Attachment Relationships

Let‘s start with what we know from attachment theory and how this relates to decisions about contact between children and young people in out-of-home care and their birth parents.

Attachment theory helps us to understand the nature and role of the dependency relationship human infants develop towards their first caregivers, and which plays an important role in the way in which they approach life and relationships thereafter. Attachment theory provides a strong evidence base and framework for understanding the role of dependency relationships in such areas as development, wellbeing, and identity, and for decision-making in such areas as child welfare and family law.

Central to attachment theory is the concept of “attachment relationships”. Human infants are especially vulnerable compared to other infants in the animal kingdom. As such, they are born looking to orient to and secure care and protection from available adults, and with a strategy to draw the attention of those adults. This first strategy is the infant’s cry. Over time, further strategies develop, such as the ‘social’ smile, reaching, clinging, pointing, and speaking.

Children form attachment relationships (or, simply, “attachments”) towards adults who are continuously involved with them and who care for them. Attachment relationships develop over time and are shaped by the child’s experience of care and protection from the main adults in their life.  Children can form attachment relationships with any adult who is continuously involved with them and cares for them. Each attachment relationship is reflective of the child’s experience of care and protection from each of the significant adults in their life.

Children form attachments to their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, childcare workers; any person, really, who responds to their care needs across time. Children can form different attachment relationships towards each caregiver, depending on their experience of care from that person. Adults towards whom the child forms an attachment relationship are referred to as ‘Attachment Figures”.


  1. Who are the significant adults in the life of a child or young person you work with or care for?
  2. What is the child or young person’s relationship like with each of them?
  3. Do their relationships with each of the significant adults in their life differ in some way, based on their experience of care and protection from them?

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[1] Please note, reflections are included in this learning module to help you engage with the content. While there is no intent by the author for these reflections to cause you any distress, some reflections about matters close to the heart can evoke strong feelings, including distress. If you consider that this might be so, simply ignore the reflection components in this learning module. If you do become distressed, debrief with a person with whom you have a trusting relationship and/or engage in an activity that is usually the source of feelings of wellbeing. If your distress persists, seek advice from your general medical practitioner.