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Attachment theory in probation practice
Attachment theory can contribute to work with people on probation in conceptualising the supervisory relationship, and in understanding offending, risk and relationships.

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Attachment theory

The latest (30 September 2022) Academic Insight from the probation inspectorate explores the use of attachment theory in probation practice. Authored by Dr Maria Ansbro of the Buckinghamshire New University, the report emphasises that attachment theory should not be seen as a magic bullet, and that some ideas translate into practice more readily than others.

Nevertheless, it is shown how attachment theory can supplement other established theories and models in helping to understand the impact of early experiences, the psychological processes involved in empathy and self-regulation, and the supervisory relationship. Crucially, when applied in an individualised way, it offers insights and humanises, and if the practitioner can create a sense of being safe, reliable and in tune, the person on probation can be encouraged to reflect upon their behaviours and responses to specific situations.

The appeal of attachment theory

Dr Ansbro starts by saying that attachment theory has an obvious appeal to probation practitioners because so many of those they work with have grown up with loss and abuse, and the theory focuses on the effects of early care on later development. She warns, however, that attachment theory is actually a morass of theory and research that is continually evolving and which comes with ambiguities and contradictions. 
Nevertheless, she shares ways that attachment theory can contribute to work with people on probation in conceptualising the supervisory relationship, and in understanding offending, risk and relationships. 

After a concise history of attachment theory and its evolution (starting with its originator John Bowlby), Dr Ansbro identifies four key themes relevant to probation work:

  1. practitioner as secure base
  2. awareness of attachment history
  3. reflective function/ability to mentalise
  4. attachment style

The probation officer as secure base

The carer-infant relationship is the original attachment relationship, but the theory proposes that similar qualities are present in relationships through the lifespan, such as those with partners and friends. Applying the concept to a probation setting, the idea is that a probationer will be able to think about aspects of their life if their probation officer can create a sense of being safe, reliable, and in tune with them.

Awareness of attachment history

The importance of knowing about an individual’s attachment history is illustrated by a number of case examples, including the one reproduced below:

“A young man being supervised for possessing a knife, but with several instances of sexual assaults on children in a residential setting, told his probation officer about his early life – a mother who was randomly over protective and rejecting, a series of experiences in care, and being sexually abused/abusive in a residential school. This helped to understand when he was most vulnerable to reoffending. The probation officer knew that his risk spiked when his attachment system was activated, notably by being blanked by his family, and worked to piece together that pattern with him.”

The reflective function/ability to mentalise

The theory proposes that the insecurely attached will tend to grow into adults who cannot mentalise (understand one one’s and others’ mental states) well, and so therapists, friends and indeed probation workers can help them build this ability. It is the idea that supervision offers an opportunity for people on probation to ‘feel felt’, i.e. to be mentalised, and to be invited to articulate their own and others’ mental state, thus developing the skills of self management and empathy.

Attachment style

The idea that we have a dominant attachment style has been much written about, even filtering down into pop psychology. In probation practice, the concept has been put to work in several ways. Ansbro gives as an example the Building Better Relationships programme for domestic abusers which includes an attachment styles exercise. Group members are invited to consider which style fits them, and reflect on the impact of that style on their relationships. 


Dr Ansbro concludes that attachment theory can offer a practical lens for understanding the impact of early experiences, the psychological processes involved in empathy and self-regulation, and the supervisory relationship. She cautions that it is not a magic bullet or diagnosis but that many practitioners will find value in considering with people on probation the effect that early attachments have on the way that they have developed.

Thanks to Ana Tablas for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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