What is Attachment?

Happy Family

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Attachment is a kind of bond that endures over time. It is primarily developed the first to third year of life, but that is not the only chance to develop attachment. Attachment figures are those who meet needs of the child especially in times of distress. Attachment shapes a child’s nervous system.

Sensitivity and responsiveness in interactions is key, not merely time together.

Separation from an attachment figure may cause distress, but secure attachment encourages temporary separation and development. Insecure attachment is still attachment, and the child will still seek or monitor the attached figure. Attachment exists even in maltreatment. A child who avoids a parent has not lost interest, but may be angry, anxious, sad, and even feel guilty. If the needs represented by these emotions are met, the child will gradually decrease avoidance. Three subtypes of insecure attachment include avoidant, ambivalent, and a disorganized or controlling descriptor. Parental behavior associated with the types of attachment follow: secure attachment with parental flexibility and stability, avoidant attachment with dismissive parenting, ambivalent attachment with preoccupied parents, and disorganized attachment with overwhelmed parents. Parental capacity is important to consider.

Appearances can be misleading. The parent that looks like the better parent in counseling, mediation, and court is not necessarily the better parent. Where there is high conflict, usually both parents are contributing to the conflict. Another way appearances can be misleading is the way a child acts out distress upon return to a parent. The child is often expressing how upset he or she was to be apart, and not that he or she had a negative experience while apart.

Since primary attachment is crucial to self-regulation, experts recommend primary custody with one parent for the first three years with frequent visits by the non-custodial parent, though not overnight. Between eighteen months and three years, whole day visits and overnights can be gradually introduced, carefully monitoring reactions. The child’s ability to comprehend that they will return to the custodial parent is important. This lays a foundation for future secure attachments with both parents. Items brought from the primary home may help. Longer parenting time can be gradually arranged and completed by the time the child is between six and eight.

What disrupts attachment? Parental conflict. It is recommended that protracted court cases involving high conflict and children be buffered by an ongoing support system, counselor, or advocate. Minimizing exposure to parental conflict is paramount, and providing a transitional space and place can be helpful to the child. Perhaps dropping the child off with a “neutral” third party from whom the other parent can then meet for pick-up, or at least a public place. For more information, see How One Parent Undermines Another Parent and Reunification Therapy with Estranged and Alienated Parents.

Emery (2011) has recently reviewed his longitudinal finding that, twelve years after random assignment to mediation or litigation, non-residential parents who had mediated their parenting dispute saw their children far more often than parents who settled via an adversarial process, and additionally had improved their parenting. Co-parents who mediated reported significantly less conflict (Main, Mary; Hesse, Erik; Hesse, Seigfried. “Attachment Theory and Research: Overview with Suggested Applications to Child Custody.” Family Court Review (2011): Volume 49, Issue 3, pages 426–463).

Working with Counselors and Court

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Working with the Court in managing chaotic situations involving children and counseling is challenging and requires an additional set of skills. This article should help to evaluate court-involved counseling. It is important to know how counseling will affect the legal process and how the legal process will affect counseling.

Families are often referred to counseling or mediation because (1.) a child is distressed, or (2.) a parent is hoping for support in a court case, or (3.) counseling or mediation is court-ordered. Each of these scenarios differs in the nature of the information that is presented to the counselor or mediator, and in the expectations of the counselor or mediator. Each participant has an agenda that is influenced by the legal process. The clinician should be focused on the psychological health of the client, the mediator should be focused on communication and negotiation, and clinicians and mediators should respect the role of attorneys, forensic evaluators, parenting coordinators, and the Court. Clinicians and mediators should not mix roles without a waiver. If there is a court order, the role should be clearly defined.

Clinicians and mediators should be knowledgeable in child development, and obtain each parent’s perspective and maintain objectivity. The clinician should be careful with attitudes and beliefs of the children that reflect one of the parents. These attitudes and beliefs may be hiding true feelings and may be causing distress. Clinicians and mediators should also know characteristics of divorcing parents and children, family systems, best practice for high conflict, and understand relevant research and standards of practice. Clinicians and mediators should also have ongoing training, especially in domestic violence, parental alienation and estrangement, and special needs of the family and children. Clinicians and mediators should be understanding of expectations and processes of the legal system and work well with collateral contacts.

Reunification Therapy with Estranged and Alienated Parents


By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Aside from abuse, children generally benefit from a relationship with both mom and dad. Even if there are negative aspects of a parent, children benefit from interacting with one who “brought them into this world,” and can learn crucial coping skills and expand personal styles of problem-solving. Children usually benefit from all the resources of both homes. Also, as both parents and child age the opportunity for a more comfortable relationship develops. Research indicates that not only do children benefit from a relationship with both parents, but in retrospect, children wish they had more time with the non-custodial parent and that children can still feel rejected by estranged and alienated parents. In retrospect, adult children report that they wish someone helped them with their relationship with the “other” parent.

Parents especially in divorce can become estranged or alienated. Estranged parents generally involves the deterioration of the parent’s relationship with the child due to parental factors and child behavior. The child and parent both experience the disconnection. For children of alienated parents, the emphasis is more on what the child has been told about their experience with the other parent, which may include exaggerations and negative allegations. Even if the allegations are true about the other parent, it is difficult if not impossible to accurately measure the exact impact on the child. The child may be attracted to power, and the child may either be more aligned with the more powerful parent, or the child may find power in protecting the “victimized” parent. Some signs of alienation can be found in the post How One Parent Undermines the Other Parent and Visitation Refusal.

Reunification therapy is difficult because it requires not only the usual willingness to make personal changes but also the elusive ability to utilize (versus attack) someone else’s point of view. The earlier the intervention the better. The goal is to help kids past anxiety and avoidance to mastery and confidence. Therapeutic goals are based on each situation, but always involve the parent and child seeing the impact of their own behavior on the other, expressing remorse, the ability to refocus on a future relationship, and effective restriction on the other parent’s interference. Interventions include identifying thinking errors, improving communication, resolving attachment issues, and building self-esteem. Therapists should be active, directive and able to confront maladaptive interactions. Success is determined by the parents making agreements that stick.