Breaking the intergenerational cycle of insecure attachment in families of African Caribbean Origin

Elaine Arnold is Director of The Separation and Reunion Forum, UK, an organization dedicated to highlighting the traumatic effects of broken attachments, separation and loss. Elaine has previously worked as a teacher, lecturer, child care worker, counsellor and psychiatric social worker. Her interest in attachment issues and separation was first sparked in the late 1940s when teaching in a school in a children’s home in Trinidad and Tobago, which housed children for a number of reasons including the emigration of parents.

Here she talks about her new book, Working with Families of African Caribbean Origin: Understanding Issues around Immigration and Attachment, which looks at the importance of understanding the intergenerational impact of immigration on attachment for families of the African Caribbean diaspora.


The subject of this book is linked to the African Caribbean experience of slavery and, later, migration to Britain to work and help rebuild the country after World War II. Can you paint us a picture of what happened, and the impact this had on the family life of African Caribbean people who migrated?

The book begins with a brief historical account of African slavery in the Caribbean, in order to put the people who were formerly called West Indians, but now called African Caribbeans, into context.

Transatlantic slavery by European slave owners and African slaves shaped the Caribbean societies which were based not only on class and wealth, but on colour as well.

After the emancipation of the slaves, Society under the colonialists maintained the same societal structures and the majority of the black population found there were the poorly paid working class.

During the second World War, Britain could not afford the necessary development required on the islands of the Caribbean, and poverty was rife due to the high levels of unemployment. The situation then leant itself to large scale immigration. When Britain decided to recruit labour, there was no difficulty in finding people to migrate to Britain. The majority were from the rural areas who had no idea of life in Britain and, on arriving, found harsh conditions which for many reminded them of the harsh conditions of their enslaved ancestors. They were not physically abused, as their ancestors had been, but the psychological damage of broken attachments, separation and loss had a similar effect.

This book draws upon your own research and experience of working with African Caribbean families, and using attachment theory as an approach to understanding. Can you tell us how you first started to work in this area, the influence of Bowlby’s ideas and how this shaped your own career?

I was first attracted to how young children behaved when separated from their mothers and brought to a Children’s home. Young children who were cared for by a succession of carers soon developed very shallow relationships with any adult who would give them attention, and sometimes babies would fail to thrive.

When older children were given the opportunity to experience family life in surrogate families, they showed marked self-esteem and improvement in their educational attainment.

I studied the work of Dr John Bowlby, beginning with his seminal work on child care and the growth of love, and his continuing work with Mary Ainsworth which resulted in the formulation of Attachment Theory. This helped me to work with families and specifically mothers who had come to Britain during the early years of the immigration and who were finding it difficult to relate to their children who had reunited with them after being cared for by other members of the extended family in the Caribbean to whom they had become attached.

I then determined to raise awareness and understanding of how attachment develops among families which had the experience of separation and loss.

In 1999 you founded the Separation and Reunion Forum to to raise awareness of and to promote discussion on the importance of secure attachments of young children. Can you tell us about the Forum and its work?

In 1999, I interviewed a group of women about their experiences of having been left in the Caribbean with extended families for varying lengths of time before reuniting with their families here in the UK. It was remarkable that each woman felt that the problems in their relationships with their mothers were unique to them. They were relieved to hear that they were not alone. I explained the basic principles of attachment theory and they unanimously agreed that more meetings should be held and more African Caribbean families should be made aware of the phenomenon. Separation and Reunion Forum (SRF) was agreed as a working title, but the core group of eight women decided to keep it. Recently we have added a strap line: “Supporting Relationships and Families”.

The group also decided that a conference should be organised so that other people with similar experiences could be invited, as well as professionals who worked with African Caribbean families and who frequently misunderstood them. The first conference was held in 2000 and was entitled “The Unspoken Price of Immigration”. So successful was the conference that the participants requested another, and currently SRF is holding its 12th conference. Annual Conference reports are available. SRF keeps its attendance fees low and is particularly interested in attracting students going into helping professions as well as retired persons and lay persons. Speakers are very generous and most donate their time free to the organisation. Two universities, Goldsmith’s College and the London Metropolitan, have been generous in collaborating with SRF in planning the conferences and in providing accommodation.

SRF is a membership organisation opened to those have both personal and professional experience of issues arising from broken attachments, separation and loss and who are interested in discovering more about Attachment Theory. The organisation is funded only by membership fees, earnings from seminars and conferences, and run with the help of volunteers. In 2009, SRF applied for and obtained charitable status.

You can visit us online for more info: www.serefo.org.uk.

Do you think that helping professionals working today have a sufficient understanding of the experiences of African Caribbean families?

Unfortunately there are some members of the helping professions working with African Caribbean Families do not have a sufficient understanding of the experiences of these families. This lack may spring from the belief that we treat everyone the same and therefore the individual’s culture is not relevant. Some have not been taught history, including the colonisation of the Caribbean and the effects of the transgenerational effects of slavery and immigration. Some may consider that they themselves had had difficult experiences and have overcome them so Caribbean people should be able to overcome theirs. If the professionals are white, at times they are afraid of asking questions for fear of being thought to be racist, and sometimes still there is blatant discrimination against the black individual or families.

There persists a stereotype that African Caribbean fathers are uninvolved fathers, which you challenge in this book. Can you tell us about your own findings?

With all stereotypes, very often those who do not conform to them are overlooked. There are some men who do not settle into family life, and who engage in casual liaisons and leave the mothers of their children and the children unsupported. Many are young and unemployed, and there are some who may be exploitative of vulnerable women. Nevertheless, as with some of the women in my research who had very positive experiences with fathers, there are some fathers who sometimes were more understanding of them when they first arrived from the Caribbean.

Where do you see the impact of these family separations still continuing today?

The impact can be seen in young mothers who find difficulty in relating to children and in attachments that are not secure.

Recently I was told by a young mother that she was very matter of fact with her three year-old son as that is how her mother was with her. She went on to say that her mother had been left in the Caribbean and when she came to Britain her relationship was not good with her own mother. This insecure attachment has now been passed on to the third generation.

The intergenerational nature of poor attachment can be a unending cycle if there is no intervention to help bring understanding of it. Children whose educational attainment is low very often are avoidant of their teachers, as they are of parents with whom they do not have secure attachment, and so they pay little attention to the teacher or become disruptive which often leads to exclusion.

The book not only provides a fascinating insight into the lives of African Caribbean families living in the UK, but also features practical advice for professionals. Can you give some examples of the advice you give in the book?

  • In working with African Caribbean Families it is necessary to bear their immigration history in mind and, as Bowlby suggested, to provide a secure base where the individual of family is able to explore past painful experiences. This does not only imply the physical space but also the attitudes of the worker.
     
  • Provide the encouragement for individuals to reflect on their early experiences especially with parents and how these influence their present feelings.
     
  • Help children and adults to realise that some of the images of themselves or of others that they have experienced may not be appropriate for the present or the future.
     
  • Professionals need to accept that sometimes the experiences of their clients may trigger some of their own feelings about their unresolved experiences, and they may have difficulty in forming a relationship. This kind of self-reflection requires careful and sensitive supervision.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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1 Response

  1. Wezet botes November 25, 2011 / 6:50 am

    Hi there
    im a serious attachment fan and believe that so many issues in family based social work could be addressed through understanding and working with attachments. I work in South Africa and we have had similar experiences of local family disruptions due to the appartheid history of our country.This has had a devastating effect on family life. I have often wondered if the general descriptions of secure and insecure attachments first described from a western framework wholy apply to the african context. Attachemtn is so culturally infused that I have wondered about how the african descriptions of secure and insecure attachemrnts look like. i would be interested in descussions arround this topic and hear from you how attachment descriptions in the African carribian context look like.
    all the best with your efforts.
    Wezet Botes

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