Making the World a Safer Place: Fostering & Attachment Theory

Hush now baby, don't say a word
Daddy's gonna buy you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird won't sing
Daddy's gonna buy you a diamond ring

These are the words of a lullaby that I have been singing to the little girl who has become our foster child. It's been almost three months since little R came into our lives. As I shared in my previous post, it has not been easy to foster a child; and now, more than three months into the fostering journey, we have realised that things are a lot more difficult and complicated than what we had expected it to be...
What keeps a family together? It's lots of love and time spent together. An attempt to understand
each other and to love them "just as they are".
There are many reasons why children enter the foster care system. Their birth parents could be abusers of drugs, or become incarcerated for a variety of reasons, and therefore not be in a position to care for them. They could be victims of abuse, and are therefore removed by the state to ensure their wellbeing. Their birth parents could be diagnosed to have severe intellectual challenges, and therefore deemed not to have the capability to care for them. Their birth parents could be financially incapacitated, and therefore not have the means to care for them. Or the scenario could be a variation or amalgamation of any or all of the above.

Whatever the reason, the child comes to his or her foster parents with a barrage of issues, residual baggage from the family of origin; and the foster parents begin the journey of helping the child pick up the pieces of brokenness and pain. 

There are too many issues facing a foster child when he or she is taken away from the family of origin to be placed with another family. This post will consider the impact of attachment theory on fostering. This is a concept I have become familiar with over the past few years as a result of my postgraduate studies in counselling. 

How can you help  your foster kids deal with the issues caused by their family of origin? How can you safeguard
them in their search for identity and acceptance?
A key proponent of this theory is Margaret Mahler, who discussed the concept in her work on object relations. I wrote about Mahler's ideas in an earlier post here. For this post, I would like to focus on the Separation-Individuation Stage, which according to Mahler lasts from 5 to 24 months. This is a stage when the infant develops an understanding of the boundaries of the self, and the primary caregiver, (in most cases the mother), is increasingly viewed as a separate individual. 

Mahler sub-divides the Separation-Individuation Stage into a couple of phases. During the ages of 5 to 9 months, she states that infants go through Differentiation or Hatching. During this phase, the infant’s primary concern begins to become more externally-focussed as compared to the internal focus which occupied most of his or her earlier life. Mahler states that the changes are partly influenced by the development of milestones in human development such as motor development, which allows the infant to engage in more independent activities such as flipping and eventually crawling, activities which result in an increased differentiation from the mother as the primary caregiver.

The other three phases are those of Practicing (9 to 14 months), Rapprochement (14-24 months) and Object Constancy (24+ months). But this post will not go into details for each of these phases given that our foster child is currently in the Differentiation phase.

Attachment is key in understanding how children grow up to be confident and
well-adjusted individuals.
Understanding Mahler helps us to understand why our little girl is now more "touchy-feely" and more "licky" than she used to be. For instance she would spend a good 10 minutes using her hands to feel the contours of your face, in a bid to establish who you are; or to use her legs to kick you, indicating that she requires attention. And, if you find a large wet spot on the left shoulder area of your shirt, this is likely the result of the little one enjoying the taste of your shirt (a behaviour described as the "oral phase" by Sigmund Freud in his theory of psychosexual development). 

Mahler's perspectives on attachment echo much of the early work by pioneers such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Most attachment theory literature is centred on the mother as the "safe haven", with the father as one of the "alternative caregivers". In fact some theorists even state that the father's positive parenting behaviour is not as significant to the child's sense of a secure attachment unless he is physically absent, in which case the child develops insecure attachment bonds. While later attachment research acknowledges that the involvement of fathers in early infant care does affect the security of the attachment, this has to be mitigated by how sensitive and attuned the father is to the needs of the child.  

From our perspective, it is evident that our little girl has developed secure attachment bonds with both of us. Is the bond with the mother stronger than the father? It's really hard to say; but from my perspective, I don't think this is necessarily the case. For instance, little R loves it when I sing lullabies to her or when I tickle her. There are also times when I come back from work and she gives me a broad smile to acknowledge my presence; or other moments when she would intentionally kick my arm to get my attention, and when I move nearer to her, that she would grab my arm and put it in her mouth.

Fostering brings in a whole new dimension to the attachment process. Given the instability of their birth situation, children under foster care need to develop the sense of secure attachment in order to develop in a healthy manner. For instance, kids whose parents who are constantly drunk and who consistently fail to attend to them develop a belief that the world is not a safe place and that there is no one they can rely on. Additionally, children who have endured abuse by their birth family tend to be constantly in a state of fear; believing the world to be a dangerous place without the safety net needed for healthy development and growth. As such, it is key for foster parents to develop a secure attachment with their charges in order to help them grow in a healthy manner. 

Kids under the fostering system need to develop a sense of secure attachment in order to develop in a healthy manner.
I smile at little R as she taps playfully on my arm. The little girl chuckles contently, evidently pleased that she had obtained a positive response from me. Do I believe that this little one is less attached to me than she is to Sue? Not at all. The answer, I believe has been answered by research - the security of a child's attachment to the father is dependent on how sensitive and attuned the father is to the needs of the child. I believe that as long as one understands the needs of the child - when she needs to be fed, when she needs to sleep, when she needs to be comforted; and if one responds in an appropriate manner, that is what brings about a secure attachment - and it doesn't matter whether the person is the mother or the father. 

The world is a dangerous place for children whose parents are not there for them. As foster parents, we are called to serve as safe havens for our foster children; to help them feel safe and secure, and to help them negotiate a world which would otherwise be too big and too scary for them.


Jared Benware, "Predictors of Father-Child and Mother-Child Attachment in Two-Parent Families" (2013). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 1734.

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