The CTR Therapeutic Bookends (Part 2-A):  Understanding and Strengthening Attachment

By Chuck Geddes, Ph.D.

In our clinical work we are often referred children or youth from our foster care system or from stressed adoptions who exhibit extremely challenging behaviour and who seem to have a bewildering array of difficulties.  We’ve found that our first priority must be to help to calm the child’s over-reactive stress response system.  Second, we’ve found that we must provide positive attachment experiences geared to the particular attachment style and needs of that child. Within CTR we have referred to these as the “Therapeutic Bookends” of Decreasing Stress and Strengthening Attachment.  What we have seen over and over again is that if our plan addresses both of these goals then we will be successful.  If we miss either one, we will usually be frustrated. In a previous blog I wrote about Decreasing Stress.  This blog will focus on Strengthening Attachment and it will be divided into two parts. If you haven’t yet read my previous blogs I encourage you to read them first to have some context for our work:

The children we encounter in our foster and adoptive systems often come from a place of many losses.  The have lost connections with their birth parents and other primary caregivers due to trauma and neglect, and their difficult behaviour may have led to placement breakdown after placement breakdown.  These experiences have a profound effect on how the child views the world, others (adults and caregivers), and how the child views themselves (shame-based identity – more on this in another blog). The children and youth we see are heart-broken.  The adults in their lives have often been fickle, cruel, abusive, emotionally distant, and punitive.  So what do the children learn and how does this change their view of the world?  The world becomes a scary place when the adults around you are scary. Adults, even parents and close relatives, may not be trusted.  The child has been betrayed in their most intimate relationships and may be very slow to open up again.

Now, of course, none of that is news to those of us working with or caring for children from “hard places” (term used by Karyn Purvis). We know that these children have “attachment issues”, and that term gets thrown around a lot. Many foster and adoptive parents that we know recognize this immediately and can’t wait to get started loving those kids. Unfortunately, the loving intention of the parent is not always enough. For one thing, the prolonged lack of safety experienced in the child’s lives often leaves them with a highly reactive and perpetually aroused stress response system.  (Remember our Therapeutic Bookends? If we don’t pay attention to Decreasing Stress then love alone won’t be enough.)

Paradoxically, the loving approach of a caring and responsible adult can be highly stressful and the child may react in ways that are baffling to the adult – lashing out or pushing away in a dramatic way. For some adults this rejection is not just baffling but it is also hurtful.   It can be hard to remember that the child is stressed and that they’ve been so badly hurt that their trust needs to be built ever so slowly – not unlike approaching a wounded wild animal.

When we talk about Strengthening Attachment we are referring to how we help the caregivers and parents to build a secure attachment within the child and to counteract the years of insecure or disorganizing attachment experiences.  Our goal is to talk to foster and adoptive parents in terms that they can easily understand and to give them ideas that they can easily put into practice. Let’s begin with some background on how we think about attachment.


Some Background on Attachment

How children and youth interact with others is largely influenced by the degree to which they have experienced loving and attuned care. In the normal development of a child, the relationship with a parent or main caregiver(s) is the prism through which all early experience is shaped and understood.  It is in these relationships that a child experiences pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort, joy and sadness, connection and abandonment, love and loss.  Through these relationships the child builds a sense of themselves, of others, and of the world1. These important early relationships teach the child whether relationships are safe, pleasurable, trustworthy, and predictable. It is also in this relationship that the child’s physiological and neurological being adjusts to and learns about the world. Good enough caregiving in the early years helps create stable and secure children who eagerly explore their environments, as well helping in the development of healthy stress response systems.

While positive attachment experiences contribute to a healthy degree of neurological maturation and development2, insecure attachment does not.  Caregiving which is inadequate, neglectful, emotionally rejecting or abusive can have a profound impact on all aspects of development, and on the acquisition of all types of developmental skills – language, thinking, emotion, behaviour, empathy, and social relationships3.

Insecure or disorganized attachments set a pattern for unhealthy relationships which the child believes are normal and acceptable.  Children with these backgrounds may have trouble reading social cues from others and experience difficulties in establishing or maintaining relationships.  For many such children personal boundaries are lacking or confused4 and this often becomes a common theme for children who have experienced interpersonal trauma5. In particular, some children remain rigid, not allowing others to get close, while for others, the opposite is true: they let others in too quickly, having weak boundaries and few healthy limits.

Attachment between caregivers and children, especially at vital developmental periods, serves to regulate the child’s emotional experiences. These attachment experiences also give the child a sense of their own worth and a “gut feeling” of whether they are lovable.  Children learn a particular pattern of relationship from their primary caregiver(s) and, over time, a child’s attachment style influences their patterned behaviours toward others6.

Part 2 of The CTR Therapeutic Bookends: Strengthening Attachment is now available. We will look at how insecure attachment styles are developed and how parents and caregivers can create secure attachment by addressing the child’s unique attachment needs.

If you’d like more information on Strengthening Attachment or in depth discussion on working with insecure and reactive attachment you may wish to consider joining CTR as  member —  CLICK HERE NOW.

  1. Schore, 2010
  2. Perry & Dobson, 2009
  3. Perry & Pollard, 1998; Schore, 2010
  4. Casaneuva, et al., 2011
  5. Cook, et. al., 2005.
  6. 6. Herman, 1997; Hughes, 2006
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    About the author

    Dr. Chuck Geddes

    Dr. Chuck Geddes is a registered psychologist and the Clinical Director of Complex Trauma Resources. To learn more about him click here

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