happens in the absence of the attachment figure.

Applying Attachment Theory in Social Work: Case Studies and Strategies

These characteristics highlighted by Bowlby are useful for social workers as research illustrates that social workers may temporarily need to offer a ‘safe haven’ and ‘secure base’ as a form of support for children and families so they can have someone to help them feel safe when they are going through a struggle. Social workers then support them, so they can get back to a place where they can be more independent by the supporting themselves again so support family members towards change for the better. An example, of how a social worker may do this is by putting a child into foster care. Therefore, the theory also illustrates that if a social worker has an insecure childhood history themselves, they will need to understand how the past is likely to have an effect on their ability to be a secure base as they have a duty to provide a secure base and safe haven’t for families. (Community Care ,2015)

Furthermore, what Bowlby (1953) found that attachment was characterized by clear behavioural and motivation patterns. When children are frightened, they will seek care and a loving relationship from their primary caregiver in order to receive comfort. Therefore, Bowlby illustrated three propositions about attachment theory which included that when children are raised with confidence that their parent or caregiver will be available to them, they are less likely to experience fear than those who are raised in a neglectful manner. Secondly, he suggested that this confidence is formed during infancy and childhood which is a vital period of development. The expectations that are formed in relation to attachment during this period tend to remain unchanged for the rest of a person’s life. Lastly, Bowlby believed that these expectations that are formed are linked to what a person has experienced.

Bowlby’s Attachment theory is an important concept for social worker as the ability for carers to provide secure attachment and emotional warmth is an essential concept of any assessment taken by children services in the United Kingdom as their wellbeing is essential to their development. This is shown in the policy guidance in the Framework assessment of children in need and their families (Department of Health, 2000). Therefore, attachment is important in order to make links between children’s emotional development and behaviour as well as the quality of their relationships with their carers. (Trevithick 2000). Attachment theory also enables social workers form interventions which recognise the need for enhanced relationships that are more supportive and consistent. (Howe ,2000).

Challenges and Limitations of Using Attachment Theory in Social Work

Despite this even though attachment offers a framework of theory and research about patterns of thinking, behaviour and relationships social workers must also consider other aspects of a service users’ life. For example, the assessment triangle determined by the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families (2000) as shown in London safeguarding Children’s Board (2017) is used by social workers takes and ecological approach to assessment as it highlights child’s development needs, parenting capacity as well as family and environmental factors. The ecological approach highlights the importance of interrelating different aspects of a child’s life which come together to form an individual’s world which includes things from a microsystem such as immediate family, mesosystem such as education, social welfare and hospital and wider society things within wider society and much more is taken into consideration. (Bronfenbrenner 1979). This demonstrates that even though attachment is central to the assessment triangle it must be understood with a range of other key factors that interact to form the individual holistic health.

In the 1970s psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1991) expanded on this in her study of ‘stranger situation’ which revealed the effects of attachment on behaviour. In this study researchers observed children as they responded to a being left alone for a short period of time and then re-united with their mother or caregiver. As a result of this study Ainsworth introduced four types of attachment which included secure attachment. Securely attached children feel confident their parent or care giver will meet their needs. This is because they distressed when separated from their mother and happy when they return. If a social worker was to observe a child who acts in this way, they would not be worried as infants that develop a secure attachment usually have caregivers that are sensitive to their signals and responds appropriately to their needs. (Main, & Solomon, 1990).

Another type of attachment is avoidant attachment and children who have this type of attachment with their caregiver do not seek contact with them when distressed. When offered a choice, these children will show no preference between their mother and a complete stranger. Children that develop an avoidant attachment usually have parents or caregivers who are insensitive and reject their needs. (Stevenson-Hinde, and Verschueren, 2002). Social workers would relate this attachment style to a child being a victim of abuse or neglect. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.

Ambivalent attachment is another form of attachment and this is when a child is clingy and has dependant behaviour but will sometimes be rejecting of the attachment figure. Ambivalently attached children usually become very distressed when a parent leaves. This type of attachment may be the result of poor parent availability (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007). A social worker who observes a child is ambivalently attached their mother may conclude that the child cannot depend on their mother to be there when they are in need.

The last type of attachment is disorganized attachment and children with this type of attachment usually develop a confusing mix of behaviour which may come across as disoriented or confused. Children may both want or resist the caregiver or parent. This lack of clear attachment pattern may be the result of inconsistent behaviour from the parent or caregiver. This may be because the parent may serve as both a source of comfort as well as a source of fear, leading to disorganized behaviour. Social workers see disorganised attachment is a more reliable indicator of maltreatment due to a caregiver’s inconsistent behaviour towards the child. (David and Yvonne Shemmings,2011).

Ainsworths attachment theory is useful for social workers when working with children and families as they must understand the inner world of children and their carers. For example, they need to have a good understanding and be aware of children’s experience of unpredictability, anxiety provoking behaviour from cruel or violent behaviour leading to constant fear. As illustrated in Ainsworths attachment theory these experiences may show themselves as disorganised attachment behaviour. (Community Care ,2015)

Despite this even though Ainsworths attachment theory demonstrates how you can have an insight into a child and caregivers’ relationship it tends to focus on one primary figure of attachment which is most likely the mother. However, it could be possible for children to form attachments with other people in their lives such as father or auntie. Also, developing relationships with other people alongside the attachment figure is important, this is because having to rely on the caregiver relationship of one person can be harmful. This is because it results in dependency on one person and does not allow other relationships to be formed with others which can then affect a child’s social and emotional development. Furthermore, social workers will work with people who form attachments with variety of different people and the family’s they work with are dynamic therefore it could be a misleading guide. (Walker and Crawford, 2010).

Furthermore, Ainsworths Attachment theory is also useful for social workers when working with children and families as it informs them of the likely impact on individuals of their experience of problematic parenting such as abuse, neglect, separation and loss. Therefore, social workers can use this knowledge to teach parents or carers to care for children in a way which is secure, and which will in the future assist children to develop good role models and compensate for previous negative experiences. However, although social workers are often asked by agencies and courts to ‘assess the attachment between ‘a child and their carer giver they would not rely on this alone to justify removing a child from their current care environment. Assessment of attachment is part of a holistic assessment of a child’s life. (Allen, 2005)

However, Ainsworths types of attachment could be misunderstood and in social work practice one way in which they assess a child’s attachment to their carers is through professional judgement that without specific training can lead to misinterpretation (Milner and O’Byrne 2002). For example, assessment observations of insecure or anxious children who have been neglected may witness children who retreat to the caregiver when they are upset and cling to the caregiver most of the time. This relationship may be mistaken and describes as a “strong attachment bond” whereas actually the relationship is not secure. (Schofield and Beek, 2006).

Case Study Analysis: Practical Application of Attachment Theory

In order to illustrate how attachment is used in social work practice today I will be referring to a case study which I created. The facts of the case involve of a 2-year-old girl named Joanna who is currently not attending any nursery or play school and a 5-year-old boy named Jordan who is currently in year 1. Their father is absent, and they are currently living with their mother who is 24-years old in a one bedroom flat. Her mother dropped out of school at the age of 14 and does not currently have a permanent job. She was also a looked after child and suffers from borderline personality disorder. Furthermore, her mother has history of violence and convictions. When Jordan goes to school he comes across as quite reserved and seems hungry as he steals other people’s lunches. Also, while the mother is at work which is most of everyday Joanna is either left with a relative or friend but the care in inconsistent as the mother cannot afford childcare. Upon social work visits it was noticed that Joanna has bruising on her arm and when addressed it was noticed that her mother fails to take them to hospital or to see a doctor when they are ill or hurt. As a result, the children are now referred as children who are in need under the Children Act 1989 section 17.

Attachment theory is an essential concept that a social worker would have to consider in the case above especially when working with children and families. This is because it is shown that Jordan and Joanna’s relationship with their mother is distant and the mothers parenting skills comes across as inadequate. As evident in the case study it does not come across as if Joanna would have a close bond with her mother as they do not spend enough time together. Furthermore, a social worker may recognise signs of abuse and neglect within the relationship as she has bruising on her arm and is not taken to the doctor when necessary. Therefore, it looks as though she has more of a disorganised attachment as suppose to a secure attachment. This is because it looks as though the mother is not always their when she needs her and there are allegations of abuse. Also, this would have a negative impact on her socially physically and emotionally as it is argued that infants should not be separated from their mothers for long periods of time. (Walker, 2017) Social workers may use these ideas to support Joanna as through knowing this they will know what type of questions to ask her and what direction to take the conversation as well as what services to refer to .

Also, it is shown in the case study that Jordan is reserved and hungry when he is at school. For social workers this may illustrate that he has an avoidant attachment with his mother and is maybe being neglected at home. This is because people who have an avoidant attachment type with their care giver are usually independent and uncomfortable with intimacy so keep to themselves. (Mason and Fattore, 2005). This would also have a negative effect on Jordan’s social and emotional development as it is argued that how we are, and our wellbeing depend on how we experience early relationships (Payne,2014). One way in which a social worker can support Jordan in this situation is through providing his mother the opportunity to watch herself parenting on film with a sensitive support worker as it is known as one of the most effective attachment-based intervention. Through watching the video together, the social worker can support the parent’s strengths while encouraging new parenting styles and sensitively- directed discipline. (Community Care ,2015).

Furthermore, as the mother was a looked after child herself and suffers from borderline personality disorder this may explain her behaviour to an extent towards her children. Child hood is a crucial time to our emotional development so if it is jeopardised in one way or another it may have a negative impact on the way you form relationships for the rest of your life. Our parents who are our primary attachment figures play an important role in how we experience the world as they lay the foundation of what the world is going to look like for us. (Psych Central, 2016). However, as the mother was a looked after child, she did not have this foundation so may struggle to form a secure attachment with her children which has had a negative impact on her family. A social worker may use these ideas to support the mother support her children by offering her both individual and family counselling.

Despite the use of attachment theory to support this family a social worker may also have to use another theory such as Ecological system theory as there are other systems or institutions such as education, family members and health factors within their environment which interact and have an effect on their development and general holistic health. (Bronfenbrenner,1979)

Also, while a social worker is working with this family and children and families in general, they should uphold anti-oppressive practice so therefore provide services in an inclusive manner. Social workers should be mindful of the experience and not the judge the situation even though it may be different from their own. Even though they may have done t

Things differently they should still try help and support them. (Domineli , 2002)

To conclude, the concept of attachment in relation to social workers is useful as its fundamental in social work practice as it can help social workers make sense of behaviour of service users across the lifespan that otherwise may be impossible to do. Also, it provides a framework for understanding relationships in the lives of service users. It is also beneficial for social workers because as it is a well-researched and evidence-based area of study social workers can use it to help undertake assessments, planning, interventions and making decisions that can improve the quality of lives of children and families. However, it is not a concept which can be used in isolation for social workers but instead be used alongside other concepts such as an ecological form of practice. Also, attachment theory is too restricted to the mother being the primary caregiver but that is not always the case especially with the people social workers work with as it is a diverse range of people. Furthermore, the word ‘attachment’ is a complex word and it could sometimes be challenging to apply to different situations.

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