Cowie, Smith and Blades (2003:98) write that “secure attachments would be based on models of trust and affection,” whilst in contrast, a child with an insecure relationship with his mother may have an “internal working model of her that leads him not to expect secure comforting from her when he is distressed”. They maintain that the relationship will become strained, particularly if the mother is rejecting his approaches. “His action rules then become focused on avoiding her, thus inhibiting approaches to her that could be ineffective and lead to further distress. This in turn can be problematic, as there is less open communication between mother and son, and their respective internal working models of each other are not being accurately updated”.
Whilst most theorists now agree that the first attachment in a child’s life is the most important and influential, it is not widely believed that this is a situation that cannot be changed. For example, Mary Ainsworth devised a procedure called the “Strange Situation” (Ainsworth et al., 1978). This is a categorisation system which is used to assess children, and examine the differences between insecure and secure attachments formed in children aged between 12 and 18 months.. The Strange Situation consists of a series of eight episodes in a laboratory setting (See Appendix i for details) Ainsworth theorised that the children’s reactions to these episodes, and in particular their responses to the reunions with their mothers, could be classified into three types; securely attached, insecure/avoidant and insecure/ambivalent.
Mary Main (Main & Solomon, 1990 as cited in Bee 1998) has suggested a fourth group, which she calls insecure/disorganized/disorientated (See Appendix ii for behavioural classifications). Whilst the Strange Situation is now a commonly and internationally used technique, it has received criticisms for its validity cross culturally. For example, studies quoted in Cowie, Smith and Blades (1998) show that Japanese children were excessively distressed by the separation episodes, as culturally in Japan, infants are rarely if ever left alone at 12 months.
It also reported that there was no chance for the Japanese infants to express symptoms of avoidance, as the mothers automatically and without hesitation picked up their babies upon re-entering the room. So, whilst it is a valid indication and a useful tool for evaluating how children’s reactions to “strange situations” can indicate their attachment “type”, it may be necessary to alter the situations to reflect cultural differences in motherhood, or to re-define the categorisations according to the local culture.
One of the key areas of research following the implementation of the strange situation has been in attempting to identify whether these attachment classifications are changeable over time, or whether the classifications at 12-18 months are with the child for life. Looking after fostered children is one example where the application of relating aspects of the attachment theory to social work practice is evident.
Two girls that we have provided short term respite care for, Mary and Chloe, display attachment behaviour systematic to that which you might expect from children who have experienced poor levels of attachment behaviour in their early years. This could be interpreted as being a direct result of forming inner working models based on assumptions that care has not always been and therefore probably will not readily available, and should be accepted and enjoyed when and where it is offered.
Both girls, when first coming into our care, asked within the first day whether they could call us “auntie” and “uncle”. They also made gifts and drawings for us daily, and every morning made breakfast, constantly tidying up, and were continuously striving to be accepted by us. It could be taken that their previous experiences, have taught them that relationships with adults are often inconsistent and temporary, and this is what they expect from relationships with adults.
I believe that their constant tidying etc, is an attempt to forge attachment bonds with people they feel they can trust. I understand it to be that they have an underlying desire to fit in to a family unit, they do not want to be different, and primarily just want to be loved and belong within a family. I believe that once they have established that they can trust their new carers, all energies are focused on forming “normal” attachments. In addition to this, once attachments had been formed with us, it appeared that the girls attached to people close to our family in a much quicker way than perhaps other “secure” children might.
When comparing their behaviour to that of friend’s children who would have experienced secure attachment bonds and behaviours during their early years, it is noticeable that more “secure base” behaviour patterns are evident. For example, Deborah, the child of a friend, will often go very shy on first meeting new people, however, she is easily distracted with games, or the promise of something new to discover, and will go off with you, and can be observed frequently going back and seeking reassurance or praise from her parents. It is apparent that the girls we foster do not appear to need this reassurance. They have been told we are safe, as we are foster carers, they know that we have been entrusted with their care. In addition to this, Deborah when she stays with us, does not feel the same desire or necessity to please us with gifts, tidying etc that Mary and Chloe both feel.
It is argued that for every human problem encountered by social workers, there is a psychological theory to interpret that behaviour. I think that applying psychological theory to social work is an integral aspect of social work practice. I believe that using theories helps us to interpret behavioural patterns and to therefore initiate the appropriate channels of help, be it counselling, therapy or other method.
Daniel (1997) writes though that the problems with using psychological theory to practice are in becoming too obsessed with fitting human nature into “norms”. She writes that “because psychology is based heavily upon the construction of norms, there is a danger that people who deviate from the norm are considered to be “abnormal”, even though a norm is only an average of the spread of possibilities. When the norm becomes that which is desired and normative, there is a danger of labelling people as deviant, even when they represent part of the natural diversity of human beings”.
Therefore, whilst I believe it is important to apply theories to human behaviour, some degree of flexibility should be used when applying these to interpreting behavioural patterns. To support my viewpoint, I found that Neil Thompson (2000: 62) writes that it is (however) unrealistic to expect one theoretical approach to provide all the answers we need. He writes that we “therefore need a grasp of a range of theoretical perspectives and the ability to draw on these as and when required”.