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The Influences and Work of Psychologist John Bowlby

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 6/2/2011

Psychologists have studied and learned much about the mental health and development of infants and young children. Most of this research began with the pioneering work of John Bowlby, developer of the attachment theory.

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    Early Life

    To understand how John Bowlby's early life impacted his work, a look at his childhood is critical. Born to an upper middle class London family in 1907, Bowlby was the fourth of six children raised by a nanny. As was the customary British fashion to prevent the parental spoiling of children, Bowlby and his siblings saw little of their mother, who read to them for just an hour a day. Although the children spent more time with their mother during summers on the Isle of Skye, the emotional loss felt by Bowlby was heightened by the preoccupations of a distant father. Bowlby's father, Sir Anthony, himself experienced trauma when, as a five year old, his war correspondent father (John's grandfather) was captured and tortured to death in the Anglo-Chinese Opium War. A distinguished surgeon, Sir Anthony postponed his personal life to care for his widowed mother until she died.

    John Bowlby's early life sparked his interest in the effects of emotional trauma in young children. At four years old, he experienced a traumatic loss when his nanny, the young boy’s primary caregiver, left the family. He later compared the devastation he felt to the loss of his mother. Being sent away to boarding school at the age of seven after his father went to war further contributed to his lifelong sensitivity to children. Bowlby thought that boarding school may offer a solution for older, troubled children, but disagreed with the decision to send young children away from home. These personal experiences affected his interest in the emotional development of young children throughout his career.

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    The Attachment Theory of John Bowlby

    After studying psychology in college, Bowlby worked with troubled and delinquent children. He attended medical school and received training in adult psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and also pursued his interest in children’s development and the intense attachment between young children and parents. According to Bowlby’s attachment theory, an infant’s instinctual behaviors of sucking, crying, and searching serve to maintain close proximity to a parent or primary caregiver. Bowlby argued that these attachment behaviors brought the infant closer to the mother. Without this secure attachment to its mother, or an evolutionary survival strategy as Bowlby called it, the infant would likely die.

    The motivation behind an infant’s behaviors, or Bowlby’s attachment behavioral system, was created by evolutionary forces to maintain close proximity to an attachment figure. If a mother or an attachment figure is physically and emotionally available to the infant and meets his or her needs, the infant will feel secure and loved and will be more likely to explore his or her environment and socialize. If, on the other hand, a mother is physically and emotionally unavailable and fails to meet the infant’s needs, he or she will feel insecure and stressed. The child will display behaviors such as searching and crying until physical or emotional proximity to the attachment figure is re-established. If proximity is not reestablished or if a long period of separation or loss passes, a young child will experience profound despair and depression, Bowlby believed.

    Bowlby recognized that young children differ in the way they perceive the physical and emotional availability of the attachment figure and how they regulate their behavioral responses. Systematic research to study infant-parent separations, however, did not begin until Bowlby’s colleague the developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth illustrated these differences. Still, Bowlby’s attachment theory pioneered an understanding of early childhood development and how young children bond with parents and caregivers.

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    References

    Coates, Susan. “John Bowlby and Margaret S. Mahler: Their Lives and Research.” www.apsa.org/Portals/1/docs/japa/522/Coates-571-601-post.pdf

    Fraley, R. Chris. “A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment and Research.” internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm