British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, is the father of attachment theory, which proposes that infants become attached to adults who are sensitive, responsive, and represent a secure base from whom they can explore and to whom they can return.
Internal Working Models
As young children seek support, protection, and care, they develop an internal working model: a cognitive framework for understanding themselves and the world. Influenced by a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver, this internal working model guides thoughts, feelings, and expectations in both existing and future relationships. Primary caregivers become relationship prototypes, influencing how children predict and manage their interactions with others. Three main features of the internal working model include 1) a model of others as being trustworthy, 2) a model of self as valuable, and 3) a model of self as effective during interactions with others. A child’s internal working model guides their responsiveness to others.
Attachment Behavior System
If children perceive that their primary attachment figure is nearby, accessible, and attentive, they tend to feel secure and are more confident in exploring their environment. To the extent that children do not perceive closeness, accessibility, and attentiveness, they tend to feel anxiety; searching and calling for their attachment figure until attachment is reestablished (through physical or psychological proximity) or until the child wears down (as may happen in the context of a prolonged separation or loss). When young children endure separation anxiety, they progress through three stages of distress:
1) Protest: Crying, screaming, and angrily protesting when the parent leaves. Children appear heartbroken and search for their primary attachment figure.
2) Despair: Protesting is reduced, but children appear withdrawn and refuse other people’s attempts to comfort them.
3) Detachment: Amidst prolonged separation, children make the best of a bad situation and cautiously start engaging other people. Upon the return of their primary attachment figure, children may act angrily and even reject them.
Monotropy & Maternal Deprivation
Bowlby’s attachment theory suggests that infants are biologically pre-programmed to survive by forming attachments with others. Monotropy, or a child’s innate need for attachment to one main figure, suggests that each child values one relationship above all others, viewing this relationship as crucial for survival. Although Bowlby appreciated the possibility of more than one attachment figure, he believed in one primary bond of more importance than any other (usually the mother). The monotropic attachment/relationship is qualitatively more impactful and ultimately more important than any subsequent attachments/relationships. Due to the vital nature of monotropy, the failure to initiate or the breakdown of this maternal attachment may influence irreversible long-term cognitive, social, and emotional consequences.
Criticisms of Monotropy
In his failure to distinguish between privation (the complete lack of this attachment bond) and deprivation (the loss of monotropy), Bowlby did not address these distinctive considerations. British psychologist, Michael Rutter, expounded upon Bowlby’s attachment theory to delineate between failure to develop a maternal attachment vs. separation and loss of the mother. Rutter suggests that privation and deprivation each have different effects; to summarize both sets of potential consequences with one broad brushstroke does not specify the unique ramifications of each conflict.
Relative to the primary attachment figure, Bowlby did not consider the quality of the substitute care. The consequences of detachment can be minimized and even avoided if good or better emotional care is present in place of or post-separation. Bowlby believed the mother should be the most central and continuous caregiver, implying that mothers should not pursue professional careers. Bowlby did not recognize that children often develop better with mothers who are happy than if they are frustrated—which can happen if mom is forced to stay at home as the exclusive caregiver. Especially today, several very important people may be involved in childcare, including the father, friends, and relatives. Engaged, present, nurturing fathers and/or a stable network of adults can often give children advantages over antiquated systems where the mother is responsible for meeting all the children’s needs.
In modern society, if monotropy devolves into maternal dominance over custody in family court cases where paternal rights are infringed upon or alienation becomes prevalent, the cost of forfeiting a primary relationship with an excellently equipped father and his entire extended family will almost always lead to a net-net negative for a child’s future and overall well-being.
Infants are inherently dependent upon the care and protection of “older and wiser” adults. During the evolution of the human species, babies who stayed close to mom tended to survive to a reproductive age. Instinctive behaviors such as protest, despair, and detachment are activated by any conditions that threaten this closeness. Attachment theory describes a “gradually designed” process of natural selection—a built-in survival mechanism to regulate physical and psychological proximity to a primary attachment figure. Children from fatherless homes are more vulnerable to every at-risk category; our society must recognize that Bowlby’s “gradually designed” survival mechanism has evolved to demand that active, capable, loving fathers are needed as co-primary influences in children’s lives, and that anyone who disagrees is either ignorant, incompetent, or both.
Fascinating insights into the history of the psychoanalytic movement and looks at the ways in which Attachment Theory can help in the understanding of society and its problems.
In this book the author reviews the qualities of motherhood needed for the normal development and considers both short-term and long-term effects of maternal deprivation.
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