Every year hundreds of thousands of children are placed in foster care due to neglect, abuse, and abandonment. These children range in age from birth to 18 years old but are typically younger in age. With the knowledge of how young children form attachments, foster care placement carries the possibility of disrupting normal development. We will explore the theories on attachment and how placement in foster care affects this development. Attachment, as we will see, is more epigenetic than a programmed course of evolution.
Attachment is the strong bond between two people, in our case the caregiver and child. This bond is something infants desire from birth as socioemotional beings. It is known that children who form secure attachments with loving caregivers have better relationships later in life, but we also know children will form attachments even in harsh situations. Ethology theorist John Bowlby proposed the idea that attachment must take place within the first year of life to ensure a good childhood (Santrock, 2014). In this view, children removed from their biological parents and placed in a foster home during the first year would be expected to form insecure or disorganized attachments. While this can be true, temperament also plays a role in any childhood bonding (Santrock, 2014).
Research has shown a correlation between the long and short form of the DRD4 gene and novelty seeking in one’s temperament (Keltikangas-Järvinen, Räikkönen, Ekelund, & Peltonen, 2004). According to David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist, this temperament would influence decisions and behavior to ensure survival (Santrock, 2014). We could reasonably assume from this information that a child’s behavior or reaction to a situation like foster care, will have more to do with their evolutionary disposition than risk factors at home. Temperament would thus be a determining factor in whether attachment trauma could be healed or would be detrimental to the child’s development.
On the other hand, if we view temperament as fluid then we can see it is influenced by experience rather than heredity alone. Keltikangas-Järvinen et al. (2004) stated, “it is not denied that the role of nurture, particularly in terms of parenting, has significant long-term consequences for individual development” (p.310), substantiating the gene X environment interaction role in attachment. Thus, whether a child is born with a predisposition to certain behavior, the home environment around the child seems to be a more significant influence on development and attachment.
Studies have also discovered that the younger a child’s age when placed in foster care, the more likely they are to develop a secure attachment to their new caregivers. The working theory is that children in foster care have suffered through maltreatment so the younger they are placed in a loving home, the less time they spend exposed to traumatic risk factors. Stovall-McClough, C., & Dozier (2004) found optimistic results when it came to placing young children with well-rounded foster parents as the children displayed secure behavior right away. They also noted that the caregivers mental state towards attachment played a big role in the degree of avoidant behavior displayed. In this study, heredity was not a factor, but rather the harsh home environment, length of exposure to risk factors, and attitude of new caregivers (Stovall-McClough et al., 2004).
Taking into account what we know from case studies, as well as the epigenetic view, we can conclude that determining a foster child’s future behavior weighs more heavily on their surroundings than on their evolutionary design. Children who have suffered traumatic events, such as parental loss, will be psychologically changed for the rest of their lives. However, this does not mean they cannot heal and carry on normal, secure relationships. Many environmental factors may influence their perception of the world, but, perhaps, the most significant will be the love and secure home offered by foster caregivers.
Keltikangas-Järvinen, L., Räikkönen, K., Ekelund, J., & Peltonen, L. (2004). Nature and nurture in novelty seeking. Molecular Psychiatry, 9(3), 308-311. doi:10.1038/sj.mp.4001433
Santrock, J. W. (2014). A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw -Hill Education.
Stovall-McClough, K. C., & Dozier, M. (2004). Forming attachments in foster care: Infant attachment behaviors during the first 2 months of placement. Development and Psychopathology, 16(2), 253-271. doi:10.1017/S0954579404044505