Relationships in practice

Lynne Hipkin responds to Professor Elizabeth Meins' 'Overrated: The predictive power of attachment'.

It is a shame that the debate around Elizabeth Mein’s article (‘Overrated: The predictive power of attachment’, January 2017) has missed the point that attachment theory is an attempt at explanation of some aspects of close human relationships, and that clinically it is a theory that has moved on significantly from the rather outdated views expressed about it being held up as a causal factor for psychological and relational difficulties later in life. As a clinician, I think one of the problems here is the yawning gap between academic scientific opinion and validation of psychological concepts, and the actual usefulness of such concepts in practice with real, complex human beings. Relationships are messy, and there is always acknowledgement that no one theory will ever offer all the answers. In 24 years of experience in child and family work, including looked after children, many of whom are highly traumatised by their experiences at the hands of in turn highly traumatised parents, I have found the pathways that attachment theory has taken to be both enlightening and highly applicable to my work.

In practice we clinicians are no longer wedded to an idea that attachment styles rigidly predict later development, nor do we diagnose reactive attachment disorder, and we take note of exciting new neuroscientific and genetic research and examination of resilience factors. Attachment theory as described by its detractors offered us descriptions and points of curiosity that enabled a raft of clinician researchers (underrated in my opinion!) to pioneer new ways of thinking about relationships and to generate descriptions of human interaction and emotion regulation that have implications for all types of therapy and human behaviour. It is a great shame that the narrow views of attachment theory expressed in The Psychologist of late have reduced it to some sort of agenda to blame parents and deny individual factors, whereas in my clinical experience it has in fact empowered families and enabled children to escape shame, guilt and feelings of personal culpability. (Though of course I don’t have a ‘paper’ that confirms this.)

It is also notable that psychological research regarding the impact of relationships on psychological development brings all sorts of disciplines and theorists together, whilst in general psychologist researchers stick very much to one area or specialism. This has enabled a shared language to develop – I now facilitate training, via a national group of associates, for health, social care, education and youth justice professionals, as well as parents and carers, on trauma, vulnerability and resilience. All of them in the same room – curious about what happens between them, hopeful about improving children’s life chances, investing in and caring about relationships. Now that is something I will thank Mary Ainsworth for.

Lynne Hipkin
Independent Practice & KCA Training

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