“That is not fair!” Any parent or teacher knows how early in children’s lives this notion drives human behavior, motivation, and belonging. When children feel they are treated fairly, they develop a sense of safety and predictability, and find reason to comply with rules and legitimize authorities. Parents and teachers are justice gatekeepers in children’s lives. How they handle conflict and discipline shapes children’s expectations of justice in other settings. Most children and adolescents do not have direct contact with legal authorities, such as police or judges. However, one of the ways they build their perspectives is based on the justice they have grown to expect from closer authorities. Data from a diverse group of 680 Brazilian adolescents revealed that parents’ justice at home and their evaluations of school fairness predicted how adolescents perceived their personal access to justice and the justice of the world at large. Furthermore, adolescents’ world views of justice predicted how much they legitimized the law and avoided delinquent behaviors the following year. It is easy to think about justice as simply getting what you deserve, but that bypasses one of the more powerful cognitions of justice – the process of justice. Procedural justice considers the respect, neutrality, voice, and fairness of the authority’s actions. A child may not agree that she should be disciplined for her dishonesty, but if the parent is respectful, explains the rules, and listens to the child, she is more likely to continue respecting her parents’ authority, despite her frustration. The point is not to be lenient, but to emerge on the other side with your child’s respect so that, even when consequences are firm, the child experiences the safety and predictability of justice. “How parents and teachers handle conflict and discipline shapes children’s expectations of justice in other settings.” It is vital that children experience justice and come to expect it. Harsh punishments or rules without explanation do not feel fair, and chip away at the legitimacy youth attribute to authorities at large – and that illegitimacy makes them vulnerable to future delinquency. When you find out your child has done something wrong, do you: Listen to their side of the story? Talk to them politely? Explain why you are disciplining them? Youth should be given the chance to articulate their perspective and practice civil dialogue in common daily scenarios. When children are consistently given a chance to explain their perspective and be respected by the authorities they know, they will anticipate and even demand to be given the same rights in society. The world is not a fair place, and failing to expose injustice underprepares children at best, and leads them to blame the victims or be the victims at worst. The goal is not to have children believe the world is fair, but is to make their lives fair so they can be equipped with the courage to engage in positive civic behaviors and avoid fatalistic mindsets. “We want to raise children to speak up and expect to be heard and understood.” We want to raise children who are equipped for the challenges of the world. Doing so begins by providing a safe haven at home and at school, where they can learn to connect their actions to outcomes and to be outraged by, not cynical of, injustice. We want them to have good reasons to legitimize their authorities. We want to raise children to speak up and expect to be heard and understood. We must model for them the kind of justice we want them to demand from society. Header photo: MTSOfan. Creative Commons. More
Dr. Graeme Russell died on 2nd April 2021 after a long battle with cancer. At the time of his death, he was a Flexibility and Diversity Consultant in Sydney, Australia, Research Collaborator and Knowledge Program Facilitator for the Diversity Council of Australia, and a retired Associate Professor of Organizational Psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Graeme cared deeply about the issues of gender equality, diversity and family well-being in Australia, devoting his professional life to research and practical work to promote these goals. He collaborated with scholars and practitioners throughout the world and will be sorely missed.
Graeme pioneered research on fathering, starting in the late 1970s, and his 1982 book, The changing role of fathers, remains the point of reference for research on primary caretaking fathers because it sought to place the fathers’ behavior in the context of intrafamilial and broader societal beliefs, practices, and constraints. Graeme continued to publish articles and book chapters on primary caregiving fathers, father-child relationships in childhood and adolescence, shared parenting, grandfathering, Australian fatherhood, and family policy over the succeeding decades. Because of his scholarship, researchers now recognize that men can be active parents in the move toward greater gender equality and that social attitudes and institutional policies play an essential role in constraining and facilitating parental behavior. Graeme was actively involved in organizing and disseminating outcomes from the first International Fatherhood Summit at Oxford in 2003 and was a key figure in helping the Australian government design policies to promote gender equality and work-family integration, for example, by engaging in several projects for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, established in 2012. In 2017, he co-authored a book entitled Men make a difference – engaging men on gender equality.
For nearly four decades, Graeme was avidly involved in supporting working fathers, consulting with companies interested in promoting gender equality and work-family integration in many countries, including Australia, China, Japan and Korea. He established workshops for fathers in the workplace to help them integrate work and family demands and published several articles on the impact of workplace practices on father involvement. His keen interest in workplace flexibility and its promise for gender equality led him to design team-based approaches for work redesign, making it possible for companies to implement flexible work arrangements, assuring benefits for individuals and companies. At the time of his death, he was focused on ensuring that human resource professionals were aware of these important possibilities.
Graeme’s success as a consultant and colleague was facilitated by his genuine warmth, friendliness, and accessibility, which allowed him to get along with everyone regardless of their personal characteristics or ideology. His personal strengths were especially evident in his skillful engagement with diverse groups, including senior managers, employees, unions, politicians, academics and social activists. While Graeme’s professional and personal lives were mutually enriching, his first priority in life was always his family, comprising his wife Susan, his children (Kirsten, Emily, and Benjamin) and his eight grandchildren. He especially adored his grandchildren and played an important role in their daily lives, spending as much time as possible with them. He was a loving husband, father, and grandfather.
Graeme’s legacy as a pioneer of gender equality in Australia will be long-lasting and his influence on students, collaborators, scholars, human resource practitioners, and policy makers has been profound.
Linda Haas, Indiana University, Indianapolis, USAPhilip Hwang, University of Gothenburg, SwedenMichael E. Lamb, University of Cambridge, UK More
Research has consistently shown that children who are physically disciplined by their parents, such as getting hit or slapped, have more externalizing problems (like aggression) and more disruptive behaviors in the classroom. Their academic performance is also lower than that of children who are not physically disciplined. Even in studies that do not focus on physical punishment, children who behave in problematic ways in the classroom tend to do less well academically, in general, than their peers.
However, this research raises the proverbial chicken-and-egg question: Does disruptive behavior in the classroom interfere with the learning process? Or do learning challenges lead children to act out? For example, when children act out in school, they are sometimes separated from other children and removed from the classroom, which may give them fewer opportunities to learn. Under this scenario, which has been referred to as the adjustment erosion hypothesis, negative behavior comes first, followed by academic challenges. An alternative idea, called the academic incompetence hypothesis, suggests that when children have difficulties learning, they can become disruptive, perhaps out of frustration.
“We found that children who were physically disciplined by their parents in kindergarten had more externalizing problems in first grade, slower rates of literacy learning from K-8, and ultimately, lower overall literacy skills by eighth grade.”
Many studies lack the data to determine when problems start, how children’s behavior changes over time, or even if these challenges start as a result of disciplining practices at home. To examine these questions, my colleagues and I conducted a study, focusing on children’s literacy as an important indicator of academic performance. Literacy is the foundation for acquiring knowledge, especially as children shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
We analyzed data from a large U.S. sample that tracked children from kindergarten through eighth grade. While controlling for factors that have also been associated with children’s behavior and learning, such as socioeconomic status and parents’ education, we found that children who were physically disciplined more frequently by their parents in kindergarten had more externalizing problems in first grade, slower rates of literacy learning from K-8, and ultimately, lower overall literacy skills by eighth grade when compared to children whose parents did not use physical discipline early on. Our findings support the adjustment erosion hypothesis and show that parents’ physical discipline practices have long-lasting, cascading effects on children’s behavior and learning.
Why might physical discipline in early childhood lead to children’s problem behavior and lower literacy over time? As children transition into a new educational system, as they do when they start kindergarten, they may be particularly vulnerable to the challenges at home. We know from a number of studies that in times of stress or change, children need support. If parents are sensitive to their children’s needs, and offer a supportive and predictable caregiving environment, children feel comforted, safe, and less stressed.
“Promoting a positive environment at home should start as early as possible.”
They also regulate their feelings better, meaning that when a child gets distressed, as all children do, they are better at recovering from their negative feelings. However, if children are parented harshly or inconsistently, they can feel unsettled, and this adds to the stresses they are already experiencing. When some children feel heightened levels of stress, they act out. Moreover, when children are hit by their parents, it signals to them, even unintentionally, that aggression is a way to control others. So harsh discipline in the home may set up children to struggle with getting along in the classroom environment and ultimately, with learning important skills such as reading.
We also know from our research that promoting a positive environment at home should start as early as possible. Early in infancy, when children are so dependent on support, they need a safe and responsive caregiving environment. For example, when babies are very young and cry, they are signaling that something does not feel right. Caregivers need to respond by picking them up and trying to figure out what they need. Babies cannot be spoiled by caregivers responding their needs.
As children get older, they start to test limits and boundaries. Sometimes they engage in behaviors that could harm themselves or others. Parents can learn strategies that are more authoritative in which they set clear boundaries (e.g., telling that that “it is not okay to push your sibling”), teach them better ways to regulate their feelings (e.g., using words, not physical force), and provide comfort when children are distressed. Using more authoritarian methods such as hitting a child to “teach them the rules” may work in the short term but does not work over time.
Early parenting behaviors are important for children to help them feel safe, learn how to explore safely, and regulate their feelings so they do not resort to acting out at home or in the classroom. Promoting better ways for children to manage their behavior can also help them in the learning environment, which can set them up for success.
Header photo: CDC. Unsplash. More
Adversity, such as abuse, neglect, and poverty, damages children. But protective experiences can build resilience against adversity and promote positive development.
We identified 10 relationships and resources proven to counter the impact of adverse experiences. They have hidden magic that can transform an otherwise miserable childhood. Perhaps a child has been abused and has an alcoholic or depressed parent – or both. Down the street lives a grandmother who provides safe harbor. Maybe a caring teacher or an athletics coach takes the child under her wing. These are just a few of many protective antidotes that can diminish the toxicity of adverse experiences. They mean that a child’s outcomes may turn out to be much better than expected in the face of difficult circumstances.
This list of PACEs – Protective and Compensatory Experiences – is based on more than common sense. The impact of such experiences is often identifiable through changes to the brain and in behaviors. For example, experiments with mice graphically demonstrate what can happen when a PACE repairs some of the damage caused by bad early experiences.
PACEs and genetic changes
A new mother mouse placed after the she gives birth in an unfamiliar environment with inadequate bedding typically becomes abusive to her pups. She may step on her young, and stop licking or grooming them because she is stressed. These pups grow up and act in a depressed manner, and are more likely to be harsh and fail to nurture their own pups. However, when the pups are fostered by non-stressed, nurturing mothers, over time, the epigenetic change driving their abusive behaviors can be reversed.
“When children experience multiple forms of adversity, the impacts are magnified. Multiple protective experiences may also have a cumulative effect.”
We do not yet have data for humans on the epigenetic impact of switching from an adverse to a protective experience. However, infants raised initially in Romanian orphanages who were later fostered in nurturing homes showed developmental benefits that likely mirrored the neurobiological improvements observed in mice.
Our colleague, David Bard, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, has demonstrated how positive parenting practices in thousands of U.S. families have buffered children against the impacts of adversity. Activities such as reading to children; ensuring they have routines; and taking them to shops, museums, and playgrounds were associated with better learning in preschool and fewer behavioral problems at school than would otherwise have been expected.
Top 10 protective and compensatory experiences
From research evidence, we have assembled a list of the top 10 types of relationships and resources that provide the PACEs that bolster children against adversity. These are detailed more extensively in our new book, Adverse and Protective Childhood Experiences: A Developmental Perspective.
Receiving unconditional love: Not only do children need to be nurtured and loved, that love should feel unconditional. This does not mean that children never get in trouble or parents never get mad. The crucial point is that whatever a child does, the parent stays on the child’s side. As an infant, it means that when you cry, you get a response; your parents make eye contact with you and cherish you; and they sing, play, and talk with you. As a child, you can count on your parent’s eyes lighting up when you walk into the room; mom or dad always has your back. And when you grow older, it means that your parent sets limits and explains how things are done. There are many ways to express unconditional love.
Having a best friend: Close friendship offers protection from peer rejection, bullying, and victimization. This happens not just because a child has someone to talk to, but because it helps the child learn how to deal with conflict and grow a relationship over time. Children have a sense of being important and they have someone to go to.
Volunteering in the community: Volunteering helps children learn about the needs of others and gives them the opportunity to see a world outside their own. When they understand that helping is not done out of pity, it allows them to accept help from others when they need it.
Being part of a group: Being in a group gives children a sense of belonging outside the family. It allows children and teenagers to learn about themselves in different contexts, and provides opportunities for friendship and leadership. Taking part in school clubs and sports is linked to academic success, psychological well-being, and lower rates of substance abuse.
Having a mentor: Having an adult other than a parent who can be trusted and counted on for help and advice helps protect against psychological distress and academic difficulties, and reduces the incidence of high-risk activities. Even if children have exemplary parents, an adult outside the home can be an alternative role model to whom children can aspire and is a reminder that someone else loves them.
Living in a clean, safe home with enough food: These primary needs are crucial. Good, regular nutrition is important for brain development and protects against health problems; eating dinner regularly with your family reduces the risk of weight problems. Chaotic, unpredictable home environments are associated with harsh and inconsistent parenting. Children who live in unclean, cluttered homes have worse outcomes than those living in clean, organized homes.
Getting an education: Just like living in a clean, safe home, the opportunity to learn and be educated in an environment with boundaries and rules also protects children from risk. High-quality early childhood programs make a lasting difference to outcomes for children from low-income families.
Having a hobby: Whether it is playing an instrument, dancing, doing judo, reading, or playing chess, any recreational activity helps teach self-discipline and self-regulation, and can provide children and youth with a routine and a sense of mastery, competence, and self-esteem.
Engaging in physical activity: Being physically active helps children handle the physiological effects of stress on the body, and improves mood and mental health. In so doing, it reduces the likelihood that children will grab a bag of chips or lash out to relieve stress.
Having rules and routines: Security comes when children know what to expect and when caregivers enforce clear rules and limits. Children cannot parent themselves; they need high expectations, consistency, and parents’ involvement. In early childhood, this means that parents should establish and enforce bedtime and other routines, redirect children when they misbehave, and as children grow up, explain the effects of their behavior on others.
Photo: Anna Earl. Unsplash.
We know that when children experience multiple forms of adversity, the impacts are magnified. Likewise, multiple protective experiences may have a cumulative effect for children, though the power of this accumulation requires further study.
PACEs matter for all children
Adverse experiences can happen anywhere to anyone — the rich as well as the poor. All children should have access to experiences that bolster and protect them. Children from more well-to-do families who face adverse experiences, such as family break-up, mental illness, and substance abuse, are more likely to have compensatory experiences. These might be opportunities to participate in clubs, have tutors, go to drama classes, choose to play an instrument, and have teachers and coaches who really care about them.
“Down the street lives a grandmother who provides safe harbor. Maybe a caring teacher or athletics coach takes the child under her wing. These are just a few of many protective antidotes that can diminish the toxicity of adverse experiences.”
In contrast, children in families living in high-crime and high-poverty neighborhoods might lack access to protective experiences because their families have insufficient money or time. These children face a double jeopardy – more adversity and less compensatory protection. Their difficulties have increased in recent decades as many PACE resources, such as youth sports and activities, have become increasingly expensive.
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized how alone many parents are as they try to help their children gain access to PACEs. Parents have struggled to support their children’s learning at home, grappling with isolation; lack of routines; inadequate opportunities for exercise and hobbies; and in some cases, lack of enough food to keep children healthy.
The pandemic reminds us that promoting childhood development is about much more than preventing adversity. We need to think more about how to ensure that children have the good things in life so they are less likely to be hindered by what can go wrong.
Header photo: Anna Samoylova. Unsplash. More
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many children in the United States are struggling with remote learning and emotionally distressed by the absence of social interactions. But significant numbers of children in the world do not have access to the Internet or to any education during the pandemic.
Children are our future. Yet about 33 million children worldwide are displaced and most of them are out of school. Refugee children are a case in point. More than 92% of refugee children live in developing countries. Lack of education during COVID-19 has the potential to become an even more destructive pandemic.
Rohingya children are receiving no education during the pandemic
In August 2017, more than 742,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. More than 800,0000 Rohingya refugees now live in Cox’s Bazar in the largest and most crowded refugee camp in the world, and more than half are children and adolescents. Prior to the pandemic, children in Rohingya refugee camps were not allowed to receive education in local schools, barring them from opportunities to integrate into the local community in Bangladesh. As a result of the lockdown due to the pandemic, about 315,000 Rohingya children and adolescents lost access to education in the camps’ more than 6,000 learning institutions, which closed in mid-March 2020. In January 2020, the government of Bangladesh promised to give Rohingya children access to education and skills training, but we know little about the fine points of the pledge because the pandemic has stalled any progress.
“They are neglected, lack proper nutrition and health care, do not have access to any education, and are caught in a limbo of an uncertain future, from which there seems no apparent escape. It is time to give these children a fair chance at life.”
For many decades, Rohingya parents in the Rakhine state of Myanmar have seen their children being killed, maimed, violated, abducted, attacked in schools and hospitals, and denied a chance at a decent life. The situation was so bad for these and other refugee children worldwide that in 1999, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1261 to protect children in conflict regions for the first time. But Rohingyas in Bangladesh continue to live in danger. The lack of access to education is likely to result in parents marrying their children off at an early age or losing them to human trafficking. This means that generations of children will not realize their potential.
Considering these issues, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner of Bangladesh agreed that “it will definitely help” to educate children in the camp. Yet despite similar language from policymakers, a government directive in 2019 banned Internet access in the camp, so during the pandemic, even remote learning is not an option for children there.
Photo: taken at a learning center by Fatima Zahra in October 2019 (before the lockdown). It shows two siblings – getting ready to go home after school. Location: Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar.
The violence against children affects not only the refugees in the camp but also the social architecture of the host community. Refugee children in Bangladesh are a big part of the future of the country’s political economy and national security. Many fear that the inequalities and violence in the camps already contribute to enhanced violence in the host communities surrounding the camps.
How to right the wrong against refugee children: Three steps
Sadly, the fate of Rohingya children in Bangladesh is similar to that of most refugee children in the world. They are neglected, lack proper nutrition and health care, lack access to any education, and are caught in a limbo of an uncertain future from which there seems no apparent escape. It is time to give these children a fair chance at life through three steps.
First, children need access to high-quality education that is in both the children’s mother tongue and the language of the host country.
Language of instruction determines the effectiveness of education. It also determines how children perceive their future (in the host country) and how they are accepted as people from another country (their home country). Rohingya children were allowed some form of education in the Rohingya language before the pandemic in the informal learning institutes in the camps, but the host community looks down on Rohingya culture and language so the children did not learn about their home country.
“We often forget that refugee children are just like our children – and that they are in our space because they have nowhere to go. Governments,including the newly elected U.S. government, the private sector, and donors can step up their game and play a major role in supporting the future of refugee children.”
Bangladesh should give refugee children access to the curriculum in public schools in the country. This will create a cultural bridge between refugee and host community children. The Bangladeshi government has been very clear from the start that they do not want to do this. While learning one’s first language has tremendous benefits, it also helps facilitate learning another language (such as Bangla and English) when the children are living in Bangladesh. Children who speak the Rohingya language can build on the language and literacy they know to acquire another language.
Second, children in the camp need mental health support. Many children and adults in the camp are suffering from acute depression and anxiety. These children need teachers who are trained to support the learning of children who have experienced severe trauma, anxiety, and depression, and who continue to live with constant uncertainty. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the camps are invested in supporting children’s education – assistance from the local and national governments will mean they can scale their efforts in training teachers to extend high-quality education to the children.
Finally, people in the camp need access to high-speed Internet. The first two steps that are needed to improve education are possible only if refugee children have access to the outside world.
Using the Internet is crucial for children to access both education and mental health support. NGOs and companies can set up Wifi hotspots throughout the camp, as has been done in the past in other camps. Once that happens, children can access remote learning programs. Parents also need access to the relevant technologies (such as smartphones and the Internet) so they can oversee their children’s learning, which is instinctive for most parents.
As leading post-colonial scholarHomi Bhabha said, “the refugee condition makes the most stringent and severe demands on the national community or the ‘world community’ to recognize the global right of hospitality which is at the heart of human survival itself … for a ‘good life lived with others.’” We often forget that refugee children are just like our children – and that they are in our space because they have nowhere to go. Governments (including the newly elected U.S. government), the private sector, and donors can step up their game and play a major role in supporting the future of refugee children.
Closing the education gap for refugee children will move us one step closer to building a strong and diverse leadership for the world.
Header photo: taken during a focused group discussion with Rohingya children and adolescents about their learning preferences and aspirations as part of a research study at the South Asia Institute at Harvard University. The picture shows a child solving some basic math problems to demonstrate what he learned back in his school in Myanmar. Location: Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar. More
As children move into their preteen years, they increasingly differentiate between rules and obey the ones they think are legitimate. One of the most promising ways to bolster parents’ legitimacy is to treat children fairly.
Parents often try to make their children comply with rules through punishments, but in our study, parental practices of procedural justice predicted obedience more strongly than did punishments. Procedural justice practices include allowing children to give their side of the story, explaining to them why they are being reprimanded, and talking politely.
“Research shows that parents’ legitimacy increases when they are fair judges.”
The study assessed a diverse group of 697 Brazilian 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds once a year for three years. Disciplinary practices were classified into constructive practices (e.g., removing privileges, reprimanding verbally, grounding) and harsh practices (e.g., threatening, physically punishing , yelling). Harsh practices actually increased disobedience, possibly because they diminished perceived parental legitimacy. In other words, when parents punished their children harshly, instead of promoting obedience, it made the parents look less credible.
This study also allowed children to differentiate between issues. It is well established that, as children develop, they discriminate between domains over which parents have authority and grant more legitimacy to issues of safety and morality than to issues of convention or personal preference. In the study, the children were presented with 10 common household rules and asked if it was legitimate for their parents to have that rule. The issues with the highest legitimacy across all three years were substance use and truth telling. The issues that declined the most in legitimacy were media use, curfews, homework, and dating. And the strongest predictor of individual obedience was issue-specific legitimacy. Thus, children obeyed the rules over which they thought their parents had legitimate authority.
The study also asked about parents’ global legitimacy, in other words, whether youth thought their parents had the right to make the rules and whether they trusted their parents to make the right decisions. Youth’s evaluations of global legitimacy also strongly predicted their obedience.
“One of the most promising ways to bolster parents’ legitimacy is to treat children fairly.”
Prior research has established that authorities with high levels of procedural justice are typically legitimized. In other words, if your child thinks you are a fair judge, he or she may obey you because he or she sees you as a legitimate authority figure. However, harsh disciplinary strategies may backfire for the same reasons. Instead of eliciting a healthy fear, they may unintentionally undermine parental legitimacy.
Based on this study, parents should:
Avoid harsh discipline because it tends to backfire in the long term.
Emphasize procedural justice (hear youth’s perspective, be polite, provide explanation).
Stick to issues of morality and safety – it may be a losing battle to enforce other rules.
Header photo: Brian Evans. Creative Commons. More
The start of 2021 sees a major new contribution to family court practice by child development researchers. A 35-page “Consensus position based on the concerted body of attachment research” has been published, under the names of 70 leading attachment researchers. It is the most comprehensive statement ever produced on how attachment theory can be applied in family courts worldwide in the best interests of children. It also shows ways in which attachment theory is frequently misused.
This summary highlights the key points in the statement, but family court professionals who wish to learn more about this important topic should read the document in full. References to page numbers are included in this summary to enable quick access to the more detailed account.
The “best interests of the child” has become the fundamental consideration in family courts. The concept is included in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989): “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration (#3.1)” (p. 5).
This article addresses four issues:
The challenge of using attachment theory in family courts
What is attachment theory?
Three attachment principles for family court practice
Eight pieces of advice for family courts
1. The challenge of using attachment theory in family courts
A fundamental difficulty applying attachment science in family courts is that the science and the courts start from very different places. The measures used in attachment research are accurate enough to produce average scores that predict patterns of future child development across groups, but they are not sensitive enough to be used as diagnostic tools for individual families, which is what courts need (p. 5). Correlations found in attachment science, while statistically significant, may not be substantial, and rarely provide the basis for making a prediction about one individual (p. 21). Even the more fine-grained attachment assessments have been designed and validated for standardized contexts and may not apply in highly charged situations common in family courts.
“Family courts are under pressure to appear to base their decisions on evidence, and attachment theory has become by far the most popular theory among professionals working with children and families.”
Therefore, specific measures of attachment quality should be used with great caution. They may play a part, but only in combination with other assessments. Other measures include the child’s physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development, and very importantly, the capacity of a parent to provide care or be helped to develop caring skills. Above all, it is crucial to assess risk of harm to the child. Every one of these factors is hard to assess, not least because each can change over time, particularly if the assessment is made at a moment of heightened trauma and change (pp. 15-16, 20-21, 30-32).
Family courts are under pressure to appear to base their decisions on evidence, and attachment theory has become by far the most popular theory among professionals working with children and families. This creates an environment in which over-confidence about the application of attachment classifications or concepts to individual cases is common (p. 21). Because of the complexity of cases in family courts, proceedings can be influenced by personal opinions or cultural and social values and norms (pp. 5, 6, 32).
2. What is attachment theory?
2.1 Defining attachment
The 70 attachment researchers who contributed to the statement defined attachment this way:
Attachment refers to an affectional bond in which an individual is motivated to seek and maintain proximity to, and comfort from, particular familiar persons (Bowlby, 1969/1982). Children are born with a predisposition to develop this motivation in relation to significant others (“attachment figures”) who have been sufficiently present and responsive. For children, these persons are usually their caregivers. The motivation is held to be governed by an attachment behavioral system. This system seeks to maintain a certain degree of proximity between child and attachment figures, with the setting for desirable level changing dynamically in response to internal and external cues. The motivation to increase proximity is activated when a person is alarmed by internal cues (e.g. pain, illness) and/or external cues (e.g. fear-evoking stimuli, separation), and manifests in a tendency to seek the availability of an attachment figure. When the attachment system is strongly activated, some kind of physical contact with an attachment figure is generally sought, especially by infants, though this contact can also be achieved by non-physical means later in development … Caregivers who have regularly interacted with and protect the infant when the infant has been alarmed usually come to be represented by the infant as someone he or she can turn to when in need (i.e. as a safe haven). Importantly, even the most sensitive and responsive of caregivers necessarily “tune out” from time to time – to visit the bathroom, make tea, or even temporarily hand over caregiving to another trusted person familiar to the infant, while the caregiver attends to other matters. Thus, that a caregiver provides a safe haven does not necessitate that this person is constantly accessible for the infant physically, or even psychologically, or that the child is securely attached to that caregiver. Conversely, being physically present does not necessarily mean that a caregiver is emotionally available (pp. 7-8).
Photo: Yogendra Singh. Unsplash.
2.2 Attachment quality is measured by secure/insecure, not strong/weak
In attachment research, trained and certified coders measure the quality of attachment through standardized observation of children’s relative ability to use their caregiver as a safe haven to which they can turn for protection, and as a secure base from which they can explore the environment (p. 8).
Secure attachment manifests itself in the child’s expectation that the adult will be available in times of need. Insecure attachment manifests itself in the child’s expectation that the adult will be relatively unavailable (p. 8).
Insecure attachment is not weak and is extremely common and normal. Insecure attachment is an important strategy for children to maximize the potential availability of a caregiver who is unavailable or insensitive. An insecure attachment does not mean that the caregiver is never a safe haven for the child (pp. 10, 17).
Insecure attachment is observed in three forms:
Insecure-avoidant is when the child does not seek his or her familiar person when mildly alarmed, but remains near (p. 17).
Insecure-resistant is when the child seeks proximity but is not readily comforted and can show anger toward the caregiver. Both this and insecure-avoidant behavior are termed organized insecure attachment because they are coherent and work to increase the availability of less sensitive carers (p. 17).
Disorganized attachment is when the child is conflicted, confused, or apprehensive about a family caregiver in a situation of mild to moderate alarm. It is often associated with frightened, frightening, or dissociative behavior on the part of the caregiver, or a caregiver’s hostility, withdrawal, or maltreatment (p. 18).
All these forms of insecure attachment correlate with later compromised child development, but even in the case of disorganized attachment, the associations are not strong enough to infer that observing insecure attachment foretells poor development outcomes for a specific child (p. 19).
Furthermore, researchers observe patterns of attachment in carefully controlled conditions that involve only mild to moderate stress for a child. Family courts commonly deal with children in situations of intense stress. Disorganized behavior on the part of a seriously stressed child does not necessarily imply disorganized attachment (p. 19).
“Specific measures of attachment quality should be used with great caution. They may play a part, but only in combination with other assessments.”
2.3 Attachment disorder differs from insecure attachment
The negative effects of insecure attachments, as presented earlier, are far surpassed by the potential damage of attachment disorder.
Two types of attachment disorder have been defined. Reactive attachment disorder is when a child shows a lack of care-seeking toward any caregiver when alarmed. Disinhibited social engagement disorder is when a child is over-friendly with unfamiliar people.
Reactive attachment disorder is seen in children who have experienced extremely inadequate caregiving in their early years, for example, those who have lived in institutions. The symptoms are reversible if the child is placed in a stable caregiving environment (p. 19).
2.4 Children form attachments with multiple caregivers
There is a widespread belief in the importance of one psychological parent, which emerges from the practice in some cultures of a single parent being the primary caregiver. A related idea has emerged: that an attachment with one person competes with other attachment relationships. Bowlby himself started with the idea of a single attachment in his 1969 book, but had changed his mind by the time he wrote his second book in 1984.
The reality is that children form attachment relationships with multiple caregivers simultaneously if they have sufficient time with the caregivers and if the caregivers provide enough of a safe haven in times of need. For decades, the vast majority of attachment researchers have believed that children benefit from having more than one safe haven (p. 6, 11-12).
The presence of multiple caregivers is the norm in many cultural settings across the world. Multiple caregivers and a network of attachment relationships constitute a protective factor in child development when caregiving is inconsistent (e.g., a caregiver is unwell or unavailable). This does not imply that the number of attachments is limitless, nor that a child may not prefer some caregivers over others. A child’s preferences are often shaped by the current accessibility of one carer over another and do not seem to depend on relative attachment quality with the caregivers. However, in the context of inter-parental conflict and custody disputes, less is known about how children’s preferences play out (p. 11-12).
While all attachments with regular caregivers are important, researchers’ opinions differ about whether a most familiar carer should be afforded priority in the early years. Variations in context – such as cultural and family factors – might influence the organization of continuous contact with different caregivers (p. 12).
“Insecure attachment is not weak and is very common – the average rate of insecure attachment in the general population is nearly half.”
2.5 New attachments can form
When a child and new caregiver spend sufficient time together, attachments usually form. The time together can activate not only the child’s attachment system but also a complementary caregiving system in the caregiver. Both are malleable. This is a relevant consideration in decisions about custody and overnight stays. However, no empirical research shows that overnight stays are a necessary condition for the development of an attachment relationship (p. 14).
Photo: Alan Wat. Creative Commons.
3. Three attachment principles for family court practice
In their statement, the researchers present three principles for family court practice based on a full consideration of attachment research.
Principle 1: A child needs to experience safe havens provided by particular, familiar, and non-abusive caregivers.
Two considerations are key:
Limited contact with a caregiver makes it more difficult for a child to form, enhance, and maintain expectations of that caregiver’s availability in times of need.
Almost all non-abusive and non-neglecting family-based care is likely to be better than institutional care (p. 25).
Principle 2: Safe, continuous, “good enough” care is in the child’s best interest and caregivers should be helped to provide it.
A safe haven requires particular familiar relationships and sufficiently continuous interaction with these caregivers. Even if another caregiving environment may be better in some way than the child’s current one, continuity of good enough care constitutes part of a child’s best interests. Disrupting existing attachments in favor of an “optimal” solution should be pursued with extreme caution (pp. 25-26).
Safe, continuous, good-enough care can be actively supported. Many studies and meta-analyses demonstrate effective interventions that improve caregiving quality. Many of these interventions are limited in time, typically lasting just 6 to 10 sessions (p. 26).
To this end, it is important to assess a caregiver’s potential to provide good enough care with sufficient support, not just the caregiver’s actual caregiving. The assessment also needs to consider a future time, if a current extreme state of distress diminishes the caregiver’s current ability (e.g., fear of loss of custody). Also, any particular intervention does not suit every caregiver, so alternatives should be made available (p. 32).
In families where roles were different prior to the separation, it is important to give the less experienced caregiver the opportunity to develop the ability to provide a safe haven (p. 12).
Bowlby put it this way in 1951: “Just as children are absolutely dependent on their parents for sustenance, so … are parents … dependent on greater society for economic provision. If a community values its children it must cherish their parents” (p. 28).
“The reality is that children form attachment relationships with multiple caregivers simultaneously.”
Principle 3: Maintain a child’s existing safe havens if they don’t pose a threat.
A decision to maintain a child’s existing safe havens does not provide a blueprint for allocating time in shared care arrangements. Time must be sufficient for attachment relationships to be developed and maintained (p. 28).
This principle can also apply to foster care, where relationships with biological parents can be maintained during fostering. Similarly, relationships with foster carers can maintained after foster care (p. 29).
In addition, grandparents, step-parents, siblings, and extended family members can often provide a safe haven for children (p. 29).
Photo: Frank Mckenna. Unsplash.
4. Eight pieces of advice for family courts
1. Do not equate attachment quality with caregiver sensitivity.
Caregiver sensitivity – the ability to notice a child’s signals, interpret them correctly, and respond to them appropriately and in a timely way – is, of course, important and correlates with attachment. However, gender norms can influence how care is expressed, and measures of safe haven and caregiver sensitivity may be shaped by gendered assumptions about caregiving (pp. 8-9). For example, sensitive caregiving in mothers predicts secure attachment more than it does in fathers, suggesting that other factors play a greater role in father-child attachment.
2. Do not equate attachment quality with relationship quality.
Relationships are made up of more than attachment alone. Other factors, such as basic physical care, play, supervision, teaching/learning, setting standards for conduct, and discipline, are also important (p. 9).
3. Do not interpret one-off behaviors of children as reliably indicating attachment quality.
Children’s behaviors depend on context. Attachment is measured in very controlled contexts. A very frightened child behaves differently than a less frightened child. A child in a highchair may cry in response to a threatening noise, but not cry if he or she is free to move to the caregiver. Children’s behaviors are also a function of their individual temperaments (p. 9).
4. The Tender Years Doctrine is wrong.
The Tender Years Doctrine holds that custody automatically goes to the mother for children under a certain “tender” age. While this concept has been formally replaced in most countries by standards related to the best interests of the child, it remains influential (p. 13). In Israel, it remains the policy: custody automatically goes to the mother for children under the age of six. The researchers state: “We are in full consensus that the ultimate establishment of a network of attachment relationships is generally a protective factor in the long term and thus a desirable outcome in child development. We are also in full agreement that losses of and permanent separations from attachment figure are in themselves risk factors that should be prevented wherever possible in child development.” (p.13)
5. Overnight care with a second parent is not inherently harmful for children.
In the 1990s, researchers concluded that co-parenting arrangements that included overnight visits to the co-parent were associated with insecurity in a child’s attachment with the resident parent (Solomon & George, 1999). However, the data presented in the study actually showed that parental conflict, not overnight stays, was the problem. The inaccurate conclusion of this study has been quoted frequently to defend a position that is not supported by this or other evidence (p. 13).
The key question regarding decisions about overnight stays is whether the child experiences a safe haven with each caregiver. Of course, having a secure attachment does not preclude a child being unsettled for a time by unfamiliarity with, say, a new home. Also, the application of Principle 2 (safe, continuous, “good enough” care is in the child’s best interest and caregivers should be helped to provide it) requires attention to actively enabling the caregiver to develop a safe haven over time (p. 14).
“It is important to assess a caregiver’s potential to provide good enough care with sufficient support, not just the caregiver’s actual caregiving.”
6. Addressing and reducing conflict is key.
Inter-parental conflict and hostility undermine a parent’s own caring competencies and ability to let the other parent provide care. Interventions to reduce parental conflict are important (pp. 14-15).
If courts are clear about their decisions regarding custody and time allocation, they can increase parents’ capacity to overcome conflict. Similarly, if courts are clear about their commitment to the three principles outlined earlier, caregivers’ anxiety can be reduced and their motivation for cooperation increased (p. 33).
7. Ensure that family court professionals are adequately trained in attachment assessment.
While attachment theory is typically a mandatory part of professionals’ training, specialist training in assessing attachment quality is not. This can lead to attachment theory being either under-estimated or used with over-confidence. If assessments of attachment are used, they must be performed by formally trained observers (pp. 23, 31).
8. Take evidence directly from experts, not via representing parties.
Appeals to attachment in family courts would be less partial, more balanced, and more aligned with convergent evidence if courts called in experts, rather than the representing parties (p. 23).
Header photo: Extra Medium. Creative Commons. More
More playtime with dad during the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to be one of the few positives to emerge for children from the virus. It could also serve as some compensation for children’s considerable losses in school learning and access to friends.
Many children may have benefited during this time from the special contribution of playing with fathers to their social, cognitive, and emotional development.
That’s because many fathers have spent more time at home during the pandemic. They have also spent more time caring for their children. While that shift has been particularly pronounced during the pandemic, according to official data, it also reflects a longer-term trend, going back 40 years, of gradually increasing paternal involvement.
On average, fathers spend a higher proportion of their time caring for children than mothers playfully interacting with their children. That share may have shifted during the pandemic, but the amount of time overall that dads spend playing is likely to have risen.
“The pandemic reminds policymakers how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives.”
Playing with dad helps children develop
Children’s extra playtime with their fathers matters for several reasons. First, when parents spend more time with their children, they strengthen their skills in areas that are crucial to play – understanding what interests children, following their lead, and generally being more sensitive to them. In short, many fathers have become more closely attuned to their children’s play and to the pace at which they learn.
Photo: Mikael Stenberg. Creative Commons.
Learning to be patient and follow a child’s lead can be challenging. Some young children take a long time to learn a new skill for the first time and once they have learned it, may want to perform the new skill again and again. Unattuned adults may wish to rush them, do it for them, or move on to something else.
Second, fathers’ play makes a measurable and considerable difference to outcomes for children. Playing with dad is consistently linked to children being able to learn better and make friendships. More playtime with dads is also associated with less anxiety and fewer behavioral problems for children, who are less likely to get in trouble at school or fight with their peers.
The special quality of fathers’ play
Third, fathers’ play has some special qualities. Typically, it exposes children to a second person who is important in their lives. It also allows children to experience styles of parenting that differ from those demonstrated by their mother. As a result, children are exposed to differences and surprises in a safe environment. This can help them build capacities to manage change and difficulties in relationships.
Focusing too much on dads’ rough and tumble play with their children is unwise. We should avoid making it emblematic of fatherhood. Lots of moms engage in this type of play, too. And many dads can also spend quiet time with their children, sitting with them and cuddling them, and we should not think of this as “un-dad-like” behavior. Nevertheless, rough and tumble play has real value and is an area in which many fathers feel confident.
“One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset.”
Even very young babies benefit from fathers’ play
The skills that fathers bring in playfully exciting young children can benefit not only toddlers but also young babies. In my studies on fathers’ playful interactions with 3-month-olds, fathers’ engagement predicted fewer behavioral problems at 12 months and higher cognitive scores at 2 years.
It’s important that dads understand these findings because some may lack confidence in and feel reticent about caring for their babies. They – and others – may subscribe to the mistaken view that dads’ impact on children’s lives begins later. We also need to fight the mistaken cultural belief that very young babies don’t notice much about what’s happening around them. After 20 years doing child development research, I know that babies have a great capacity to notice and learn from very early in their lives.
What should dads do?
One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset. Fathers can bring something important to their children, even and perhaps especially when they are very young. Dads might not feel confident at first, but they shouldn’t worry: They should just play and, with practice, they will get better at it. I advise fathers to try a range of activities beyond rough-and-tumble play. It’s also okay for fathers to sit quietly with a toy or a book and just snuggle up with their children. At least some of time, dads should slow down, follow their child’s lead, and play at their pace.
Photo: Humphrey Muleba. Creative Commons.
The pandemic has introduced stresses that can undermine play. When people are stressed, the focus of their attention narrows so they attend less well to their relationships. We have seen this shift in studies of the impact depression in fathers — there was a reduction in the surprises that fathers typically built into play with their children, who were subsequently exposed to a narrower range of play. So, as COVID-19’s effects continue, we should be mindful to protect parents’ mental health.
Overall, the pandemic highlights the important role of fathers in child development. The past year should help policymakers recognize how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives. It also reminds family service practitioners to emphasize, facilitate, and capitalize on the assets that fathers, as well as mothers, can bring to their children from the earliest ages.
Header photo: Jonnelle Yankovich. Creative Commons. More