What the Church needs to know about attachment

To be safe and welcoming, it is vital that churches understand attachment.

God has designed us to stay close to a parental figure when we are young, vulnerable and defenceless; He created the need for attachment.

Attachment serves two vital functions.

Firstly, attachment is a protective function to keep us safe from harm so that we grow and flourish, and secondly, it’s a safe base. From this safe base we are encouraged to move out into the unknown and extend ourselves, exploring and experimenting, taking the risks required in learning and going on to realise our God-given potential, and then returning back to base to become refuelled before venturing out again.

This was God’s design. This is what He intended for us from the beginning.

However, unfortunately this intended design can be disrupted. Much can interfere with this process, which leads to ruptures in the relationship between a child and his/her parent.

Disruptions in attachment can happen intentionally through the abuse or neglect of a child, or it could merely be due to circumstances, for example a birth mother suffering post-natal depression, or a baby having serious medical concerns at birth. Rather than learning that adults can provide safety from harm, offer the experiences of joy and playfulness, and give regulation for big, overwhelming states, sensations and feelings, children create alternative meanings based on their lived experiences.

They will come to believe or expect that adults can bring pain or harm, even leading you into danger, or adults can leave you with big overwhelming states, sensations and feelings to manage all alone, or adults can leave you feeling distressed, overlooked and grieving for all that could have been.

This is not what God designed. He designed us for dependency.

Not only was the attachment process designed for facilitating safety, security and stability for the young, but surely it was also intended to provide the foundational relational experience to pave the way for us to understand God’s parental heart towards and for us.

Children who have experienced extraordinary stress from the womb or in the early months and years of their life will often have struggles with attachments and this will likely lead to developmental vulnerabilities in three key areas:

  • In their executive functioning (reflective/thinking brain)
  • In their emotional regulation
  • In their psychological development

Many different kinds of relational disruption in early childhood can lead to children feeling extensive distrust and a fear of vulnerability, and this can last throughout their lives. When children experience toxic stress in their fragility they can attempt to meet their own needs and this can display in a variety of behaviours, which will be unique to every child.

It could be that a child or young person with attachment difficulties will display this by keeping their distance from others, avoiding intimacy at all costs. It may be that they seek to form a large amount of indiscriminate attachments, holding on to any relationship at whatever cost, or that they are constantly pulling people in and then pushing them away, unable to offer consistency in their relationships.

Or it may be that a child or young person who struggles with attachment, or potentially even an adult that continues to face these issues, will display a combination of these behaviours.

The Church should be a place where vulnerable children and young people are accepted, cherished and nurtured, where individuals make an effort to engage and support those that have experienced trauma, and therefore the Church must seek to understand how best to do this for those that have attachment difficulties.

All children and young people that have been looked after at some point in their lives will have experienced a level of loss and trauma, even those who have been in foster care since birth or were adopted at a young age, and in many cases this can lead to issues surrounding attachment.

As a church leader, children’s or youth group leader, or simply as a caring church member, it is always important to engage with foster carers and adoptive parents to ascertain how best to support the children in their care. The parents and carers are the best individuals to explain the specific ways in which their children will need your support and understanding, and you should always follow their suggestions for engaging with their children, as this will be part of the child’s ongoing relational development.

In some cases it may be appropriate for you not to particularly engage with some children, as their parents or carers may be seeking to limit the amount of relationships the child is developing in order to help the child build good attachments with the significant people in their lives. Again, please follow this guidance if the parents or carers request it – it is not a personal snub to you, but part of the bigger picture of providing the child with the best possible care. In this case you can still pray for the child, and perhaps practically support the family, without directly engaging with the child.

Please take some time to read our accompanying article 20 ways to engage and support children and young people with attachment difficulties to further understand what you can do. You may also be interested in the following books to gain deeper understanding:

  • Inside I'm Hurting: Practical strategies for supporting children with attachment difficulties in schools by L M Bomber (2007)
  • What About Me? Inclusive strategies to help pupils with attachment difficulties make it through the school day by L M Bomber (2011)
  • Settling to Learn: Why relationships matter in school by L M Bomber & D Hughes (2013)
  • Teenagers and Attachment edited by A Perry (2009)
  • Attachment in the Classroom : The Link between childrens’ early experience, emotional well being and performance in school by H Geddes (2006)
  • Attachment Aware Schools Series: Bridging the Gap (5 pocket sized books in the series for team pupil & parent/carer, 1) key adult 2) senior manager 3) class teacher/form tutor 4) team pupil 5) parent/carer) by L M Bomber (2015/2016)

Louise Michelle Bomber is qualified as both a teacher and a therapist, and is clinical director of TouchBase. She works as an Attachment Support Teacher and Therapist and offers a range of services supporting children and young people who have experienced significant relational traumas and losses. She provides consultations and training for those in education, health and social services, and she serves on Home for Good’s Council of Reference. www.attachmentleadnetwork.net

Questions for churches to consider:

a) How attachment aware are you and your church at present?b) What could you do personally to ensure you are attachment aware in church, so that these children and young people can be fully included?c) What could your church do as a whole community to ensure attachment awareness so that these children and young people experience acceptance and a sense of belonging?

Louise Michelle Bomber



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