Attachment Theory and Love

2 year old in hospital

Last week I was in one of those situations where I was torn between staying on my seat in a seminar and rushing out of the room to urgently spread the word.

The subject? Attachment Theory, as first explored by Sir John Bowlby in 1973. Bowlby was a psychologist, psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst and had a specific interest in child development.

His early childhood was shaped by the fact that his nanny was an extremely significant person his life as he typically only saw his Mother for an hour a day and his interaction with her was extremely formal. His emotional needs were almost certainly met by his nanny who was a consistent figure in his life until he was about 4 years old. His devastation at her leaving to take up a position elsewhere left Bowlby in a state of high anxiety and grief.

The seminar was facilitated by Bowlby’s son, Sir Richard Bowlby who has continued his father’s work and provided an engaging storyline to share the original and now updated research. He started off by sharing an image of a visitor’s card given to parents in the 1950’s when their children were in hospital, informing them that they could visit for an hour, one Sunday a month! We were asked to imagine the bewilderment of the children, their sense of loss and anxiety and the effects that this had on their mental health during a highly stressful time in their lives, not to mention how the parents must have felt. Incredible to think that today it’s thankfully the norm for children to have adults with them in hospital.

Attachment theory highlights the critical importance of a robust relationship (known as bonding) between children and a primary caregiver- usually but not exclusively, Mum. This person is absolutely central to a child’s emotional health, providing unconditional love, guidance, reassurance and intuitively responding to their physical needs. This primary relationship holding handssets the scene for all other relationships in life. A strong initial attachment then enables further (or secondary) attachments to flourish. Poor initial attachment almost always means that future relationships will not connect securely and that child will grow into an adult who has difficulty establishing trustworthy connections, affecting their social skills. Films showing children going to extraordinary lengths to prevent separation from their parents amazed all of us in the audience.

Scary stuff indeed.

We learnt about the various categories of attachment including variations such as ‘avoidant attachment’ where babies and young children who have been rejected or not cared for consistently by a primary caregiver believe themselves to be unworthy and unlovable; they’ve learnt that when they seek connection and affection it’s not given and so they begin not to seek it in order to prevent themselves from being rejected or experiencing emotional pain. Sadly this can be the case for some babies whose mothers suffer from post natal depression.

So you can see my dilemma, sit, stay and continue to be stunned by the brain science or rush out and tell all new parents to make sure that they give dedicated time to connecting with their babies and young children for life long benefits. Love certainly does matter.

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