Attachment and Dependency

It is now time to draw out from the theory those aspects that seem to have particular significance for the probation officer.

First of all, this work identifies attachment behaviour as distinct from dependency. Dependency has acquired a bad name over the years. It has been associated with long term, aimless relationships to which clients cling anxiously. In attempts to prevent ‘over-dependency’, shorter orders have been favoured, and clearer definitions of task have been sought. In hostel settings, we have heard of the need for residents to be preparing to leave from the moment of arrival. The worry is that clients may be passive victims of the needs of the probation officer, involved in a relationship whose unspoken purpose is to reassure the officer of his or her own value and helpfulness.

The notion of attachment however draws attention to behaviour that is desirable for healthy development. The fears of creating over-dependency can be compared with the anxiety about ‘spoiling’, which many parents feel when struggling with a clinging child. Progress is made by meeting the needs expressed through anxious attachment behaviour, not by parental withdrawal, firmer discipline, nor by restriction of opportunities for the expression of attachment needs. For example, it was found that babies whose mothers picked them up in response to crying, tended to cry less often at one year than those babies where the mothers had not ‘spoiled’ them.[1] If probation officers offer themselves as caregivers, they commonly encounter the attachment patterns of the clients, as in the case of Mr Spencer, and many of these patterns will be anxious, clinging and ‘dependent’. Anxious attachment cannot be alleviated by the withdrawal of the worker. Indeed this would lead to more urgent clinging behaviour, or deterioration to despair and emotional detachment. What is required is more sensitive responsiveness, accessibility and so on, in accordance with the positive caregiving attributes identified above.

[1] Ainsworth M D S., Blehar, M C., Waters, E., and Wall S (1978) Patterns of Attachment: a Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, N.J: Erlbaum


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