Bowlby proposed a theory of attachment based on evolutionary principles that increase infants’ survival through specific behavioural and emotional propensities designed to keep infants close to their primary caregivers and out of danger.
Bowlby also suggested that infants and children build ‘mental’ models of themselves and of their relationships with significant people in their lives and that these mental models are based on their relationship or interactions with their caregiver(s) over time.
Attachment Theory and Primary Caregiver
Children’s experiences with a primary caregiver form the basis for their mental representations or ‘internal working models’ of the self and others, according to Bowlby. Thus, children who have experienced warmth and consistency from their mother or primary caregiver are likely to think of themselves as being warm and reliable and in turn, they will develop a working model of others as competent, reliable and warm.
Just as, infants who have experienced coldness and dejection may see themselves as being ‘unlovable’ and think of others too, as being unreliable and incompetent.
Belief, therefore, about the ‘availability’ of the caregiver develops during infancy, childhood and adolescence and persists relatively unchanged throughout life.
Bowlby further argued that expectations about ‘accessibility’ and ‘responsiveness’ of the primary caregiver are generally accurate representations of the individual’s experience.
Bowlby and Attachment Theory
Bowlby devoted extensive research to the concept of attachment, describing it as a “Lasting psychological connectedness between human beings,” as well as it having an evolutionary component in that it aids in survival. He suggested attachment was necessary to promote survivial thorugh safety, emotional relationsips and providing a secure basis from which to explore the world.
Key Features of Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment
- Monotropy – babies form only one strong attachment, usually to the mother and this attachment forms during the first year of life.
- If attachment has not formed by age 3 then it is too late; even after 6 months it is difficult
- Secure attachment to the primary caregiver is essential for positive future social, emotional, and intellectual development
- Attachment, once formed, if interrupted, will have severe consequences on the child’s emotional, intellectual and social development.
- Reciprocal – The attachment process is two way
- Critical period – between 6 months and 24 months when it is crucial for baby to be with caregiver
- Maternal deprivation is the term used by Bowlby to describe the serious developmental impairment that is caused by being separated from the mother in infancy
Quality of Attachment
Bowlby also suggested the quality of this attachment relationship is strongly influenced by experiences and repeated interactions between the infant and the primary caregiver. The success of the attachment bond depends on the caregiver’s ability to understand and respond to the infant’s physical and emotional needs. When caregiver and baby are in sync with each other, a secure attachment is formed. Baby feels safe knowing the caregiver will always be there when needed.
It was found, through studying children rased in institutions prior to being doubted that after the sensitive period, this first attachment relationship can develop, but with greater difficulty.
Hazan and Shaver have also produced evidence that securely attached infants go on to have stable, secure adult relationships, as Bowlby’s theory predicts.
- Bowlby, J. Attachment and loss. Vol. New York: Basic Books. 1992
- Bowlby, J. Attachment and loss. Vol 2: Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books. 1973
- Bee, Helen L. The Developing Child. 7th ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers. 1995.
- Kagan, Jerome. The Nature of the Child. New York: Basic Books. 1994.