Essentially, attachment refers to what we (adults and children) do in relationships, when we are anxious or threatened, and the effect of this upon our thinking and feeling. Parents who have had adverse childhood and later experiences, which remain unresolved, may come to distort the meaning of their own and their child’s experience in ways that are self-protective and relate to their own experiences of danger and threat, but are not protective to their child. This may also be true of separation and divorce, which are psychologically threatening to all adults (even if at the same time positive or even necessary for both parties). Where parents are unable to see their child’s separate experience, they may draw their child into an understanding of their relationships that is (or feels) protective to them, but is harmful to the child. As one summary of the research around alienation explains it:
For many children exposed to high conflict and alienating processes, their experience of being confused by mutually exclusive perspectives interferes with the development of a strong sense of themselves and capacity for good reality testing. They are confused as to whether they should believe what the parent is saying or what they are experiencing themselves. The child may choose one reality as an escape from the unbearable position of having their realities collide. Unfortunately, they often abandon their own internal sense of reality to maintain the vital connection to one parent, usually the custodial parent. For the child whose development has been impeded with a resulting diffuse sense of self and poorly developed differentiation from the aligned parent, the vulnerability to becoming alienated from the rejected parent increases. Thus, unable to rely on themselves and unable to make sense of what they hear and see in an integrated manner, they adopt the perceptions of the parent engaged in alienating processes. p.289
Lee, S. M., & Olesen, N. W. (2001). Assessing for alienation in child custody and access evaluations. Family Court Review, 39(3), 282-298.
The attachment assessments bring these potentially differing perspectives into the open and the extent to which one or both parents’ needs may have inadvertently recruited the child into a perspective which is at odds with their experience. They also shed light on anxieties (which may be unrelated to the parents separation) that the child might have and how this impacts her relationships and welfare. Positively, they can show how the parent(s) may be helping the child make sense of what has happened and is happening to them and the family.
So far as the parents are concerned, the issue is not that they see things differently from each other (which is to be expected, and not necessarily a problem for the child) but whether the parent can help the child negotiate these differences, or is inadvertently recruiting the child into their own conflict or unresolved feelings of loss or anger, for example. The key assessment is the Parent Development Interview (also called the Meaning of the Child interview) which carefully evaluates the extent to which the parent can see their child’s experience, or alternatively, for example, is muddling it up with their own fear, anger or sense of loss.
With the child, an assessment of attachment, such as child story stems (a procedure where the child is asked to complete family related doll play scenarios as a non threatening and non specific way of talking about relationships) can make visible a child’s struggle with integrating the realities of their parents (if such a struggle exists), and any fear, anger or distress arising out of this. It does not require a child to take sides in any way. Observation of the child at home and in contact, and short clips of videoed interaction (if child and parent are comfortable with this) can also shed light on the actual nature of the child’s relationships, and specifically how what the child is doing in face to face interaction with the parent is related to how the child thinks and feels about their relationships, as assessed by the story stem, or similar procedure. From the above though, it can be seen how important it is to use assessment procedures that shed light on what is going on for the child on the inside, in order to properly understand the child’s behaviour.
Whilst it would be possible to gain useful information and form a view from assessing the adults alone, the assessments offer a much greater opportunity to understand the nature of the child’s experience, and in this case her distress and anxiety, if the results of the work with the parents, are allowed to inform the work with the child and vice versa. From the combination of assessment procedures that are known to relate to each other, it is possible to form an in depth understanding of how the whole family is reacting to what has happened to them, how the struggles of each family member may be impacting on the others, and so how they (and the child in particular) can be best helped.