I had the pleasure of hearing Nell Bernstein speak up in Santa Fe back in 2007 (or thereabout). If memory serves, Nell had just released her book entitled All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated. I remember asking Nell if she had spent any time looking at the attachment issues surrounding children of the incarcerated. I pointed out that John Bowlby cut his teeth looking at the attachment issues that surrounded homeless youth roaming the streets of war torn Europe in the aftermath of WWII. She said that although attachment proper was not a central focus of her book, it is, nonetheless, an important topic that must be considered when looking at displaced youth. Nell asked me to send her any information I might have on attachment and displaced youth. More than likely I sent her a copy of the report (released by The Adoption Center At Bellefaire JCB in 2003) entitled Coordinating Attachment and Permanency (CAP) Project. This was the beginning of a collaboration that has been very fruitful over the years.
In May of 20007, our Foundation made a grant to the California State Library Foundation. This grant was in support of a project entitled Mental Health Issues for Runaway and Homeless Youth. The main animators behind the project were Nell and Ginny Puddefoot (more on Ginny below). It was through this collaboration that I was introduced to Toni Vaughn Heineman. Toni is the founder and executive director of A Home Within—an organization that principally works with homeless teens. Suffice it to say that Toni is very interested in the attachment issues that surround displaced youth. In May of 2009, our Foundation made a grant to A Home Within in support of their Transitions and Renewal project. Fast forward to June of 2010 and we see the release of a report by Toni entitled Relationships Beget Relationships: Why Understanding Attachment Theory Is Crucial to Program Design for Homeless Youth (hereafter CHYP Report). Contact the FHL Foundation (by clicking on the CONTACT US link above) if you would like to receive a copy of the CHYP Report.
The CHYP Report starts out with a forward by Ginny Puddefoot—Project Director of the California Homeless Youth Project. Ginny tells us that “we must start from a recognition that many [homeless] youth have developed attachment patterns resulting from early trauma of one kind or another.” Ginny gives us this “bottom line”: “Expecting [homeless youth] to respond to adults and programs through a secure attachment lens is not only inappropriate but may also re-traumatize these youth.” In the report proper, Toni provides us with a good primer on attachment theory. Toni writes, “Attachment theory has … deepened our understanding of the ways in which, for better or worse, we do not easily change the ways in which we view others and our expectations of relationships.” Bowlby suggested that through our early relationships with primary caregivers, we develop Inner Working Models or IWMs. IWMs are in effect models of expectation through which we experience the world of social relationships. As Toni suggests, once set up, it is often difficult to change IWMs. Toni goes on to describe (in easy to understand language) the various attachment patterns that researchers and clinicians have identified: secure; insecure-avoidant; insecure-ambivalent; and insecure-disorganized. Here’s a quick summary of each (quotes by Toni):
Securely attached kids “are not overwhelmingly distressed when separated from their parents because they ‘know,’ both cognitively and emotionally, that their parents will return.” For securely attached kids, relationships with caregivers are typified by a high degree of predictability, consistency, and reciprocity. In mentalization terms (e.g., how minds come to know other minds), securely attached kids “know” that their minds are in the minds of parents.
Avoidantly attached kids “behave as if they really don’t expect much from adults,” and, as a result, “don’t bother to ask for help or soothing when distressed.” For avoidantly attached kids, relationships with caregivers are still typified by predictability and consistency, but at the expense of very little reciprocity. In mentalization terms, avoidantly attached kids “know” that their minds are not in the minds of parents. As a matter of fact, the minds of parents often take precedence over the minds of their kids.
Ambivalently attached kids “characteristically pull people close and then push them away.” For ambivalently attached kids, relationships with caregivers are typified by unpredictable and inconsistent responses—“at times responsive and loving and at others dismissive or inattentive.” In mentalization terms, ambivalently attached kids “know” that their minds are sometimes in the minds of parents, other times not. As a matter of fact, there does not seem to be any discernable pattern that will help predict (e.g., help with expectations surrounding) when mentalization might take place. It really is hit or miss.
Kids attached by disorganization “may demonstrate periods of appearing to be emotionally ‘frozen’ or ‘dazed.’ ” For kids attached by disorganization, relationships with caregivers are typified by rapid and unpredictable swings between comfort on one end and abject fear on the other. In mentalization terms, kids attached by disorganization don’t “know” which mind is which. As a matter of fact, they often experience their own mind as being monstrous, which is why they often freeze or try to flee. “In the history of children with disorganized attachments, we often find caregivers whose moods and behavior change rapidly because of mental illness or substance abuse,” according to Toni.
Allow me to quote Toni at length (with my additions in brackets) because I think the following quote gets at the heart of the matter:
We must … remember that an “insecure attachment,” in and of itself, does not constitute a mental illness or psychiatric disorder. It simply describes a characteristic way of relating to others, particularly caregivers. However, these relational patterns, which were an adaptive [and functional] response to the very early relationship with caregivers, can become maladaptive [e.g., can result in self-defeating behaviors] when navigating relationships with others in the world beyond the family. … While service providers and other adults offering assistance may see themselves as positive “caregivers,” homeless youth may not be so sure of their reliability, trustworthiness, or usefulness due to earlier [attachment] experiences.
The rest of the CHYP Report talks about how service providers can become sensitive to the various attachment patterns or relational expectation models that might be expressed by the youth they wish to serve. In addition, the CHYP Report talks about how to change or modify programs so that these attachment patterns or relational expectation models can be appropriately accommodated. Consider this example by Toni:
While we can appreciate the attractiveness to service providers of consistent policies and procedures, rules are often perceived by homeless youth as rigid [instrumental] requirements that they must meet in order to have even their most basic needs met. Youth often experience these programs as identical to unresponsive parents who could not or would not adapt to their children or provide for their needs, but instead demanded that their own children accommodate their own needs [e.g., engage in role reversal or parentification].
While bringing the CHYP Report to a close, Toni puts a plug in for A Home Within when she tells us, “Unlike publicly-funded therapists who must often close cases when their young clients miss too many sessions, the therapists who volunteer their time through A Home Within can keep an opening for as long as they want.” Toni provides the following handy summary at the end of the report:
Using Attachment Theory to Provide
Effective Programs for Homeless Youth
- Effective programs promote stable, caring, respectful relationships
- Effective programs are nonjudgmental and nonpunitive
- Effective programs provide individualized services based on careful assessments of the particular [attachment] needs of each young person
For more information about the California Homeless Youth Project, please contact:Ginny Pudefoot, Project Director California Research Bureau 900 N Street, Suite 300 P.O. Box 942837 Sacramento, CA 94237-0001 phone: (916) 653-7381