Implications of Attachment
Theory for Child Care Policies
THOMAS G. O’CONNOR
Attachment theory was derived in large measure from insights gained through clinical observations of children in institutional care, as well as of children who had been separated from or who had lost one or both parents (Bowlby, 1969/ 1982). Indeed, the first volume in the Attachment and Loss trilogy sought to integrate Bowlby’s own clinical observations with those of James and Joyce Robertson (1971) and others, in order to place them in a larger conceptual framework relevant to both abnormal and normal development. Thus attachment theory was initially grounded in clinical and policy concerns regarding children. The policies most relevant to children’s psychological well-being have changed dramatically in the three decades following Bowlby’s first seminal writings, but there continues to be a need for a strong connection between attachment theory and child care policies.
This chapter examines that connection in relation to three main themes. First, we approach it from a historical perspective: We note the features that differentiate attachment theory from other theories of development, with particular reference to the implications for child care policies. Second, we outline some important contemporary child care policy concerns that would benefit from an attachment perspective. Third, we focus on some of the key conceptual and methodological issues that need to be considered with respect to the application of attachment theory to child care policies and practice.
Throughout, we pay attention to two parallel concerns. First, we consider whether there has been something of a split between basic and applied research that may have led to conceptual confusion in attempts to apply attachment principles to practice. Second, we ask whether attachment research has taken sufficient advantage of special populations (e.g., children in residential institutions or in foster care) to address outstanding fundamental questions in attachment theory.
THEORY AND CHILD CARE
In order to understand the past impact of attachment theory on child care policies, it is necessary to highlight what was distinctive about its postulates when it was introduced, as compared with other theories of personality development and psychopathology (see Rutter, 1972/1981, 1995a, 1995b). First and foremost, attachment theory emphasized the importance of both continuity and sensitive responsivity in caregiving relationships as the key features of the environment of upbringing. This emphasis differed sharply from behavior theory, which focused on such features as here-and-now perceptual stimulation and reinforcement of child behaviors (see, e.g., Casler,