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Attachment Theory

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John Bowlby
Credit:Sir Richard Bowlby
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John Bowlby is known as the father of attachment theory. According to Bowlby and his theory, the way a child develops depends on his or her attachment between their primary caregiver. A child is able to better cope with their world when they feel that they have a protective and nurturing parent or caregiver. Bowlby describes attachment behavior as “any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or maintaining proximity to some other clearly identified individual who is conceived as better able to cope with the world” (Bowlby, 1988). The type of attachment the child forms with their caregiver begins in early stages of their development. The bonding process occurs when the child feels like they are in a safe and secure environment with their caregiver (Katz, 1999). When the child has a physically and emotionally safe and nurturing environment, receives comfort when in distress, and reassured when afraid, he or she will develop a secure foundation – this is called a secure attachment and is the best type of attachment that will allow a child to develop properly. Attachment is necessary for healthy development because it is a primary need that is “ethological,” which means it is natural and innate (Hayslett-McCall & Bernard, 2002).

Bowlby argues that children who express no affection and are unable to connect or bond with others are delinquents. He explains a variety of factors and life events that children go through influence and interfere with the development of a secure attachment to their primary caregiver. These factors could include foster children being placed with different families multiple times, traumatic or strenuous environments, and the absence of a parent early in childhood development. Any type of disruption to the child’s secure attachment to his or her primary caregiver can lead to a variety of problems later in life. Other researchers have discovered that men are more likely to have these disruptions to attachment than girls (Hayslett-McCall & Bernard, 2002). They say that this may be due to males being socialized with the masculine gender role stereotypes. According to Bowlby the disruptions children have in attachment are related to three psychological states that occur within the first three years of a child’s life – the protest state, the despair state, and the state of detachment or prolonged separation (Fonagy et al., 1997). The protest state involves severe distress that comes from separation, while the despair state involves preoccupation with grief and mourning, withdrawal, and hopelessness. After a child has gone through prolonged separation or detachment, the child seems to be unable to resume proper attachment with his or her primary caregiver. The child may even be completely unable to bond at all. The child is described as apathetic and they become very consumed with an interest in physical, inanimate objects. The child can become very concentrated on the self. All of these characteristics that stem from the disruption of a secure attachment are also seen in children who engage in delinquent behavior. In Bowlby’s original study, the children with the most delinquent behavior were unable to have an intimate connection with others (Katz, 1999). These children had an insecure attachment to their primary caregiver.

Bowlby’s attachment theory came out of his study on “the effects of maternal deprivation on personality development” (Hayslett-McCall & Bernard, 2002). He originally wanted to know if detachment from a mother-figure would result in changes in the child’s personality. According to Bowlby, there is a link between “affectionless psychopathy” and the absence of a mother-figure (Fonagy et al., 1997). A biological predisposition is also linked with affectionless psychopathy.” This term means there is a connection that cannot be made due to an emotional separation from others. Other researchers have found that these types of people are aggressive towards object, which can eventually shift to violent acts towards real people. These researchers discovered that violent acts committed by psychopathic people are predatory acts that are “planned, purposeful, and…emotionless.” There are also affective acts of violence which are only responses to perceived threats and accompanied by high levels of emotion. Both of these types of violence may be involved in attachment. They say that “violence and crime are, for Bowlby, disorders of the attachment system.” Children who are no properly attached to their primary caregiver may have no concern for the well-being of others and this is a result from their inability to bond with others. More research has come from Bowlby’s attachment theory that has found a link between delinquent behavior and separation from a primary caregiver. Children who had prolonged separation or loss of their primary caregiver early in their development suffered from “subsequent criminality, personality disorders, cognitive difficulties, and depression” (Waters & Noyes, 1983). More research is still being done on these links. However they are expensive and take a very large amount of time, so it is very difficult for researchers to do these types of studies. It is not certain that separation or loss of a primary caregiver leads to depression or delinquent behavior, but there is a relationship between the two factors – 30-40% of children who experienced prolonged separation or loss developed depression or delinquent behavior. Michael Rutter’s studies have shown that broken bonds cannot be the only contributing factor to the relationship between delinquency and separation or loss. Rather, he came to the conclusion that “delinquency is attributed to family circumstances that precede or result in the separation or loss. This goes back to Bowlby’s argument that when a child loses their primary caregiver, they need someone else to fill that spot. If their environment remains secure and healthy, that child will create a new secure attachment, which will help prevent delinquent behavior. Bowlby’s original studies, findings and development of his attachment theory has led to Hirschi and Gottfredson’s General Theory of Crime as well as Sampson and Laub’s Age-Graded Life-Course Theory – looking at each of these theories with Bowlby’s theory may help to better explain crime (Katz, 1999).

Due to the research that stems from Bowlby’s attachment theory, laws to protect a child’s best interest have been put in place. The child’s best interests have been determined to have a higher status than parental rights. If a child has been separated from the parent from a long enough period of time or if the environment is not secure, that child will be placed in another family where they can be better taken care of (Waters & Noyes, 1983).

Works Cited

Bowlby, J. (1990). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Basic Books.

Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology,28(5), 759-775. Doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.5.759

Fonagy, P., Target, M., Steele, M., & Steele, H. (1997). The development of violence and crime as it relates to security of attachment. Children in a violent society, 150-177.

Hayslett-McCall, K. L., & Bernard, T. J. (2002). Attachment, masculinity, and self-control A theory of male crime rates. Theoretical Criminology6(1), 5-33.

Katz, R. S. (1999). Building the foundation for a side-by-side explanatory model: A general theory of crime, the age-graded life course theory, and attachment theory. Western Criminology Review, 1(2), 1-23.

Scott, S., Briskman, J., Woolgar, M., Humayun, S., & O'Connor, T. G. (2011). Attachment in adolescence: Overlap with parenting and unique prediction of behavioural adjustment. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry,52(10), 1052-1062. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02453.x

Waters, E., & Noyes, D. M. (1983). Psychological Parenting vs. Attachment Theory: The Child's Best Interests and the Risks in Doing the Right Things for the Wrong Reasons. NYU Rev. L. & Soc. Change12, 505.

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