The CAPA (Farnfield 2014b; Farnfield, in press) is an assessment of attachment of children, using story telling assisted by doll play. It is has been validated by a number of research studies as well as having a long history of use in assessment and clinical practice. It can be used with children from 3½ years up until 12 years of age, but is especially useful with preschool children and the early school years, because of the ability of the doll play to assist the child in developing a narrative.
The Story Stems (story beginnings given by the interviewer but completed by the child) are designed to elicit information about a child’s representations of parents and care giving. This gives insight into a child’s experiences within their family and their attachment to the significant adults in their lives. It can also be used to examine the nature of sibling relationships. The children’s stories that come out of this are neither ‘fantasy’ nor simple descriptions of actual experience. Rather, they provide a window into the child’s ‘script’, or ‘model’, of relationships. They provide a map of the child’s expectations of care and protection from his or her key relationships.
Like the other measures of attachment, a Story Stem assessment can offer a comprehensive understanding of a child’s behaviour and ways of thinking and feeling in his or her close relationships. The child is offered a series of story beginnings (stems) by the interviewer, and the child is asked to “show me and tell me what happens next”. The child’s stories are then probed according to the guidelines for this measure, in order to elicit the necessary information to classify the child’s responses. The process is videoed and transcribed, so that it can be coded by someone who is trained in using this measure.
The stress gradually increases in each of the stories, as they are presented. Elements of danger are introduced into the assessment because attachment behaviour is a “self-protective strategy” and is displayed when an individual feels him or herself to be at physical or emotional risk.
In assessing a child’s attachment we are looking to discover:
An attachment strategy: What we do and how we think when we feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Such strategies and defences, whilst developed in infancy and childhood to elicit nurture and protection from parents and carers, continue to shape relationships into adulthood, as well as be informed by them. Interviews such as the Attachment Story Stem Completion task track how information is distorted by the brain in order to assist an individual in dealing with any perceived dangers. Over time, human beings learn to exaggerate the importance of feelings and thinking that has helped them stay safe, and omit or minimise what has been irrelevant or misleading to them. In this way our ways of thinking and feeling about our close relationships are influenced by the dangers and fears we have experienced. Sometimes, however what may have helped someone stay safe in one situation can mislead and cause problems when they face a situation that is very different, or these strategies might have unintended consequences on other people.
Unresolved traumatic experiences: Terrifying experiences or losses that distort a person’s behaviour in major ways without them being aware of it. Being exposed to extreme or ongoing danger or overwhelming loss can interrupt someone’s strategy of staying safe, because how they are thinking and feeling has more to do with the past traumatic event, than it has to do with their current situation. These issues can be generational in their effects, with children being traumatised by their own parents’ responses to the past. They operate like a landmine, hidden from view, but exploding when a parent’s life circumstances lead them to step on the place where it is lying. Uncovering them within an assessment can be like a key, unlocking understanding of aspects of a child or parents’ life which neither professionals nor the parents themselves have understood before.