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John Bowlby's Attachment Theory

By: Sarah Knowles BA, MA - Updated: 2 Jan 2017 | comments*Discuss
Bowlby Attachment Theory Child Children

In the aftermath of World War II, British psychoanalyst John Bowlby was asked to present a paper to the World Health Organisation outlining what could be done to psychologically help the many children who found themselves orphans or homeless.

The short pamphlet Bowlby wrote in 1951, called “Maternal Care and Mental Health”, detailed the importance of a primary caregiver in a young child’s life – and pointed out what can happen if that caregiver is absent, or taken away.

In particular, he stressed that babies and young children need a warm, intimate relationship with their mother – or a mummy substitute – to enable them to grow up into flourishing, happy adults.

The paper eventually became the basis for his Attachment Theory, one of the primary theories about childhood development that is still widely adhered to by many people today.

Early Life

Bowlby (1907 – 1990) spent his early life in an upper middle class family, primarily characterised by parents who didn’t want to spoil their six children. As a result, the children spent most of their time with their nanny, seeing their parents for less than an hour a day.

When he was just seven years old, young Bowlby was sent away to boarding school. This was a time he later described as being very traumatic for him, and certainly set the stage for much of his later work.

In fact, Bowlby only achieved widespread recognition after he collaborated on the production of a short film called “A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital,” which was no doubt based, at least in part, on his own early childhood experiences.

The film chronicled the story of young Laura, who needed an operation and as a result is separated from her mother for eight days. It highlighted her plight so adeptly that UK hospital visiting policies concerning young children were changed.

Attachment Characteristics

Bowlby is a lot like the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in that he believes that early childhood experiences set the framework for later life. This is predicated on his belief that attaching to a parent figure is natural, as it helps the human species to survive.

Bowlby even went on to say that a fear of strangers is instinctive, as they can threaten a child’s relationship with its mother. Babies, for their part, have “social releasers” such as crying and smiling, which result in care-giving actions from parents.

As his work progressed, he detailed four distinct characteristics of attachment:

  • Safe haven. Children have an innate need to attach themselves specifically to one figure. The child knows that he or she will provide a sanctuary, a place for them to return in times of discord or stress.
  • Secure base. A child needs to have this strong attachment for at least the first two years of existence. This forms a secure base, to which the child can return again and again.
  • Proximity maintenance. The child is allowed to develop happily, safe in the knowledge that he or she is near the attachment figure, or primary caregiver.
  • Separation distress. If this breaks down - called “maternal deprivation” - the result can be devastating and lead to long-term problems. The long-term consequences of maternal deprivation range from difficulty forming friendships to a complete lack of caring about anyone else.
Bowlby’s theory extends to everyone, to the point where he pointed out that children who are adopted after they are six months old may find it difficult to form solid relationships with others in future.

Attachment Parenting

Bowlby’s theories are still alive and well, especially among people who practice what has become known as “attachment parenting” (a phrase coined not by Bowlby, but by paediatrician William Sears).

This type of parenting philosophy mandates that every parent is capable of fostering a strong bond with their child from birth. This is achieved by following the eight principles inherent in the programme, ranging from proper preparation for pregnancy and birth to maintaining a healthy balance in family life.

Critics of the philosophy, however, say that a healthy balance is not reached. For example, parents who practice attachment parenting allow their children to share their marital bed, saying that co-sleeping helps parents to “reconnect” with the children at night, after a busy day.

The Attachment Parenting theory has also come out against the Ferber method of allowing a baby to “cry it out”, and trains parents to “open their hearts and minds” to their baby’s needs.

Would John Bowlby have been an advocate of attachment parenting, when practised rigorously to the letter? That’s a good question!

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Rosie - Your Question:
Thanks a lot for this very well researched and educative work

Our Response:
We are glad this information has helped you.
KidsDevelopment - 3-Jan-17 @ 12:38 PM
Thanks a lot for this very well researched and educative work
Rosie - 2-Jan-17 @ 7:06 PM
Thanks for this. Very comprehensive and easy to understand.
mona - 23-Sep-14 @ 3:25 AM
Really enjoyed reading all the theories again its good to be reminded of the theory behind child development. thanks
jaqath - 1-Apr-12 @ 7:18 PM
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