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John Bowlby and Attachment Theory

John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

This blog is about John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. John Bowlby and his colleagues initiated research during the early 1940s to study the effects on children of separation from their mothers in early childhood. It was found that a secure pattern of attachment (Bowlby’s key concept) during early experience is essential. Such security – expressed by warmth, intimacy and continuity – appears to enable infants to develop healthy patterns of attachment subsequently, along with strong ego functions and the capacities to explore and to relate to the outside world. Unlike Adler, Bowlby does not believe pampering to be a curse. Insecure bonding, on the other hand, easily generates dysfunctional attachment behaviour – mainly arising from separation anxiety – including hostility, ambivalence, dependence and avoidance. Two factors in particular appear to cause insecure attachment: an absent or, if present, emotionally unresponsive mother. Maternal deprivation Bowlby considers to be a crucial negative determinant of human psychological development.

A young child, still immature in mind and body, cannot cope with all these emotions and drives. The ways in which he responds to these disturbances of his inner life may in the end bring about nervous disorders and instability of character. (Bowlby, 1953: 14)

Relationship difficulties also clearly ensue. Insecurity can continue into adulthood as the person assumes, given his early experiences of abandonment, that all intimate relationships turn out that way. The  ‘script’ is already written. In Eriksonian terms the child has developed a basic mistrust. Many other psychodynamic theorists, not least Karen Horney appear to agree with the general thrust of these ideas.

Bowlby claims that there is a strong inbuilt tendency, termed monotropy, for the infant to become attached to one person only. The first human bond – generally with the biological mother (though potentially with any primary caregiver) – is then the template for all later relationships and the barometer for the subsequent level of the individual’s psychological health. (Bowlby sees the father’s role as effectively ‘second fiddle’ until the child becomes more independent.) In common with the young of many species, the human infant wants to be near his mother and is substantially comforted by her sight, sound and touch. Bowlby eschews Freudian and other notions that the basis of attachment is, effectively,  ‘cupboard love’, that the overwhelming function of the mother, in her child’s eyes, is to satisfy his bodily needs. Bowlby prefers to view attachment seeking as innate: the infant is born with a basic orientation to and desire for social contact. As sample evidence of this, there is the baby’s, obviously hard to ignore, crying from the first moments following birth and her full-blown social smile which can emerge as early as the first few weeks of life.

According to Bowlby, however, attachment also has self-protective causation. He postulates a similarly inborn fear of the unknown, fashioned in evolutionary terms to promote survival. Human attachment can therefore be viewed as an instinctive response to the need for protection from predators. The mother becomes a secure base for the infant to rush back to and cling to when he ventures away from her and encounters any untoward threats, be they real, anticipated or imaginary. Given the additional non-specific nature of fears of the unfamiliar, the infant looks to the mother as a means for easing free-floating anxiety, further reinforcing the attachment need.

Bowlby also researched in depth juvenile delinquency and concluded that the associated personality traits were consistent with those arising from a deprivation of maternal care and affection during early childhood. In the early 1950s, furthermore, Bowlby and his colleagues compiled a WHO report stating categorically that infants suffer when placed in institutions that do not provide adequate care. Previous studies had demonstrated that children in hospital and in residential nurseries who were separated from their mothers before the age of five initially expressed grief and rage, then went through a period of intermittent crying in despair, before becoming emotionally detached. Bowlby proposes the existence of a sensitive period during which babies form a bond of attachment with their principal caretakers. Any disruption to the bonding process at this time has deleterious emotional, behavioural and social effects later. Bowlby suggests that the sensitive period is between the ages of six months and three years. Insecurity experienced at this early stage is very likely to have adverse consequences. Indeed, Bowlby firmly believes that the maternal bond could not be broken at such times without serious and sometimes permanent damage to the child’s psychological developmental.

Many researchers have developed Bowlby’s ideas. One of the foremost is Mary Ainsworth, who has tracked the legacy of attachment into three discrete categories. Her laboratory set-up is called the Strange Situation. It involves several stages, essentially involving the mother leaving her child (between 12 and 18 months old) in the experimental room with a female stranger who has engaged the child in play with some toys. Ethical concerns are addressed by the process unfolding gradually and the mother leaving behind her handbag to signify her return. The child is observed through a one-way mirror and assessed for factors such as activity level, distress, proximity to the stranger and reaction when reunited with mother. The three groups are delineated as follows.

·       Around 65% of children were categorised as securely attached. With the mother present, they play comfortably with the toys and are amenable to the stranger. They exhibit variations in distress when the mother leaves and go to her immediately for reassuring physical contact on her return, after which they calm down and return to playing with the toys.

·       Around 25% of the children were categorised as insecurely attached: avoidant. They show little interest in the mother when she is in the room and little distress when she leaves. Any distress is as easily appeased by the stranger as by the mother. When the mother returns, they either ignore her completely or approach her tentatively.

·       Around 10% of the children were categorised as insecurely attached: ambivalent. They are uncomfortable with the whole situation, staying close to the mother and displaying anxiety when she is not present. On the mother’s return, ambivalence is notable: for example, crying to be picked up then squirming angrily to be put down again. Rather than play, such children keep a wary eye on the mother.

In tandem with research in the home environment, the conclusions are again reached that all infants become attached to their mothers by the age of one, that the quality of attachment depends upon the mother’s responsiveness to her child and that insecure attachment is engendered by insensitive motherhood during the first year of the child’s life. Guidance thus emerges for mothers to be responsive to their child’s needs, provide substantial social stimulation and express affection.


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