Effects of Attachment and Separation

Attachment and separation: these elemental forces drive the behaviors and decisions that shape every stage of practice.  Assessment, removal, placement, reunification, adoption—no aspect of child welfare social work is untouched by their influence. This article will describe these forces and provide suggestions for helping children and families understand and cope with them.


Attachment is the social and emotional relationship children develop with the significant people in their lives. An infant's first attachment is usually formed with its mother, although in some circumstances another adult can become the primary attachment figure. This may be a father, a grandparent, or an unrelated adult (Caye, et al., 1996).

Attachment is a process made up of interactions between a child and his or her primary caregiver. This process begins at birth, helping the child develop intellectually, organize perceptions, think logically, develop a conscience, become self-reliant, develop coping mechanisms (for stress, frustration, fear, and worry), and form healthy and intimate relationships (Allen, et al., 1983).

In her 1982 article on parent-child attachment, published in the journal Social Casework, Peg Hess states that three conditions must be present for optimal parent-child attachment to occur: continuity, stability, and mutuality. Continuity involves the caregiver's constancy and repetition of the parent-child interactions. Stability requires a safe environment where the parent and child can engage in the bonding process. Mutuality refers to the interactions between the parent and child that reinforce their importance to each other.

Research has demonstrated that two primary parenting behaviors are most important in developing an infant's attachment to a caregiver. Optimal attachment occurs when a caregiver recognizes and responds to the infant's signals and cues, meeting the infant's physical and emotional needs; and when the caregiver regularly engages the child in lively social interactions.

Studies of infants raised in institutional settings suggest that neither behavior alone is sufficient for secure attachment. For example, one study found that institutionalized infants failed to form strong attachments to caregivers who readily met their physical needs but did not engage them in social interaction. Conversely, social interactions alone are not enough: infants often form social attachments to brothers, sisters, fathers, and grandparents who engage them in pleasurable social activity. Yet, when they are tired, hungry, or distressed, they often cannot be comforted by anyone other than the caregiver who has historically recognized and responded to their signals of physical and emotional need (Caye, et al. 1996).


Separation, the removal of children from the caregiver(s) to whom they are attached, has both positive and negative aspects. From a child protection perspective, separation has several benefits, the most obvious being the immediate safety of the child. Through this separation, limits can be established for parental behavior, and the child may get the message that society will protect him or her, even if the parent will not. Separation also temporarily frees parents from the burden of child-rearing, allowing them to focus on making the changes necessary for the child to return home.

Separating a parent and child can also have profoundly negative effects. Even when it is necessary, research indicates that removing children from their homes interferes with their development. The more traumatic the separation, the more likely there will be significant negative developmental consequences.

Repeated separations interfere with the development of healthy attachments and a child's ability and willingness to enter into intimate relationships in the future. Children who have suffered traumatic separations from their parents may also display low self-esteem, a general distrust of others, mood disorders (including depression and anxiety), socio-moral immaturity, and inadequate social skills. Regressive behavior, such as bedwetting, is a common response to separation. Cognitive and language delays are also highly correlated with early traumatic separation.

Social workers in child placement must be continually aware of the magnitude of the changes children experience when they are removed from their families. See "Helping a Child Through a Permanent Separation" for ways to minimize the trauma of separation.


In most cases of separation, the families involved go through the five stages of grief (shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution), although not necessarily in this order. For example, it is possible for a grieving person to move from anger to depression and back to anger again. "Reactions to the Five Stages of Grief" is a chart that identifies behavioral expression in children and parents during each of these stages.

One of the most common errors made by social workers, foster parents, and parents is to misinterpret a child's compliant and unemotional behavior during the shock/denial stage and judge a placement to be a "success." When a child is thought to have handled the move without distress, later behavioral signs are often not recognized as part of the grieving process. They may be ignored or attributed to emotional or behavioral problems. At times the child may even be punished for them, intensifying the child's distress and depriving him of support and help (Caye, et al., 1996).


Allen, J. A., Fahlberg, V., Ellett, A., Montgomery, T. M., Overberger, C., Williams., C., & Swanson, K. (1983). Special needs adoption curriculum: Preparation of children. Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Caye, J., McMahon, J., Norris, T., & Rahija, L. (1996). Effects of separation and loss on attachment. Chapel Hill: School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Fahlberg, V. I. (1991). A child's journey through placement. Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press.

Hess, P. (1982). Parent-child attachment concept: Crucial for permanency planning. Social Casework, 63(1), 46-57.

Wasserman, S. & Rosenfeld, A. (1986). Decision-making in child abuse and neglect. Child Welfare, 65(6), 515-529.

Source : http://www.practicenotes.org/vol2_no4/effects_of_separation_and_attachment.htm

© 1997 Jordan Institute for Families

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