Child’s play: Attachment Theory in Practice

By Lucy Wright for Urban Dandy

In my capacity as a family support worker I often get asked which are the best toys to teach children to speak, read, write and reach other various developmental milestones such as knowing shapes, colours, numbers and being able to read.

I get met with a mixture of mistrust, confusion and occasionally interest when I suggest that just giving their children the opportunity to explore, play, get messy, make choices and mistakes in equal measure will arm them with a plethora of skills for life.

I feel sad as both a parent and professional that we feel a societal pressure to live by results and achievements even when bringing up our own children and sometimes forfeit making our children feel reassured and loved for conforming to societies expectations of parents.


Prescriptive Approach

I’ve watched hundreds of parents, including myself actually ending up controlling, bribing, guilt-tripping, belittling, shaming, not listening to, threatening and humiliating out of a misplaced desire to achieve with their children. We aim to get to an end result instead of relishing and learning from the process.

When asked, I’m sure every parent would say that their number one wish is for their children to be happy, confident people who can survive independently in society and be successful in whatever they choose to do. Yet most of us find it difficult to encourage these almost abstract concepts within our children and forego the holistic approach for a very prescriptive one.

I try to inspire the idea of attachment parenting with the families I work with, and the essence of the attachment approach is being used nationwide in programmes for parents, schools and practitioners. I’m a huge believer in it myself with my own daughter.

Attachment Parenting

A good, secure attachment with the child’s’ main care giver(s) is essential for healthy development. Research has shown that children with a disorganised or chaotic attachment are more likely to become adults with drug and alcohol problems, be low achievers and be involved in crime and violence.

A child’s development relies on the provision of love, safety, esteem and their physiological needs being met before they can achieve independence and self-realisation (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).


As parents and caregivers, we are responsible for building those secure foundations in our children by praising, demonstrating love, giving time and building self-esteem ( children) to ensure they are ready to learn and play a positive part in society.

Insecure Attachment

The main causes for insecure attachment in early childhood are care givers either being drug or alcohol dependent, suffering from a mental health problem that isn’t being managed, past trauma, stress and domestic violence in the home. These hugely stressful factors play a big part in disrupting the natural bonding process and in turn the parent/child relationship which should naturally develop.

I’m not trying to say that people in these situations can’t have a good attachment with their child, rather that it may be harder work and take more effort as you have to love, respect and understand yourself in order to be ready to do these things effortlessly for your children.

You also need the time and mental/physical energy to connect positively with a person who needs you. We have all felt the tightness in our chests and the gritting of our teeth when we are under stress or tired or busy and our children try our patience and we snap either by giving in or losing our temper.

Photo by Sam Egarr, Instagram @sam05



Cultural differences and advice dished out by friends and grandparents makes attachment parenting a confusing and conflicting approach to hold down if you did not experience positive attention, demonstrative love and praise yourself in your early years.

It takes time, patience and effort to ignore whining and stay calm. It’s hard to be consistent in testing situations, to offer empathy and understanding towards meltdowns. To give praise at every opportunity and be silent at slip-ups takes concentration.

There is controversy and resistance around the concept of attachment parenting, as there is with anything that challenges people’s beliefs and personal experiences but I welcome the questions, the challenges and pre-conceptions parents throw at me when we first meet at the beginning of the 14 week courses I co-facilitate.

What Happens

Some parents at the beginning of the Attachment course are baffled as to how you discipline a child within this method, how you get them to ‘behave’, do as they are told and change bad habits. In weeks one and two they are observing their children, taking time to find out who they are, what they like. They don’t understand what this has to do with their child’s behaviour.

In weeks three and four, they are looking at life through their child’s eyes they are helping their child label their feelings and giving them choices. They still don’t understand what this has to do with their child’s behaviour. After five weeks they are praising at every opportunity and giving positive attention while ignoring the bad. They are starting to see a change in their child’s behaviour.

By week seven, they are setting boundaries, being consistent and anticipating and preparing for trigger situations, they are negotiating and involving their children, parenting with autonomy. They have an epiphany that this is about their own behaviour.

By week 12 they are practicing child-led play ( and ‘special time’ ( They realise all their children really want is their attention.

By week 14 most of them have realised that the things they hated being done to them as children they have been unwittingly doing to their own children, in one way or another (silent contemplation then eventually tears) and I smile because now they can see their children are people, people who need them to be there, to love them and laugh with them and cuddle them – not to teach them their A, B, Cs or 1,2,3s.

The parents on the programme are experiencing peer support and encouragement in abundance and I think it’s this that really makes the difference. The reality of seeing other parents have the same experiences as them as a parent and feeling safe and secure enough to feed back and share is the therapeutic relief that is so important in building confidence as a parent and overcoming situations which sometimes leave people feeling isolated.


Phone Off

By the end of the program, care givers realise it’s their bad habits that have had to change. Bad habits formed over a lifetime of experiences and societal expectations. Bad habits that are almost encouraged by peers and professionals and self-help books.

In a time when we are bombarded with games, toys, programmes, apps, extra-curricular activities, hobbies, homework, all supposedly designed with our children in mind, I like to come home from work, switch my phone off, sit on the floor, look into my daughter’s eyes, give her a big cuddle and ask her what she wants to play and we play – no matter how bizarre, simple or nonsensical it may seem to me.

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