Attachment-Do we really have a generation of Velcro kids?

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Photo by Brett Sayles on

When I first came across “Attachment” I was very early on in my counselling studies and I found the concept very simple. I studied the work of John Bowlby and Harry Harlow. Bowlby theorised that attachment “issues” such as withdrawal and inability to interact, arose in children whose relationships with their primary care-giver; usually their mother had been either non-existent or damaged in some way. Psychologists later went on to theorise types of attachment and to argue about whether attachment behaviours and reactions in children are learned or inherent from birth.

Later, Harry Harlow thought it would be a good idea to deprive baby monkeys of their mothers by separating them at birth for the first few months of their lives and then monitoring their behaviour when they were re-integrated with other monkeys. The experiment had horrific effects. The baby monkeys indulged in disruptive behaviour, such as screaming and holding themselves rocking back and forth. They were bullied by the other monkeys and they also displayed self-harming behaviour. Further experiments found that when baby monkeys were provided with two “surrogate” mothers, one was a food source and the other, a doll wrapped in cloth; the monkeys developed an attachment to the doll and would cuddle it when strangers appeared, or they were scared in some way. They only visited the food source when hungry and returned to the doll for the rest of the time. I find the whole thing particularly distressing!

So, we now know how “attachment theory” works in principle. I hear the word a lot in my work and it seems to be one of those words that can be overused. It also seems to be portrayed as a bad thing.

Is Attachment “Disorder” a Disorder?

Attachment behaviours displayed in babies include clinging and returning to the person or people (or doll) they have decided is their primary caregiver. The caregiver does not necessarily have to return the favour (like the monkeys and their fake “mother”). Babies are drawn to those who will protect them and help them thrive, its basic human instinct.

Like any human instinct which is designed to protect us, we get pretty good at it.

Fast-forward 11 years and we have a teenager. Perhaps they don’t feel supported at home as their relationships with parents are changing. Perhaps their parents are absent, either physically or emotionally or perhaps they are cruel and uncaring. Teachers have the unenviable task of teaching 30 plus students and are not able to act as caregiver.

I was never that good at maths but to me…

1 teenager – care = trouble (think deprived monkeys here)

Bring on the school counsellor, student support specialist, caring teacher or adult. Our job is to listen, to not judge and to take these young adults at their word, giving them unconditional positive regard.

This helps

They become attached

To us…

Is it wrong? Or are they perfectly performing human beings?

I often experience this in my work and early on I was very scared that a young adult would become “attached” to me. I now feel differently.

Of course, they will become attached!

One of the roles of the caregiver is to support the child and to eventually guide them on their own path.

That’s counselling isn’t it?

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