The word ‘attachment’ is getting a pretty good run in the media these days with anxious and sometimes competitive first world parents trying to work out just how this whole child raising thing should go. Most of these kids are going to be fine simply because they are being raised by parents who love them, who nurture them, reassure them, comfort them and delight in their very being. Ultimately these kids know who they are, they know where they belong and they have an intrinsic understanding of what it is to be loved and to love.
They have that wonderful warm, reciprocal, consistant and responsive experience called secure attachment. Their parents most likely had it too. This is why even as greenskin newbies they leapt into action when their baby cried, did cartwheels when they got that first smile and seriously believed their kid may be a genius when those first imitative behaviours emerged – oh sorry, I meant smiles, waves, words.
For the kids who have ended up in foster care and for those who fell through the cracks in the system, life is not so simple. When you are born into a family where your birth is not the happy occasion it should be, where the parent/s lives are dominated by their addictions, their mental health issues, their own gaping unmet needs, where there is no home to go home to, where your cries are ignored or simply not understood, where you are left in your cot all day, where no one looks into your beautiful eyes with love and hope, where no one checks that you’ve got ten amazing little fingers and toes. Then to put it simply, the brain does not develop in the same way.
It’s stark isn’t it? So when you wonder how someone can abuse and/or neglect a child, remember this image. Because what has happened, is their brain never got the chance to develop in the same way as yours. Not only are they unable to have a deep understanding of giving and receiving love, they have not developed the executive functions of the brain where we make complex decisions and prioritise our actions, where we can delay our gratification and where we learn about trust and empathy and compassion.
But it’s not a done deal, especially for children. The plasticity of the brain means that we can develop new neural pathways, new understandings, new skills. This is what a foster carer helps to do.
It’s not easy to create attachment when a baby or a child has learnt that they will not have their needs met. They go into survival mode and try to meet their own needs as much as possible. They have good reason not to trust you or anyone for that matter. Love, a warm bed and good food is not always enough.
They will push you away, uncomfortable with cuddles and affection. Even tiny babies will push your arms away, wanting to drink their bottle facing away from you, avoiding your eye contact. They do not view you as being any more important to them than a passer by. They don’t really understand why you would want to do anything for them. They will argue about rules and oppose any form of authority. You could turn yourself inside out arranging something special for them and they will just shrug their shoulders and walk away.
It’s a long term proposition. Not helped when the system sends them back to an abusive/neglectful situation, or moves them from placement to placement, or splits sibling groups or they end up in residential care or they age out of the system without getting what they needed when they needed it.
Attachment is one of the keys to happiness. Knowing that someone is there to watch over you, allowing you to explore your world safely, helping you to develop your independence and seeing and believing in your potential, meeting your needs and celebrating your achievements. Someone who is there to pick you up when you fall, the emotional home base, your supply of resilience when it’s tough. We all deserve that.
Kids can develop secure attachment in foster care. They may need some extra help to get there, but that’s what foster carers and the professionals that support them are there for.
Just so you know: I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, scientist, social worker or baby whisperer. Take whatever I say with a grain of salt and consult the professionals if you are at all concerned about your child or someone you know.
For clarity, I am talking about the theory behind attachment, not Attachment Parenting. I am not advocating for Attachment Parenting or any particular style of parenting.
And…I KNOW that the foster care system is not all it could be, no matter where you live. I just try to do my bit to improve it.