Attachment theory: a way to understand relational violence

As part of a national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel in 2021, Consultant Clinical Psychologist Elie Godsi interviewed men who were the perpetrators of injuries in children under the age of one, using a framework of theoretical perspectives. On the 27th of April 2022, Elie Godsi and CareKnowledge – a leading professional development platform for social care practice – will be hosting a webinar to review the learning from this report.

The theoretical framework that Elie Godsi used to inform the report and the interviews they conducted, focused on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and attachment theory.

Attachment theory is the older of the two. First developed by John Bowlby in the late 1950s, and then solidified in the 1960s, attachment theory, in its early iterations, focused on the relational, real-life experiences behind attachment and rejected the earlier psychoanalytic perspectives.

Bowlby expanded on this early version of attachment theory throughout the 1970s and 1980s, eventually reaching what he called the ‘self-model’ and the ‘other-model’.

The self and other

Bowlby believed that both models, functioning internally, were based on early, mostly pre-verbal experiences with a primary care giver. These experiences then go on to shape how an individual sees and understands their relationships as they develop.

The ‘self-model’ in attachment theory is responsible for what we would call our sense of self. This model determines how we see ourselves internally, how confident we are, our self-esteem and how independent or dependent we are.

The ‘other-model’ is responsible for how we relate to and see others. This can impact how avoidant we are in relationships, how we approach social interactions, conflict, isolation and loneliness.

Ultimately, Bowlby believed that an infant needs to have a secure relationship with an adult carer, no matter the gender, who is sensitive, responsive and caring in instances where the infant is experiencing distress. Without this secure relationship, and without care and nurture in those moments of distress, an infant will struggle to achieve normal social and emotional development.

How does this relate to abusive parents and specifically, the men in Elie Godsi’s report?

Elie Godsi found that “many of the men interviewed had significant attachment problems” and also that this echoed findings “in previous research into the same offenses”. To inform their interviews, the report cites the following categories of attachment:

  • anxious/preoccupied; this presents as hypersensitive, rejecting and attention seeking
  • avoidant/dismissing; this presents as hypo (decreased) sensitive and isolated
  • unresolved/disorganised; this presents with a paucity of coping systems, pervasive affective dysregulation and is alternating clingy, rejecting, and fearful of the caregiver

The report found that an insecure attachment with a caregiver occurs during childhood, often as a result of abuse or trauma, and then develops with an individual as they grow and are confronted with new relationships. Friends, partners and children all fall into this dynamic with an insecurely attached person. The report stated:

“As an adult this typically results in a poor sense of identity and by extension a poor sense of self in relation to others. Disturbed, chaotic and disorganised relationships feature prominently as adults.”

Reflecting on how an insecure or disturbed attachment type can impact parenting, Elie Godsi remarked that these attachments “are likely to feature in the quality and nature of the relationship with their own children or any children in their care.”

He then went on to outline how this might arise in a parent/child relationship:

“Unresolved attachment needs as a parent often develop in the context of a parent-child relationship whereby the child’s vulnerability or expression of need (e.g. being upset, tired, hungry, angry) inadvertently activates the parent’s own dysfunctional attachment system.”

In light of this observation, it is easy to see how attachment theory and attachment styles could be utilised appropriately by professionals as an effective tool when determining someone’s risk; in this case a male carer’s risk to a child.

The report also considers contextual information when discussing attachment theory and risk factors. This contextual information: the past, the present, circumstance and chance, all relate to a person’s attachment style.

The past, Elie Godsi explained, is especially relevant because it often outlines instances of historical child abuse and other early traumas such as parental loss, or being removed from parental care by social care. All of this contributes to insecure and unstable attachment styles.

Similarly, the present context such as the kind of relationship a perpetrator has with their partner/the mother, the circumstances around which the child was conceived (was it planned or unplanned) or whether a perpetrator was abusing drugs at the time of the offence, all have an interplay with that person’s attachment style.

‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’

Godsi is careful to point out that in all cases, where circumstances lead to the death or injury of a child, the offence was “in response to normal infant behaviour (e.g. crying, being sick) but that behaviour was only a trigger in the context of all the other stresses that were contributing up until that moment in time”.

Following Bowlby’s theory of attachment, we can understand that our ‘self-model’, established in early childhood, or as an infant, has a ripple effect on our future self and how that interacts within relationships: our ‘other-model’.

Understanding how an attachment style might impact a person’s relationship with a partner, or a child ̶ especially when that person might already have a history of violent offences such as intimate partner violence ̶ could ultimately provide staff within mental health services, social care and the CJS with another vital way to effectively risk assess.

One man from the report, mentioned in the final remarks of the section on attachment theory, described facing extreme violence and anger as a teenager, after suffering sexual abuse by an older woman. Godsi alludes to this ‘ripple-effect’ nature of attachment theory, saying:

“In many ways the destructive relationship with the mother of his children mirrored that earlier abusive relationship and this pushed him even further into drug abuse and far beyond his already limited ability to cope.”

Many of the cases referred to in the report highlight how impactful a pre-existing understanding of a perpetrator’s attachment style and history could be. What could be possible in preventative work, if a practical understanding of attachment styles was encouraged cross sector? Could such an approach not only inform on the needs of children, but also identify those who might be more likely to perpetrate abuse?


What can we learn from the National Review of Non-Accidental Injury in Under 1s? Join CareKnowledge and Elie Godsi for this free webinar to develop your understanding of 'red flags', common misconceptions associated with evaluating risk, and the information you need to be able to assess risk and evidence your concerns.

If you work with children and young people or manage people that do, this session is for you. Register for free here.