20 ways to engage and support children and young people with attachment difficulties

20 important and practical suggestions to consider.

Before reading this article, it is best to have read ‘What the Church needs to know about attachment’ as this will explain why children and young people may have attachment difficulties.

The ideas suggested here are general and every child is unique, so while these are a great starting point as you start thinking about supporting children and young people who struggle with attachment, you should always seek to engage appropriately with adoptive parents and foster carers to find out the best way to specifically engage and support the children in their care.

1. Ensure that your church has excellent safeguarding policies and that these are strictly followed by all who are part of the church ministry. Children with attachment difficulties are especially vulnerable to going off with strangers and being groomed, so they need the adults providing their care to be stringent in their safeguarding practice.

2. Keep open body language and warm eyes and face at all times so you are seen as friendly and approachable, although don’t insist on eye contact as this can be too much for some children and young people.

3. In partnership with the parents/carers, create a small, safe and appropriate team around the child or young person so as to offer consistency and facilitate permanency of relationships in which trust can be built. This could include a ‘key adult’ and a ‘back-up adult’ who can commit to regularly supporting the child or young person. In agreement with the parents/carers, ensure the child is re-directed to them for comfort or guidance where needed so they can practice learning dependency.

4. Don’t move children or young people around too much. Aim to keep their worlds small with less transitions and fewer people, so try to keep the same spaces and familiar staff to facilitate predictability – although allow the child freedom to move within the space and keep time spent sitting still or in silence to a minimum, as this can be difficult for them.

5. Increase sensory comfort, for example have bean bags, cushions and blankets around so that they can wrap themselves up and feel physically held.

6. Be patient and accept the child for who they are. Trust and relationships take time to form for everyone, but even more so for those with attachment difficulties.

7. Keep fiddle toys around as they may need to fidget.

8. In children’s or youth groups, use visual aids and actively involve children and young people as much as possible in what’s going on, as they tend to tune out of human voice alone.

9. Make your interactions enjoyable and don’t push children to have to behave as adults; reassure them that they are not responsible and encourage them to play. Within this, don’t issue children or young people with chores or allow them to continually keep ‘helping’ as this can fuel anxiety and confirm misperceptions about grown-ups.

10. Be flexible and give the child two or three options so they maintain control.

11. Be consistent in all areas with appropriate boundaries and discipline procedures in place, and remain consistent in your care, patience and acceptance of the child. Don’t use rewards or sanctions to obtain appropriate behaviour as this can reinforce negative ways of thinking, but seek to decrease or increase structure or supervision as needed.

12. If the child will be having a snack or a meal with you, ensure you know what is appropriate from their parent/carer. Some children will not be able to regulate portion sizes or know what is ‘enough’ for them.

13. Use the word ‘Let’s…’ as much as possible in different interactions as it is encouraging, inclusive and engaging.

14. Always ask before touching a child, and watch for alarm cues in the face, body or voice.

15. Keep your voice calm, kind and level. Many children will have an over-sensitivity to shouting and easily feel alarmed or threatened, even if you are raising your voice in a positive way.

16. Set children up to succeed, not fail. Seek to pre-empt any potentially problematic situations with optional solutions.

17. Use regulatory activities to calm and soothe before getting cognitive, such as clapping, walking, stretching and resistance exercises.

18. Remember that they may not have the words/understanding to communicate how they are feeling, and their behaviour may be how they are seeking to do that. Take time to watch and listen, and calmly consider what the child may be trying to say.

19. If things go wrong, seek to put things right together, as you would with a toddler, for example ‘Let’s clear up all the books’ or ‘Let’s think up something kind to do as she is feeling sad now’.

20. Follow the guideline put forward by child psychologist Dan Hughes, who suggests an attitude of PACE – playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy. (Further details on this can be found in this interview with Dan Hughes.)

We hope these ideas are helpful as you seek to engage and support every child and young person that is a part of your church.

NB. These suggestions are for those who will be directly engaged with the child or young person. It may well be that you will not have this direct involvement, so while it is wonderful that you want to help and you have taken the time to read this article, always respect what the parents or carers believe is the right support network for their child.

You may also be interested in the following books to gain deeper understanding:

  • Inside I'm Hurting: Practical strategies for supporting children with attachment difficulties in schools by L M Bomber (2007)
  • What About Me? Inclusive strategies to help pupils with attachment difficulties make it through the school day by L M Bomber (2011)
  • Settling to Learn: Why relationships matter in school by L M Bomber & D Hughes (2013)
  • Teenagers and Attachment edited by A Perry (2009)
  • Attachment in the Classroom : The Link between childrens’ early experience, emotional well being and performance in school by H Geddes (2006)
  • Attachment Aware Schools Series: Bridging the Gap (5 pocket sized books in the series for Team Pupil & parent/carer) 1) Key Adult 2) Senior Manager 3)Class teacher/Form Tutor 4) Team Pupil 5) Parent/Carer by L M Bomber (2015/2016)

Louise Michelle Bomber is qualified as both a teacher and a therapist, and is clinical director of TouchBase. She works as an Attachment Support Teacher and Therapist and offers a range of services supporting children and young people who have experienced significant relational traumas and losses. She provides consultations and training for those in education, health and social services, and she serves on Home for Good’s Council of Reference. www.theyellowkite.co.ukwww.attachmentleadnetwork.net

Louise Michelle Bomber for Home for Good



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