New research explores the experiences of parents when learning that their child has attachment related difficulties.
By Anja Wittkowski and Chloe Crompton
Clinicians regularly see attachment related difficulties present in child and adolescent clinical services. Attachment refers to the reciprocal relationship between people, particularly between a child and their primary caregiver/s. Early relationships between parents and their child are believed to form the basis for the child’s future relationships and healthy emotional development. When children experience difficulties in their interpersonal relationships, this can be due to attachment related difficulties.
In previous studies with parents of adopted children, researchers have found that parents experienced a decline in their confidence in parenting, and a barrage of negative feelings when learning that their child’s symptoms were due to attachment difficulties. These reactions may not be surprising, given there is little understanding and awareness of what attachment related difficulties mean within wider society. Even clinicians appear to refer to these difficulties using various terms, including parenting difficulties. The result is that parents, including adoptive ones, of children with these types of difficulties may often feel isolated and distressed. They may also experience stigma because these issues are often understood to be shaped by how the caregiver responds to their child, and viewed as synonymous with abuse and trauma.
Our study was the first to explore the experience of finding out about their child’s attachment related difficulties in biological parents. We also explored the difficulties in communicating these issues to parents from the clinicians’ viewpoint. All parents we interviewed for our qualitative study experienced shame and feelings of failure as a parent on first hearing of their child’s difficulties. Parents then appeared to progress through a range of stages before they could begin to accept the news and access support. How they made sense of their feelings of shame and came to terms with their child’s attachment difficulties was dependent on factors including support (or lack of) from clinical services. Whilst parents reported that their feelings of shame lessened over time, these feelings remained throughout this process of acceptance.
From a clinical perspective, we found that the availability of support and psychosocial or psychological interventions as well as the quality of the parent-clinician relationship could help or hinder parents towards making sense of their child’s attachment related difficulties and reaching this stage of acceptance. Some parents reported that there was no real ‘aftercare’ after being told of their child’s difficulties. This could partly be due to a lack of available interventions as well as under-resourcing within clinical services.
When parents felt supported – both by clinical services, and more broadly through support groups – this support helped to reduce their feelings of shame. In turn, parents were better able to make sense of their situation and take the next steps to support their child. For most parents, these next steps involved seeking a neurodevelopmental explanation and diagnosis for their child’s difficulties or acting as an advocate for other families with similar experiences. We believe more work is needed to help prepare parents when receiving this ‘hard to hear’ information, and to enable them to reach a better understanding of their child’s difficulties and how they can support them.
 Bowlby J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Basic Books.