Dr Catherine McMahon

(Honorary Professor)

School of Psychological Sciences
Macquarie University

Likely impact of a disrupted primary attachment relationship on a two-year-old child

 

This report summarises current scholarship regarding the detrimental effects of a sudden (and likely prolonged) separation of a two-year-old child from her mother, who has been her primary attachment figure.

 

Decades of research show that stable secure attachment with a primary caregiver predicts healthy social-emotional development and reduces the likelihood of poor mental health outcomes under conditions of risk. Infants and young children are hardwired to seek proximity with their primary caregiver who provides a “safe haven” of comfort when they are threatened or distressed, and a “secure base” to support their exploration and learning. Together, these two key functions of the attachment system shape the child’s neurobiological development, emotion regulation, and adaptive engagement with their social word.  1,2

 

Attachment theory and research evidence have informed the design of developmentally appropriate and relationally humane policies and practices that meet the developmental needs of young children in childcare, family court and custody matters, and institutional care. An attachment perspective provides a voice for the child and emphasises the importance of maintaining continuity of significant attachment relationships (e.g., parent-child relationships after a marriage has ended) based on a recognition of children’s fundamental need for relational stability and predictability.  

 

How do young children respond to the loss of a primary attachment figure?

 

Unexpected separation from caregivers early in life can cause attachment injuries or disruptions.3 Prolonged separation and loss provoke defensive coping strategies that involve hyper-activation of the attachment system that. Initially, the child will show attachment-related anger, fear and sadness. If not repaired, de-activation processes can follow - despair (hopelessness), detachment and disengagement. This severely compromise the child’s ability to cope with normal stresses and developmental challenges, and to form adaptive healthy relationships with an alternative caregiver, teachers, childcare-workers, and peers.

 

Developmental Considerations

 

If prolonged separation occurs soon after the first year of life (when the primary attachment relationship is established), the young child has lost their co-regulator at a time when regulation of strong emotions is the key developmental challenge. (Everyone is familiar with toddler and two-year old tantrums). The pre-school years are a sensitive period for the influence of caregiver support on brain development, particularly stress regulation.4 Two-year-old children are not cognitively or emotionally equipped to cope with unexpected separation and loss of the adult they have relied on all their life. They have less capacity than adults to develop alternative attachment relationships, and are likely to struggle when faced with forming a new attachment with an unfamiliar caregiver, without the support of  their familiar “secure base”.5

 

Research on outcomes after adoption has been informative about the importance of early attachment stability and the impact of the child’s age when separated. Children adopted during the first year can generally form effective attachment relationships with a new caregiver. When children are placed with alternate caregivers after 1 year of age, the process takes longer and is more complicated.5,6 The child may have difficulty trusting new caregivers and behaving in ways that will elicit nurturing behaviours.  In turn, their negative attachment behaviours pose considerable challenges to the new caregiver and can be self-perpetuating, leading to a negative-feedback loop that evolves into a conflictual and insecure relationship.6 These maladaptive attachment behaviours are also likely to be expressed in pre-school and other care settings.

 

Cultural Considerations

 

Attachment theory, developed in a Western cultural context, focuses on the caregiver-child dyad, however contemporary attachment theorists acknowledge that attachment exerts its influence in the context of broader influences in the child’s environment. In cultures that emphasise community and a collectivist approach to raising children (like First Nations Indigenous Australians), the parent-child dyad is nested in a network of carers. Children are the objects of love and kindness from a large circle of relatives (grandparents, aunties, uncles) and friends who provide inter-connected circles that serve social and cultural functions - connecting the child with ancestral knowledge and heritage, important to their emerging sense of identity.7,8

 

Devastating evidence from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) Stolen Generations Report9 and subsequent longitudinal research by the Australian Institute for Family Studies10 (AIFS, 2020) have confirmed that “forcibly removing a child from their parents and community is one of the most profound traumas a child can experience, and undermines a pivotal foundation they require for self-regulation and resilience.” 11 This trauma significantly increases the risk of later mental health and substance abuse problems.  

 

Summary

 

Safe, supportive, and nurturing attachment relationships with primary caregivers are critical for the healthy physical and emotional development of children. The primary attachment figure provides crucial support in enabling children already exposed to serious adversity to cope and recover, by supporting their emerging ability to self-regulate and manage stress, The disruption of this primary attachment is likely to have significant, lasting negative consequences for the child’s development and mental health.

References

 

  1. Deklyen, M. & Greenberg, M. (2016). Attachment and Psychopathology in Childhood. In J. Cassidy and P.R. Shaver. Handbook of Attachment, 3rd Edition, pp. 639-666). Guilford Press.

  2. Thompson, R., Simpson, J.A., & Berlin, L. (2022).  Taking perspective on attachment theory and research: nine fundamental questions. Attachment and Human Development, https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2022.2030132

  3. Kobac, R., Zajac, K.  & Madsen, S.D. (2016). Attachment disruptions, reparative processes and psychopathology. In J. Cassidy and P.R. Shaver. Handbook of Attachment, 3rd Edition, pp. 25-40. Guilford Press.

  4. Luby, J.L., Belden, A., Harms, M.P., Tillman, R., Barch, D.M. (2016). Preschool is a sensitive period for the influence of maternal support on the trajectory of hippocampal development. Proceedings of National Academy of Science, U S A. 113(20):5742–7.

  5. Stovall, K.C. & Dozier, M. (2000). The development of attachment in new relationships: Single subject analyses for 10 foster care infants. Development and Psychopathology, 16, 253-271.

  6. Dozier, M., & Rutter, M. (2016). Challenges to the development of attachment relationships faced by young children in foster and adoptive care. In J. Cassidy and P.R. Shaver. Handbook of Attachment, 3rd Edition, pp. 696-714. Guilford Press.

  7. Carriere, J., & Richardson, C. From longing to belonging: Attachment theory, connectedness and Indigenous children in Canada. In S. McKay, D. Fuchs, & I. Brown (Eds.). Passion for action in child and family service: Voices from the prairies (Chapter 3, pp 49-67). SK: Canadian Plains Research Center Retrieved from https://cwrp.ca/publications/longing-belonging-attachment-theory-connectedness-and-indigenous-children-canada

  8. Grace, R., & Menzies, K. (in press). The stolen generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander chidren: Understanding the impact of cultural hegemony in policy and intervention. In R. Grace, R., & J. Bowes (Eds.). Children, families and communities, 6th Edition. Oxford University Press.

  9. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) (1997). Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Sydney: HREOC.

  10. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020b). Australia's children. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/australias-children 

  11. Teicher, M.H. (2018). Childhood trauma and the enduring consequences of forcibly separating children from parents at the United States border. BMC Medicine 16, 146 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-018-1147-y