Attachment Theories

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Attachment Theories: Bowlby and Winnicott

I am particularly interested in attachment theories and ideas arising from objects theory namely Winnicott’s concepts of the transitional object and the “good enough mother”. Having two children, now aged 12 and 14 years old, I can see how the theories applied to them as babies and how it continues to be of significance now they are entering adolescence. It has also allowed me to understand relational patterns in my own life. I particularly like the recognition and evidence that, though childhood experiences are important in a therapeutic setting, past experiences can be reconsidered and changes made. What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is a theory in developmental psychology that highlights the importance of "attachment" in personal development. McLeod (2007) states that it is the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical attachment to another person which gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, grow and develop as a personality.

John Bowlby

The British psychologist John Bowlby (1907 to 1990) coined the term attachment. His field was psychiatry and his influences were Freud, Melanie Klein and Lorenz.

Jacobs (2006) states that Bowlby’s evolutionary attachment theory suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive.

According to Hopkins (1999) Bowlby observed children separated from their parents in hospital, or institutions and revealed they passed through three stages: separation anxiety (threat of loss), grief and mourning (acceptance of loss) and defence (protection from loss). Bowlby also added on the nature of the tie with the caregiver which could be lost and called this tie attachment.

His work in the late 60s established the precedent that childhood development depended heavily upon a child's ability to form a strong relationship with at least one primary caregiver, usually the mother. This relationship involved the exchange of comfort, care and pleasure.

Hopkins (1999) felt this attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences. 

Jacobs (2006) noted that Bowlby felt babies were programmed at birth to recognize a few caregivers. The full intensity of the baby’s attachment is only manifest from the latter half of the first year.

I would agree with this at birth most friends and relatives could feed my sons. However, by 6 months they rarely would go to strangers and would rather be with me or my husband. When I returned to work I employed my nanny for 2 weeks prior to returning so the children would get used to her and come to see her as a safe attachment figure.

Jacobs (2006) explained that Bowlby’s theory also suggests that there is a critical period for developing attachment (about 0-5 years).  If an attachment has not developed during this period then the child may suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression.

The roots of the research on attachment began with Freud’s theories about love however John Bowlby’s research usually credits him as the father of attachment.

Our early attachment styles are established in childhood through the infant/caregiver relationship. Bowlby calls those templates of relating Internal Working Models (IWM). Though Bowlby saw the infant’s IWM as the base or template of later relationship, he did not see them as fixed (Bowlby 1988).

Attachment is about...
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