Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more


Watch Judy Furnivall as she outlines attachment theory.
Today, I’m very glad to be able to talk to you about something that is of enormous importance to all of us. And that’s attachment. Attachment theory has been a way of understanding what happens between children, babies, particularly, and their parents. And we’ve known about attachment theory and what it means for about 60 years now. When a baby is born, whether we’re talking about a baby cow, or a baby cat, or a baby human, they have to find a way to survive. And the only people, the only creatures, that can help them to survive are the adults of that species.
So a baby kitten or a baby calf or a baby human will do everything they can to make sure that their mum– and it is usually their mum in the animal world– but in the human world, it can be any adult– is there ready to look after them. To feed them, to teach them, to protect them. And these babies, these little creatures have to find a way to tell the adults that they need something. And any of you who’ve ever sat on a long distance plane will know that a small baby is very good at communicating their distress. Because actually, we need to find something.
A baby needs to have control over its adult carers and make them come when they need something. So whether they’re tired, whether they’re hungry, whether they got a dirty nappy, they need to be able to get the adults in their world to come and look after them. In the human world, something else happens in that relationship. The real biological urge to be close to an adult and for that adult to comfort and to protect a child is also a way in which those two human beings– the baby and the adult– can together create something very special, which is how a small baby becomes a human.
They learn in that relationship about a love, they learn about emotion, they learn about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s safe. They learn how to be human. And all of us learn in some way or another. Any child that has survived to be an adult, any child that has survived to be a preschooler, any child that has survived to be a school child, has somehow managed to persuade the adults around them to look after them. For most of us, that happens in a really nice easy way. Baby cries– mum, dad, aunty, caregiver, looks after that baby and meets their needs.
And in that moment between the baby and the adult, the baby can see the grownup looking at them and how much they love them. That’s the normal expected feeling for a baby. They’re going to be looking at this grownup, grownups loves them. And what they want most in the world is to please that grownup. For some children, it’s not like that. For some children, instead of looking at somebody who they think absolutely adores them, they look at somebody who’s very irritated about the fact that they’re crying. Or they look at somebody who sometimes is there and sometimes isn’t. So they might be crying and crying and crying and then they don’t come.
Or they might be crying and they’re upset and tired, and the adult comes and starts to play with them. They don’t get it right, they’re not tuned into that baby’s signals. Those kinds of experiences are also about attachment. But that baby has to learn to control the adult in a different way. And it means that they are less able to do certain things. So if you got a child who’s always feeling that the adults around them are a bit annoyed with them if they’re upset or a bit cross or shouts at them, they are likely to try and keep that adult around by not being sad, by not crying– by trying to control everything.
And those children manage their lives quite often by suppressing their emotions. And when they get to be adults, they can be very, very emotionally distant, very clever sometimes– but emotionally distant. Or you have other children who can’t be sure whether the grownup is going to come at all. So rather than ever being able to relax and be comforted, they’re always hyper, they’re always shouting, they’re always screaming. And even when mum or dad or aunty comes to pick them up, they can’t relax. Because if they relax, then the adult might go away. So these children are always likely to be fretting and distressed.
They don’t feel safe wandering off and exploring because if they do that, they might turn around and the adults gone. Many children have lesser or greater experiences like this. Most people survive fine. But there are few children who had even worse experiences then that. They have the kind of experience where not only is the adult not responsive to them, but the adult itself, the actual adulthood they depend on, is the reason they’re scared. So instead of being able to move toward somebody who’s going to look after them and comfort them, that grownup who they need to survive is the same grownup who’s frightening them– maybe hurting them, maybe hitting them.
And that is a really difficult situation because those children don’t know how to organise their lives and how they organise themselves. And they find it really, really hard. What we know about attachment is that that experience early, early in life can build through childhood and into adulthood very important aspects of our personality. We learn to trust by about the time we’re about a year old. Basically we learn to trust and to be able to feel that we know a bit about how to deal with our own stress, if you’ve had a good enough experience.
As you get into being a little toddler, you’re trying to control the world, and most children learn through that relationship about how to manage their temper tantrums and the anger. They know a little bit about how other people are feeling because parents spend a lot of time working with children to explain their own emotions and other people’s emotions. Or they learn about feeling guilty when they’ve done something wrong, because they don’t want to disappoint that relationship, the person they’re in a relationship with them.
Unfortunately, if those experiences aren’t happening, children can grow up with no idea about their own emotions, no idea about other people’s emotions, very little ability to experience guilt or remorse, because they don’t understand what that’s about. Children can become so frightened or scared that they cannot really relate to other human beings as human. They see them as people or things they can get something from. And when you see a small child like that, it’s quite disturbing. But as these children grow older, they become teenagers or become adults, they become extremely frightening.
Many of the people who are in long term psychiatric hospitals or in prisons or are homeless, or end up in violent relationships, are likely to have had really difficult attachment experiences in their childhood. That’s why it’s important– it is key for us in the process of becoming human beings. If we do not have good enough experiences, it makes it much harder to become that really loving, competent, productive human being. It’s not impossible– there are people who manage that. They manage it through their own efforts, through their capacity to understand by watching– but they haven’t got that nice easy bit that most of us have. We have ways of helping those children, but it’s really hard work.

This presentation is delivered by guest speaker, Judy Furnivall.

Judy is a consultant for CELCIS, the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

In this talk we begin to consider what we mean and understand by attachment. Judy outlines what we know about the theory and process of attachment and how it helps us to understand the way in which children and young people grow and develop, the potential impact when the behaviour of adults and care-givers is not responsive to the needs of the child in their care, and the impact of early childhood experiences of attachment on the development of personality, trust and subsequent behaviour. The long-term implications of failing to attend to early childhood attachment experiences are highlighted and links made to the importance of attending to the relationship needs of vulnerable children.

This article is from the free online

Caring for Vulnerable Children

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now