Our new baby is a walker. She arrived fairly suddenly, we had a call in the afternoon, and then there she was with her social worker just before teatime, a little girl who couldn’t yet talk faced with two people she’d never met who she was going to live with for the foreseeable future.
She cried for quite a while, so we chatted to her and played, and gave her a drink of milk and an advisory bowl of cheesy pasta. She eventually started smiling, and around two hours after arriving, she went to sleep in a new house.
A key part of a foster carer’s training is attachment theory. There are dozens of academic studies about attachment, but what it amounts to is the fairly obvious fact that babies and young children benefit from having the security of at least one trustworthy adult around, to give them the confidence to explore the world and get on with other people.
So, in theory, our new walking toddler could be exploring her world by hurtling around the house causing chaos. But in fact, at home, she won’t stay out of our sight and follows us everywhere. If she sees us with a coat, she rushes to find hers too. Attachment theory calls us her ‘secure base.’
During our training, we heard the real national horror stories about how babies had been treated by parents and family members before being taken into care. We were also told that in most cases, the issues are closer to neglect rather than anyone actively trying to harm a child. But simple neglect, like being left on your own for hours on end, can be terrible too.
One aspect of attachment theory suggests that since crying is the only way for a baby to get a response from an adult if the baby finds that crying doesn’t actually bring someone, she’ll eventually stop wasting her energy. She might become very self-reliant and disinterested in other people as a result, or may welcome attention from anyone. If crying sometimes brings an angry or violent adult, the baby can become even more confused.
We know our new toddler has lived with several different people and experienced quite a lot in her life and probably cried a fair bit over her 15 months.
Trying to nail the exact nature of any attachment problems she may have is almost impossible, and perhaps unnecessary. All we can do is try to give her the right level of security now and hope she’ll become a little braver as she gets used to having us around.
But what strikes this securely based foster carer as I chase our giggling toddler around with a flashing bike light, trying to distract her long enough to sit still and have her nappy changed, is her resilience.
Whether she has an attachment disorder or not, give her a bit of love and consistency, and a bit of craziness every now and then, and she has every chance.