Attachment theory and John Bowlby

John Bowlby (26 February 1907 – 2 September 1990) was a notable British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He became a psychoanalyst in 1937 and  during the War he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. With his wife (Ursula Longstaff) he had 4 children. Following the War Bowlby became Director of the Tavistock Clinic in London and in 1950 he became a mental health consultant to the World Health Organization.

What is Attachment behaviour?  Attachment behaviour is any behaviour designed to get children into a close, protective relationship with their attachment figures whenever they experience anxiety. The child’s instinctual attachment behaviour repertoire includes crying, clinging, sucking, following and smiling.

There are three stages in attachment formation:
1. Protest: healthy anger and or tears
2. Despair: hopelessness
3. Detachment: process of cutting off

There are different types of attachment:
1. Signaling behaviour:
2. Averse behaviours:
3. Active behaviours

The benefits of attachment:
1. Protection from danger
2. Supply of food
3. Need for social interaction: babies are learning all the time how to operate in groups as part of the survival instinct.

Feminist writers can be critical of Bowlby as he referred primarily of the mother role as being female.  Bowlby was commissioned by the World Health Organization to write a report on the mental health of homeless children in Europe. In 1951, he published Maternal Care and Mental Health in which he outlined the following “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.” The evacuation programme was subsequently seen as a mixed success given the separation between mother and child.

Bowlby used the term “Internal Working Models” to describe how young children form
mental representations within close relationships. Internal working models are based on
the child’s sense of worthiness which is dependent upon other people’s availability and
ability and willingness to provide care and protection. This will affect social competence in key areas including:
• The mental representation of the self
• The mental representation of other people
• The relationship between self and others
Internal working models therefore contain expectations and beliefs about:
• One’s own and other people’s behaviour
• The ‘lovability’, worthiness and acceptability of the self
• The emotional availability and interest of others, and their ability to provide protection.

Between 1964 and 1979, Bowlby wrote his trilogy Attachment (1969), Separation (1973), and Loss (1980) based on his own and others research.

4 types:

Basic characteristics of a secure person:
• Felt secure position enabling a positive view of self, other people and close
• Positive approach to social life. Socially competent.
• Able to deal accurately, appropriately and effectively with strong emotions including
anxiety, distress and anger.
• Inner felt security means under stress the individual can draw on a range of
personal and social resources to cope with stress.
• Can access and appraise the origin and character of their own and other people’s
feelings in such as a way to preserve their own self esteem and autonomy.
• Because they are personally insightful, emotionally literate and socially fluent they
are viewed positively by others.

General characteristics include:
• Wariness and nervousness about entering close relationships – although there is a
desire for relationship, it is viewed with caution or in extreme cases,
• Felt security is achieved by an over reliance on the self and an under reliance on
• The preference is for the rational rather than the emotional, thought rather than
feeling, cognition rather than affect, physical competency rather than social fluency.
• Function well in jobs that require abstract, practical and cognitive tasks such as
computers, machines, figures.

General characteristics include:
• Have deep anxieties about the ‘lovability’ and value of the self. Concerns as to
whether people are genuinely interested in them or are emotionally available in
times of need. This makes them prone to separation-anxiety.
• Whenever close relationships become threatened or there is pressure to become
more independent or self-reliant they become stressed and anxious. They become
fractious, fretful and clingy if there is a feeling that availability of an attachment
figure will be lost.
• Felt security is achieved by maintaining a high level of involvement with people.
• Good in social situations, networking, being centre stage, meeting and helping.

The main characteristics:
• Normally seen in behaviourally very disturbed children. They do manage to
organize some behaviour by either deactivating or hyper activating their attachment
behaviour. Disorganised as the name suggests means there is no consistent
pattern for regulating their affect, achieving proximity or gaining care and protection.
They have no way of adapting to the care-giving relationship.
• The parent rather than an external situation alarms the child. Unpredictable, scary,
violent or deeply puzzling behaviour by the caregiver leads the infant to be afraid of
or for the caregiver. The child is faced by an irresolvable paradox. The parent
frightens the child. Fear and distress activates attachment behaviour the purpose
of which is to protect and bring the child into proximity with the carer, however, the
carer is the source of the distress. If the child moves towards the carer there is
distress if it moves away there is distress. Thus anxiety and distress continue to
rise and threaten to overwhelm the infant.
• There is a profound sense of fear and helplessness, self and others appear chaotic
and incoherent.

Bowlby’s work has influenced many eminent psychologists, including his colleague Mary Ainsworth, who has also made major contributions to attachment theory. The important aspect of this work is always to check for the transference when seeing clients.

Holmes, J. (1997) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. Routledge: London.
Howe, D., Brandon, M., Hinings, & Scholfield, G. (1999). Attachment Theory, Child
Maltreatment and Family Support. Palgrave: Basingstoke, Hampshire.
Karen, R. (1994). Becoming Attached. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Lecture notes from CCPE: Angela Gruber

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