How Styles of Attachment can impact children who have experienced abuse and neglect

Attachment theory explains how children’s early relationships effect their development and their capacity to form later relationships. It also helps explain why children who have had a poor start to relationships with others or who have experienced seriously compromised care, behave in troubling and challenging ways. Early care and attachment become the blueprint not only for a child’s future relationships but also sets the internal working model for how they interpret the world and themselves. From the research in attachment, there are four attachment styles; Secure, which is the optimal style and is developed when the primary caregiver responds most of the time to the child’s earlier needs. The other three styles sit within the Insecure Style and are Avoidant, Ambivalent and Disorganised. A child who has an Insecure Attachment Style has experienced compromised care that has been confusing for them and they learn to manage stressful situations in unhelpful ways such as withdrawing or shutting down, aggressive and acting out behaviour or a combination of the two. A child who has a disorganised attachment style has found their caregiver frightening or frightened. Because many children in the out of home care system have suffered experiences of abuse and neglect, they often display insecure attachment behaviours which tells us about how they view themselves and the world.

A child’s attachment is based on how they expect their caregivers to respond when they show distress, and these are internalised in the form of mental models of others and themselves. Children with insecure attachment styles see the world as dangerous and unpredictable and themselves as bad, unworthy of love and care. These children may sometimes resist forming attachments by either actively detaching or alienating themselves with destructive behaviours with the intention of damaging relationships to “prove” their internal models. Alternatively, they may appear emotionally needy and seem starved of attention or behave in an overly affectionate or over-friendly manner.

Modern attachment research informs us that attachment styles can change over time and attachment is on a continuum. It considers the relationships children may form with other adults such as teachers, day care providers, grandparents and other extended family members or even sporting coaches. At Little Stars Kids, we are attachment and trauma informed and one of our goals is to be a significant person in our Little Stars Learner’s lives and help change that internal working model to something far more positive.

Building Positive attachment with children living in care

Being a calm and consistent adult
Your Little Stars learner has most likely had a number of relationships with different people where they have been let down and often, they may test you to see if you are going to be one of these people. Your challenge is to not let that happen! You need to be The Bigger, Wiser, Stronger Adult: When your Little Stars learner is having an off day or acting in a way that tests the boundaries of your relationship, remember it isn’t personal and the most important thing for you to do is to remain calm.
Modelling Self Regulation
like taking a big audible deep breath is a good strategy before you respond to your Little Stars learner. Not only will you calm yourself down but hopefully they will mimic you and take a deep breath themselves, activating their own parasympathetic nervous system.
Look behind the behaviour
Remember misbehaviour is a solution to a problem; find the problem and help create a new solution.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep: This might be about doing something or bringing something or even when you are next seeing your Little Stars learner. It is important to try and keep to your session times as much as possible which creates a pattern of predictability for your Little Stars learner, but also life happens, you may be sick or have something else come up. Rather than saying “I’ll see you next Tuesday”, consider saying “I’ll see you next time (or next week) for our session”. If you know you aren’t going to make it, reach out to the carer as soon as possible to let them know so your Little Stars learner knows when you are rescheduling to.
Create rituals and routines
Having a special greeting with your Little Stars learner, or a nickname as well as having your learning plan all contribute to creating an environment of felt safety for your Little Stars learner.
Create an attachment handover
If you notice your Little Stars learner has a good attachment with their carer and listens to them, one idea is to create a ritual at the beginning of your session with the carer and Little Stars learner where you ask permission from the carer to be the adult in charge or the “boss”. This is an attachment handover, where the child sees the adults working together and permission is granted for you to take over from the carer. It is especially useful for children who may have trouble following your direction. You can then start your session after the handover with a quick game of “Boss Says” which is a variation of Simon Says, where you say “Boss says hands on head, tongue out” etc. This gives your learner some auditory cues that you are the boss. Done in a fun way, you will be surprised at how quickly your Little Stars learner starts listening.
Play and have fun
This is one of the reasons we focus on play-based learning at Little Stars Kids; not only to overcome your Little Stars learner’s fear of learning but also to build connection and attachment. Every time you play a quick game of uno or handball, you are building a stronger attachment. As your attachment with your Little Stars learner increases, you will find that you will be able to do more learning and less games. Some days however, if your Little Stars learner is a bit emotionally fragile, you may need to increase the games and connection rather than the learning and that is okay, the goal is to always keep your Little Stars learner connected and safe with you.
Repair and rifts in the relationship
Learning how to repair a relationship after a rupture is a very important skill for everyone but not everyone knows how to do this (hint: this is how we say sorry and fix our relationships when something goes wrong). In particular, for children in the foster care system, their behaviour will often rupture the connection with people around them and they don’t learn this very important skill of repair which then breaks down relationships. Ruptures happen in all relationships and that is okay but what helps get back on track is the repair.
To repair, once your Little Stars learner has settled down and is regulated, take some time to talk it through with them. I like to phrase to kids that “we just had a little problem just then, lets fix it”. This may be quite confronting for some kids and if you remember – the Shame Shield. Their Shield may activate, and you might see some shame-based behaviours such as withdrawal, ignoring or denial in response to this. If you see these types of behaviours, take the lead in talking through what happened “so when I asked you to do that math’s question, you clearly didn’t want to do it and were rude to me. How about next time you don’t want to do something you use your good words to tell me, and we can negotiate to do something different”. Again, using play, you might do a super silly role play with your Little Stars learner and do a “Re-Do”, where you re-enact, the situation using a silly voice, encouraging the child to make a better choice in how they respond. In doing this we are creating a positive memory of how to respond to a situation that causes an internal threat to the child. What we want to message is that this problem happened, we worked through it and we are okay. We are also keeping on top of unwanted behaviour. If you don’t repair the rupture, then the next time you see your Little Stars learner, the scar is likely to still be there, and you will have to work harder to connect to your Little Stars learner before the lesson. I use the term “keeping the train moving” meaning at all times, I want to keep the train of connection moving. If it stops at a station because of a rupture, we address it, repair it and jump back on the train.
Let your Little Star know you are thinking of them
If you have a particularly challenging Little Stars learner or have had a tricky session, consider sending them a text message via the carer or even write them a letter in between your sessions with a joke or a story or picture of something they are interested in. This lets your Little Stars learner know you are thinking of them even when you aren’t with them, and they are important to you. Remember a child with an insecure or disorganised attachment doesn’t feel they are worthy or special – let them know how special they are!

If you have to leave

Finally, if for whatever reason you cannot continue on as a tutor, it is of utmost importance to plan your departure with the Little Stars Kids team and carer so the transition out of the child’s life is as smooth as possible. At Little Stars Kids one of our fundamental goals is to be a positive adult influence in a child’s life. When an adult all of a sudden disappears without warning, this creates further attachment disruptions for the child and reinforces all those negative internal views, having disastrous and long-lasting effects on the child. Think of what it must be like for a young child to have such a negative view of the world and themselves. We want to avoid this as much as possible. It is for this reason that when we recruit our very special tutors, we look for a minimum 12-month commitment. You are not just tutors, you are superheros who are not only improving a vulnerable child’s academic attainment, but you are also teaching these children to love learning, build their resilience, self-esteem and self-worth and change that internal working model to something far more positive and hopefully lifelong. To do this, we ask that you psychologically commit to this role because evidence links commitment with positive child outcomes and that is at the core of what we do at Little Stars Kids. It’s a big job but this is why we selected you into the program – because you can do it!

Share the Post: