Attachment Theory-what it means and why it is important!


Professionals working with parents need to have a basic understanding of the social science research involving the impact of separation on children. This is a fluid and dynamic area, but there are some principles that appear to be well established. These enable us to help those we are working with to appreciate what is happening for their children, and to make the best decisions for their family.

Children need to have a strong sense of security and connections with those that are close to them, to cope with change, particularly significant change in their living arrangements.

Very young children need to have a secure attachment with their primary carers. These are usually, but not always, mothers who have taken on the role of carer and nurturer, resulting in children developing reliable and dependable expectations that their primary needs will be met by that person. Children know that if they experience any upset, this parent will be there to comfort them and make the world OK!.IMG_2813

This usually results in children feeling confident to separate from their primary carer and having a secure foundation to explore the world around them, move outside their comfort zone, and take risks. It is generally the other parent or significant adult who facilitates this process and takes on this different but equally important role.

In most intact families the parents and extended family members support each other in maintaining these connections, and children grow up with strong and loving relationships. They accept change as a challenge that is exciting and leads to growth and development.


When parents separate, children become confused as life is no longer predictable, and they can experience a sense of loss and disorientation. If very young, they require a greater level of reassurance from their primary carer and nurturer, and do not understand why they may not be there to comfort them at times, particularly at night time. Extended periods of time away from this person may result in regression and a sense of abandonment that can permeate all of their experiences.P1030827

Children can develop an insecure attachment with their primary carer, and be reluctant to explore their world, and cope with the changes around them. Often this may not be apparent when away from the primary carer but show itself by behavior and strong emotion when they return to their care. This is an expression of their need for security and stability, and if not catered for can result in difficulty in coping with change and even developmental delay.

The challenge for separating parents is to preserve the child’s secure attachment with their primary carer, while at the same time promoting their relationships with other important figures in their life. This is not a reflection of the other significant people in their lives, but of the difficulties for young children in coping with change.

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