Children in care who suffer changes in their placements are deprived of the attachment relationship we all need. Why can’t we shake off our indifference to this ?

By Lorea Boneke

This article is an updated adaptation of an essay Lorea Boneke first wrote in 2007. The issue Lorea writes about continues to have relevance since placement breakdowns remain an all too frequent experience, particularly for teenagers who enter our child care system.

Lorea is a social worker in London


Children in care who suffer changes in their placements are deprived of the attachment relationship we all need. Why can’t we shake off our indifference to this ?


How do children and young people feel when they are separated from their parents and from familiar surroundings? What is it like to be a child in a foster family or in a children’s home? Authorities on this matter always seem to take for granted the breakdowns and changes that young people experience. Society forgets the anxiety, loneliness, and despair of young children in hospitals, foster homes, and children’s homes.

This article deals with separation and loss in childhood but it is also an effort to explain the work my colleagues and I do helping children and young people in a children’s home overcome the consequences of separation and loss and it also highlights why these problems should concern us.

 What does change and breakdown mean for us ? More importantly what does it mean for young people going through breakdowns?

When I look at things historically, I have tended to take a very simplistic personal view that until the beginning of the 20th century how children developed was not a major concern for society. It has seemed to me that until Freud (1905) came along with his then controversial theories of childhood, children were viewed as miniature adults who were potentially or fundamentally sinful and needed strong discipline. Parents raised their children according to traditional beliefs, which the children were expected to accept without question.

Turning to the present day it seems me that despite all the complexities of the modern age for some inexplicable reason, most people think that children will always be happy during their childhood, and the fact that they might become emotionally distressed is something that is often dismissed out of hand. Perhaps this is because caring adults find the thought of children suffering physical and emotional pain too much to bear.

Nevertheless nowadays we have some realization that familial and social relationships are so influential that not only do they largely influence who we become, but they are indicators of our potential for achievement in the future and they influence our level of emotional wellbeing throughout life including our capacity to be good enough parents (See for instance, Fonagy, 2003 ).

Sharpe (2006) suggests,

“ the process of socialization is continuous from birth but it is now generally agreed that an attachment bond to a parenting figure marks the child’s first step towards socialization.”

Right from a child’s birth, the way parents and caregivers relate to their children influences all aspects of their lives, present and future. I believe we cannot understate the significance of attachment in childhood. The attachment that is formed in childhood carries over into adulthood and has continuing generational influence. Our capacity to attach is handed on to our children (Fonagy, 2003).

When an attachment bond breaks down, the effect upon a child can be devastating. They may feel angry, sad or helpless. They may become unwilling to join the company of friends and others. They become uncertain about the future and about what is going to happen to them. They become confused and feel lost.

As child care workers we should be aware and understand why children who have lost or been separated from significant attachment figures react to changes and breakdowns in different ways. We should be sure to give them an opportunity to relay their fears and anxieties to us. We should listen to them with sincerity, show how we can feel how they are feeling and that we won’t take sides or apportion blame.

In my work I have found that there are all kinds of scenarios where children become distressed.

I would like to illustrate the things I have been talking about by considering the case of Natasha.

 Natasha came into our care in the children’s home where I work at the age of fifteen after being in care since the age of eight years old due to her mother’s neglect and emotional abuse. Natasha had previously had 3 different foster care placements and had been in two other children’s homes. She was then placed into our children’s home. I’ll call it Kestrel Lodge. Natasha found it hard to make relationships with staff. Any staff that she started to become close to she would, after a short while, be very abusive toward and seemed to try to ruin the relationship.

Natasha’s relationship with the other young people at Kestrel Lodge was similar to that which she had with the staff. As soon as Natasha had established a closeness to a particular male resident, she found an opportunity to become angry with him, acted out in an extremely violent way which led to the breakdown her placement, and destroyed her newborn attachment to another person.

How could I understand Natasha’s behaviour ? Unfortunately family breakdowns happen so often in our society that we tend to take them for granted. The circumstances that children may find themselves in – being suddenly moved from their home without explanation – are devastating. Being displaced from the family to a new place like a foster family or a children’s home puts a child through huge emotional distress. As well as many other uncomfortable things, this strange new world involves the challenge of the risky business of placing trust in another set of adults who seem to have the power to reject you at any moment. There is also the problem of making new friends which can be difficult in the adolescent years. These difficult aspects of the changes children in care face are a just a few of the things that society and the placing authorities take for granted. It as if we in the wider community are saying to the child, “Come on, we’ve found you a place to live, now get on with your life !” There seems to be a denial of the importance of a child’s need for a consistent and healthy attachment to a caring adult. My view is this must be a mutually felt attachment.

Winnicott (1965) stresses how important the mothering figure’s emotional holding is in the development of the child. He explains that when the child is in the early stages of development he is connected to the mother so that; in the infant’s’s world, It seems as if he and the mother are one. Later when the child is experiencing new anxieties and it Is mothering figure who will take these emotions and give them back to the child in a more manageable form. This is what happens when the mother says, “It’s ok, don’t worry, nothing’s going to happe.” and the child begins to learn to cope with new situations because his mother has given him the capacity to trust his world. If the child loses, or is separated from the mother or a primary carer then this unconscious ability to handle of her emotions is also lost.. This means that the child is left with feelings that she can no longer control. As the child is moved on from one carer to another feelings of trust become much more difficult to develop until eventually the child can no longer believe again that “It’s ok, nothing is going to happen.”

Each new carer will experience a greater intensity of feelings – anxiety, fear and anger – from the child. All this is a consequence of the frequent separations the child has experienced. The child no longer trusts his world. This lack of trust is often accompanied by emotional distress which is symptomised by extremely disruptive behaviour. These emotions and behaviours can become too difficult for some carers to cope with or contain. in turn can lead to the breaking down of this new attachment relationship and, in for instance as in Natasha’s case will lead to another broken relationship and another enforced change of placement.. As the child is moved on to yet another placement, and her feelings of loss and worthlessness feelings may again become more intense, perhaps more aggressive and less manageable and so each successive placement becomes less likely to succeed.

Sharpe (2001) when discussing separation and loss remarks,

“The experiencing of such circumstances can mean that children become progressively numbed by each additional loss and so they become increasingly resistant to further adult efforts to attach to them. This resistance may be a conscious or an unconscious attempt to protect the self from feeling further psychic pain, based on a denial defence that loss cannot be experienced if you refuse to take ownership of any relationship which is offered”

This happened to Natasha and eventually meant that she was placed in our children’s home. Her experience of relationships by this time was so negative that she tried to break them down before they could be properly built. Natasha did not seem to able to bear yet again putting all her feelings into somebody who she thought was going to let her down just as everyone else had. This phenomenon was evident in all relationships that she made with staff and other residents.

Referring to research carried by neuroscientists with children who had been abandoned in Rumanian orphanages before the fall of the regime, Sharpe observes

“Current scientific evidence is suggesting that a child’s cognitive and emotional development is severely hindered if they do not have good enough parenting or adequate attachment relationships with adults” Sharpe (2007)*

It is also noteworthy that all the experiences that a child has during his development will form personality traits that he will carry on throughout his life. Fonagy (2003) states that that adults who have had poor attachment experiences in childhood become poor attachment figures as parents, and though Sharpe (2007 ) points out “ the experience of loss is part of the average child’s experience and therefore part of a healthy development,” for too many of the children I look after their frequent experiences of rejection, broken attachment, separation and loss have gone far too far beyond the experience of the average child.

Another reason why the experiences of children like Natasha should worry us is because each breakdown has consequences. Nowadays, one of the main consequences for looked after children is that these breakdowns are so traumatic that they begin to run away mentally and literally. In running away from life these children become extremely vulnerable. Some young people have run away not only because of their own experience of care but also when another young person’s placement – usually a young person who has become a close friend or even sometimes a sibling – breaks down in a way which results in their sudden removal from the placement.

Of course, as recent well publicized cases have demonstrated when these children and young people absent themselves from a children’s home they are extremely vulnerable to becoming the pray of people who are intent on exploiting and at the same time placing them in danger (see for instance, Birmingham City Council, 2014)

Concluding, my aim has been to share and discuss the importance of attachment in human life, especially in childhood and the distressing emotional responses, which arise when ties are ruptured.

I have witnessed myself the suffering of children separated from loved ones and other important figures for long periods of time and I have come to my own rather obvious conclusion. An intimate, positive relationship between child and carer is essential to the child’s person’s future stability and in a way I imagine it is important for the carer’s future stability.. The parents’ or carer’s consistent presence is as important to the child’s need is as great as her need for food. In a way they are the same thing.

It is borne out by research that securely attached people have good self-esteem, they feel socially competent, they have positive social expectations and therefore only get into groups that meet these expectations. In their teens young people who have had good attachment experiences will be more likely to stay away from drug abusers and build better relationships with people who are positive and good for them

I think it is important that there is a safe place that children can come where they have no one else to please and where there worries and conflicts can be contained – a place where they can feel safe to say what they feel and be able to say that ‘this is my home’.

 It is understandable that the child who experiences multiple changes of parenting figures expresses the unhappiness that their compounded feelings of loss and separation bring in either frozen, empty emotionlessness or in anger and resentment In either case, the damage will be permanent and they will have become very vulnerable young people unless we tackle their feelings of abandonment with commitment and sincerity.

It can seem that local authorities who place children and young people don’t seem to worry so much about how the separation and loss affects young people though it is a subject at the core of many social work trainings We should not be indifferent and not miss the signs of children becoming anxious anxious and unhappy. Coming into care should mean a hopeful new start for as Bowlby (1969) said, ‘How we start, we tend to go on’


Berridge,D.(2000) Placement Stability, Quality Protects Research Briefings 2   London Department of Health

Birmingham City Council (2014) We Need to Get : A health check into the Council’s Role in Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation   A Report for Birmingham City Council

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment : Attachment and Loss Vol.1   London   Pelican 1971

Fonagy P. (2001) Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis. New York   Other Books

Freud, S. (1905) ‘Infantile Sexuality’ in Penguin Freud Library vol 7   London    Penguin Books 1977. pp.88-126

“Children in care are still moving too much”. Children Now. 17-23 May 2006

Sharpe, C. (2013) “The Inner world of the Child” in Writings accessed at on 10.7.13

Sharpe, C.(2007) “Attachment Theory, Separation and Loss : how Children Develop Attachments to Other People” in Eagle House Handbook of Child Development Eagle House   Northwood   2007

Winnicott, D.W. (1965) Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development     London   Karnac 2002