Attachment Theory

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory for Beginners

Who is John Bowlby?

John Bowlby (1907-1990) worked as both a psychologist and a psychoanalyst. You may be familiar with the term “psychoanalyst” as being chiefly associated with the work of Sigmund Freud. It consists of the belief that all people possess thoughts, feelings and memories in their unconscious.

Bowlby’s work revolved around his theory that attachments formed in early childhood were vital in the future emotional development of the child. He also believed that people are born with an inherent instinct to form close relationships and attachments to certain figures in order to gain protection and stability.

Bowlby grew up in a household where time spent with his parents was carefully rationed, as they believed that too much affection and attention would spoil their child. As a result, Bowlby was sent to boarding school at the age of seven, an experience which had a very negative effect on him. During and after his studies at Cambridge, Bowlby worked with delinquent and maladjusted children, which led to him deciding to pursue a career as a child psychologist.

As a result of this work, Bowlby became interested in child development and took a special interest in how separation from caring adults affected children. The beginnings of his attachment theory came in 1949 when his employer, the World Health Organisation, asked him to write a report on the mental health of homeless children.

The work took two years to complete and was published under the title “Maternal Care and Mental Health”. In this report, Bowlby stressed the importance of a close and continuous relationship with a mother figure. His training as a psychoanalyst contributed to his belief that the first experiences in life leave a lasting impression on future development.

Bowlby’s work left a lasting impact on his successors, not least on his colleague Mary Ainsworth who continued his work and expanded upon it, devising a way of observing the attachment theory in progress. Other researchers used his work to develop clinical treatments and prevention strategies.

Such was the influence of his work that in 2002, twelve years after his death, Bowlby was ranked 49th in a survey of the twentieth century’s most frequently cited psychologists.

What is Bowlby’s attachment theory?

The attachment theory describes a long-running, continual connection with a person or persons which provides satisfaction during interaction and comfort during difficult times.

This attachment needs to be of a high quality if the child’s emotional development is to be steady and progressive. Bowlby’s theory centres around a single attachment between a child and their caregiver.

This does not rule out the possibility of the child forming more than one attachment to other figures, but attachment theory focuses on the significance of the mother, considering the relationship between mother and child to be unique. He suggested that a lack of maternal attachment would result in serious negative consequences.

Bowlby’s research identified four stages of attachment, with the child progressing to each as they age. Pre-attachment lasts from birth to six weeks. At this stage, the infant is comforted by the presence of others and knows that actions such as crying and cooing are effective in attracting attention.

Attachment in making lasts from the age of six weeks to 6-8 months and sees a sense of trust begin to emerge between the child and the mother. Smiling occurs more frequently during this stage. Between 6-8 months and 18 months to one year of age, clear cut attachment sees attachment established more firmly.

Finally, starting from the age of eighteen months, a reciprocal relationship is formed. A sense of security is in place and the child can now manage periods without their mother present without the risk of separation anxiety. Bowlby termed this sense of security as an interior working model.

The attachment theory states that the first two years of a child’s life are crucial in the development stage. The attachment has to be maintained continuously for this period of time if the child is to develop steadily. If the attachment is disrupted at any point during this stage, the child is exposed to potentially permanent negative cognitive, social or emotional consequences. Bowlby coined the phrase “maternal deprivation” to describe this separation. Potential results of maternal deprivation include delinquency, depression, a reduction in intelligence and an above-average level of aggressiveness.

Bowlby worked with James Robertson to develop the theory that short-term separation resulted in distress for the child. They observed that this distress manifested in three stages: at the protest stage, the child screams, cries or otherwise expresses their desire not to be separated from their attachment figure.

It is at this stage when the child may become clingy. The second stage was termed as “despair” and is characterised by the child ceasing their audible protestations and instead becoming withdrawn, uninterested and consistently refusing all offers of love and support from others.

The final stage is “detachment” and this sees the child begin to adapt to their new surroundings, interacting with other people and a gradual regaining of enthusiasm. However, when the attachment figure comes into contact with them again, the child will display anger and resentment and otherwise reject their original attachment figure.

Attachment theory today

Attachment theory is not without its critics. Some psychologists point to its overlooking of the rest of the family as a major shortcoming. Others have argued that such a focus on a single relationship overlooks social and racial issues which may also be instrumental in the child’s development and personality.

Attachment theory remains precisely that – a theory – but its influence and ability to provide psychologists with a platform on which to build, expand and test their own theories is unmistakable.

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