John Bowlby was a psychologist who believed children came into the world with an ‘adaptive advantage’ being biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with the main person who will help them to survive by feeding and keeping them safe and warm. The need to form attachments is a biological one and uses genetically inherited skills. He believed that an early emotional bond between a child and one key person – usually their mother is innate. This distinct intense attachment is called Monotropy. Bowlby stated that this attachment had to be formed within the first 3 years to prevent adverse effects upon psychological maturation. If this didn’t happen because of separation/loss or the attachment was broken before this critical period the child would be damaged for life, socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically. The age of child and the length of separation can have significant impacts on personality development and future mental health. He described this as the Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis. He believed that the bond a baby has with their mother would influence and provide a template for future development and relationships a term Bowlby called ‘Internal Working Model’.
Children who have developed a secure attachment feel secure, play independently and are eager to explore their surroundings. Their primary carer’s behaviour is consistent and sensitive to the needs of the child. Although distressed at being separated from their carer they greet the return with a positive behaviour. While these children can be comforted to some extent by other people in the absence of a parent or caregiver, they prefer parents to strangers. Parents of securely attached children tend to play more, react quickly and are responsive to their needs. Studies have shown that securely attached children are more empathetic during later stages of childhood and are less disruptive and more mature. As adults they may go on to have trusting long-term relationships.
Insecure Avoidant attachment children tend to avoid their parents/carers which becomes especially pronounced after a period of absence. While they do not reject attention from a parent neither do they seek attention. They are very independent both physically and emotionally. Children with an avoidant attachment show no preference between a parent and stranger. Their parent/carer is inconsistent confusing the child making them feel insecure. The parent/carer may withdraw from helping during difficult tasks and often unavailable during times of emotional distress. Studies suggest that as adults this develops into difficulties in forming close relationships with the inability to share feelings, thoughts and emotions.
Insecure Ambivalent/Resistant attached children tend to be suspicious of strangers and display considerable distress when separated from their parent or carer but do not seem reassured or comforted by their return. In some cases they can reject the parent by refusing comfort and may display direct aggression toward them.
Bowlby explained his theory of loss and grief when children go through various stages where they protest, despair and become detached. This may happen when a parent dies, parents’ divorce or a parent is sent to prison. It is believed that early years establishments now understand that children move in and out of these stages and that the stages do not occur in any order. It also helps practitioners to support the parents to understand why their child became detached within their relationship.


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