Our society in relation to the intergenerational transmission of separation and reunion issues


Doctor Elaine Arnold taught social work students on MSW courses at Goldsmiths College, and Sussex University. She was Director of training at Nafsiyat an inter-cultural therapy centre. She researched the adverse effects of separation and loss and sometimes traumatic reunions, due to the immigration from the West Indies to Britain among some families of African Caribbean origin. She is the Director of the Separation and Reunion Forum The aim of the organisation is to raise the awareness of the importance of secure early attachment in the life of the individual. Elaine currently lectures at various colleges and voluntary groups on the Theory of Attachment, Separation and Loss and its applicability to practice in the caring professions.

She is the author of Working with Families of African Caribbean Origin : Understanding issues around Immigration and Attachment London: pub: Jessica Kingsley, 2012, and she edited Separation and Reunion Forum’s Parents and children in prison Attachment ,separation and loss. London: pub. London League.


 Our society in relation to the intergenerational transmission of separation and reunion issues.

By Elaine Arnold

The society we live in is not only, in evolutionary terms, a product of yesterday, but it many ways a very peculiar one. There is in consequence a great danger that we shall adopt mistaken norms.

(Bowlby, 1988.p.2)

There are frequently debates in the press, the radio and television about the state of our society and blame has been laid very heavily on parents. The list of negatives attributes of the society which are cited is long : the frequency of breakdown in family life, the pressures of divorce, poverty, long working hours leaving children unattended and lacking the crucial framework of discipline, a high rise in teenage pregnancies with some mothers themselves adolescents needing the care and attention of their parents, and more often than not unable to care for their babies. Other items on this list have included, high levels of unemployment, or low paid, unpredictable jobs, meaning that some parents are unable to support their children, leaving mothers and fathers to struggle alone with the children, the encouragement of women with young children to enter the work force. All these can stifle initiative and reduce any sense of self-worth,  while mass communications – media, television, computers, the internet, the indiscriminate use of mobile phones, all lead towards a reduction of communication within the family.

The kind of material and mental poverty engendered by the items on this list can lead parents and their children to try to escape their despair by retreating into the abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs or other self-destructive behaviours. In order to finance any addiction some are led into criminal activity.

Parents experiencing one or any combination of the difficulties listed above often suffer ill-health which may lead hospitalization, or they may be incarcerated as consequence of criminal activity. Both these unfortunate consequences will cause children to be separated from parents and lead them to being cared for by family relatives or being placed in foster care or in residential care.

In what can seem a landscape of doom, it is important to consider these things from the long range perspective of history and remember that all societies have been to an extent characterized by their problems as well as their virtues and some people have been fortunate and their experiences of growing up were of close relationships in stable loving families. Others recall harsh conditions where some of the negative influences already mentioned have precipitated their separation from parents during their early lives. Relationships have been disrupted and in many instances there have been no attempts at reunions. Even now we have too few effective resources to bring families back together.

John Bowlby (1988) insisted that if the job of caring for children were to be done well, the principal carer/s needed to be assisted. Harwood, Miller and Irizarry (1995) writing of Bowlby observed, “One of the primary convictions which John Bowlby inherited from the psychoanalyticperspective is a belief in the abiding importance of the first 5 years of life for later social and emotional functioning, particularly the importance of the child’s first human relationships.”

Therefore it is sad to reflect that recent times have witnessed the demise of some Government provision of child–care centres and Sure Start programmes for families with children up to five years of age, which provided age and development appropriate activities and consistent routines for the children that in turn helped in the reduction of some of the challenging behaviour children with separation problems can develop and which so hinders their progress as they grow up.

Parenting education is being offered in order to help parents to understand the developmental stages through which children pass on the way to maturity, and how to care for them in ways which promote satisfying relationships. The media is also involved in promoting parenting education, but from the many conversations I have had with parents from disadvantaged groups a point often stated is that the information presented is relevant only to middle-class families who are fortunate in having adequate housing, and adequate means. One example a parent cited was about an instruction given to send a child who is misbehaving to sit on ‘the naughty step’. Whether you agree with this kind of admonition or not, carrying out this instruction is impossible for those whose housing is too small, but they are not provided with an alternative strategy.

Some unemployed mothers are not happy that the Government is encouraging them to go out to work and leave their children in their early years, when they are being taught that secure relationships between them and their children are formed in the early years of their children’s lives.

The voluntary sector has a history of providing care that is suitable at the time and it does so now and some managers of day nurseries operated by the voluntary sector are providing mothers with information on how secure attachments are formed and the importance of secure attachment relationship during the early years of the child, and they try to involve the parents as much as is possible in the routine of the nursery. This partnership of staff and parent helps the child to feel safe and secure and enables them to form relationships. This in turn facilitates the transition to nursery school. The confident child with a positive self image usually is able to perform well through the educational system.

Geddes (1999, 2006) an educational therapist investigated links between various factors affecting children’s behaviour and learning in school. Utilising attachment theory classifications of attachment behaviour a sample of 30 boys were identified whose behaviour which suggested insecure attachment. This may have stemmed from interaction with a primary carer (most likely mother) who may have avoided physical contact and failed to allay the child’s anxieties and this is experienced by the child as rejecting. In the learning situation these children avoided help from the teacher and focused on the task, which seemed to be a safer area in which to engage, in that it did not necessitate the forming of relationship. Often they were unsuccessful in performing the task.

An important characteristic in the histories of these children was the high incidence of separation and loss in the families from which fathers were often missing. This suggested a link between the boys’ emotional development and behavioural difficulties in school. It was increasingly prevalent for these children to be excluded from school and from home and for them to enter the care system and some were caught up in the criminal justice system.

Geddes also observed that in the sample , most of the boys were of African Caribbean and mixed heritage. She discussed with Arnold (author of this article) the effects of separation and reunion of African Caribbean families through immigration from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom. Many of the children and mothers experienced difficulty in their relationships when they were reunited after varying periods of separation which provoked insecure attachments. Arnold and Geddes (2004) suggested that the impact of separation and loss through the generations of parents with insecure/avoidant patterns of attachment seemed to have resulted in an intergenerational influence which affects children of current generations, some of whom enter the care system.

In working with some boys aged between 11 and 16 years who had been looked after in a small residential home their histories revealed that their early lives had been spent with troubled parents, usually mothers, some of whom had themselves experienced broken attachment and life in residential care.

There was a high incidence of domestic violence in the homes of these boys. Some had no relationships with fathers, or poor relationships with stepfathers who resented them in the home.

They had been placed in foster care but these placements had broken down due to threatening aggressive behaviour,   an inability to form relationships and an addiction at that early age to smoking cannabis. Some of the boys responded well to a change of environment in a residential unit and related well to their key workers whose sensitivity and patience helped the boys to develop a better self image. They were prepared to continue attending school and progressed reasonably well. Gradually, they were able to accept contact with their mothers by telephone and later by visits at the unit and in their own home, in preparation for a reunion.

The reunions were satisfactory when mothers had been helped to reflect on their own attachment patterns in their early lives and to process some of the unresolved feelings about themselves, and their relationships with their own parents and how they were relating to their children.

In contrast, the boys who demonstrated an Avoidant Attachment pattern of behaviour and were challenging in their behaviour towards the staff, and, when referred to specialist counseling, refused to attend the sessions with a counsellor. Some were destructive of the furniture, stole from others, frequently left the unit without permission, and, when their behaviour became too disruptive , and they were unable to relate to care workers, were moved to secure units, often a pathway to prison.   It is still a sad fact today that a high proportion of staff working with these most vulnerable and troubled of children are untrained.

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust has frequently drawn attention to the plight of young prisoners Writing in Community Care she stated that “Young prisoners are clearly one of the most needy and most excluded groups in our society” (Juliet Lyons, 2002). What was true then, remains the case.

As recently August, 2011, there was an the eruption all over the country of rioting and looting. There were many who voiced the opinion that ‘the society was broken.’ It was revealed in the statistics about the people charged following the riots in England, during August were often young people who were poorer, and of lower educational achievement than average and 13% were members of gangs.(BBC Report, 24.10.2011).

This information raises a number of questions about the early attachment relationships of these young people, their emotional states. How many of them were children of offenders and is the predicament in which such children find themselves due to transmission of poor attachment and due to separation from and loss of family relationships? There is need for research which develops upon Bowlby’s early work 44 Juvenile Thieves which highlighted that the boys who offended more regularly, were those with unstable family homes. There is also the need for all those working with troubled families to understand the importance of utilizing the principles of Attachment Theory in the assessment of families and in working with them in the attempt to stop the cycle of broken families in our society.


Arnold , E. and Geddes ,H.(2004) ‘Issues of Attachment, Separation through immigration of Afro-Caribbean families to the United kingdom’ in Young Minds Newsletter July pp 1-2

BBC News Report ( 24.10. 2011)   England rioters ‘poorer, younger, less educated.’

Bowlby, J.(1944)   Forty. Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home life in International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 25,pp 1-57

Bowlby, J. (1988)     A Secure Base; Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory London Tavistock/Routledge,

Geddes, H.(1999) ‘ Attachment Behaviour and Learning – implications for the teacher, the pupil and the task ’ in Journal of Educational Therapeutic Teaching Issue 8 ,pp 1-34

Geddes, H.( 2006)   Attachment in the Classroom; The links between children’s early Experience, Emotional well-being and Performance in School . Worth Publishing, London p. 82

Harwood, R. L. Miller, J.G, Irizarry, N.L. (1995) Culture and Attachment ;Perceptions of the Child in Context The Guildford Press, New York

Lyon, J.,(2002)   ‘Prevention not Detention’ in  Community Care pp 36-37


To comment on this article or to contact the author email goodenoughcaring@icloud.com

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