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Should new social workers talk about attachment theory?

I’ve had an interesting relationship with attachment theory in my social work career. I’m not sure it has necessarily been a secure one, but then again, I don’t feel confident enough to say.

For new social workers, attachment might be a word you hear or use often. For me, attachment theory arrived during a university lecture. Three hours and I thought I had it covered. That was it. Off I went providing an analysis of attachment for everyone who would talk to me about it.

As a student on placement, I read reports from social workers, health visitors, teachers and others, all commenting on attachment.

‘Good attachment’ was a common theme. ‘Poor attachment’ appeared to be the antithesis. I was learning that anyone could talk about or comment on attachment without actually appearing to understand the theory.

I was fortunate to receive some more in depth training on attachment and attachment theory during my assessed and supported year in employment.

It would be to hugely exaggerate and paraphrase to tell you that the two day intensive training culminated in a cinematic speech that included; ‘the first rule about attachment is, you don’t talk about attachment’, but that is somewhat how it felt.

The more I learnt about attachment, the less capable I felt to talk about it. I don’t see this as a negative thing. I accept that I have some knowledge, but I am not an expert. I’m not qualified to stand up in court and defend my views on attachment. Although my knowledge on attachment can inform what I do, it cannot be all I rely on to complete my assessment.

If you are a new social worker unsure about ‘attachment’ and how you can use this idea in your work, here’s my Social Work Sorted guide to not talking about attachment.

Focus on what you can do

Letting go of using the word ‘attachment’, can support your assessment and analysis because it forces you to be specific about what you observe. Thinking about relationships, family dynamics and systems moves you away from focus that becomes too individualistic.

Don’t stop learning

Just because you aren’t talking explicitly about attachment or attachment theory, doesn’t mean you should shut down your interest and capacity to build your knowledge. Read, listen, learn; sign yourself up for training, continue to develop what you know.

Take on board critical perspectives

Like so many theories we use in social work, early attachment theory is rooted in whiteness. Eurocentric, patriarchal theories must be interrogated and if you are learning about a theory, you must also dedicate time to unpicking the origins of that theory.

Be prepared to challenge

I have no doubt that as a new social worker, you will come into contact with other people who misuse the word attachment regularly. It’s ok for you to respectfully challenge this and I believe you should. The danger of misusing this word is that the children and families you work with can be wrongly pathologized.

Words are so powerful, and just that one word ‘attachment’, can create tension, cause harm, incite assumptions and so much more. My advice to new social workers, unless you can safely say you are an expert, think about whether you need to use this word at all.

Want to continue the conversation?

In this podcast episode I talk to Wabriya King about her chapter 'Colonialized Attachment A Dramatherapy Perspective' in the book Intersectionality in the Arts Psychotherapies. Listen here.

In this podcast episode with Rich Devine (amongst other things) we talk about attachment in practice and the challenges that come up for social workers. Listen here

Would you like to join me on Social Work Sorted: The Podcast?



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