Why are there such strong connections between children and parents? In John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, the suggestion is that a child is born with programming that helps them to form an attachment to others. Bowlby suggests that this is an evolutionary trait that formed to help children be able to survive.
It is a theory that is based on the idea of imprinting that can be found in most animal species. In 1935, Konrad Lorenz showed that attachments were innate in ducklings, which meant that it had a survival value for them. Bowlby extended that idea to the human race.
In his attachment theory, Bowlby believed that attachment behaviors are instinctive. They become activated whenever a trigger is present. Actions or feelings such as fear, separation, or insecurity would all cause the attachment programming to activate, causing a child to seek out the individuals to whom it has been attached.
How Does a Fear of Strangers Contributes to Human Survival?
According to Bowlby, evolution used the fear of strangers to create a unique mechanism for human survival. A baby is born with the ability to display specific innate behaviors. This causes them to be able to make sure that the action or feeling triggers which occur when there is a lack of attachment are not experienced.
The ability to cry, smile, or crawl help to keep parents or guardians close to young children. It ensures that there is some level of contact with an attachment figure. Bowlby proposes this behavior became programmed during the early days of the human race because it would be the babies that stayed close to their mothers, fathers, or guardians that would have had the best chances to survive.
Over time, this created a biological need for children to be near their parents. Without contact, the attachment triggers would fire and initiate the need for resolution.
This is why the behaviors of children who are seeking an attachment figure create different reactions in strangers than they do in parents. The sound of a child crying drives away people who are not close to that child, but it causes the attachment figures to respond in some way to remove the trigger.
Bowlby called this action a “social releaser.”
The 5 Main Points of John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory
There are 5 main points that Bowlby offers for consideration within the context of his attachment theory.
#1. Children have an innate need to attach to at least one primary figure.
Bowlby notes that although children can have multiple attachment figures, each child has an innate need to seek out a specific primary figure, which is usually the mother. This allows a child to be able to feel like it can safely explore the environment.
This initial attachment is also different than other forms that may occur later on in life. Without this attachment, there is no bond for safety that the child can develop, which can lead to serious behavioral outcomes later in life.
Bowlby even theorized that bondless children would grow up into affectionless psychopathic adults.
#2. Children should receive continuous care from their primary figure for 24 months.
Bowlby proposed that any attention provided by a child’s primary attachment figure is pointless if it is delay by 24 months or more. The first 12 months of life are the most critical period for the child, so if there is a disruption in this relationship, it puts a child at a higher risk of suffering long-term consequences.
These consequences could include social deficits, cognitive issues, and emotional difficulties. Because there is no safe “anchor,” the child learns to fend for itself instead of feeling like they can rely on their primary attachment figure.
Any disruption, according to Bowlby, could initiate a negative consequence. This means the simple act of sending a child to daycare in the first 24 months of life could fundamentally change the personality and perspective of a child according to the attachment theory.
#3. Affectionless psychopathy occurs when attachment is disrupted.
Bowlby proposed 5 potential outcomes which would development if there was a disruption in the attachment programming.
- Increased levels of aggression.
- A higher risk of experience depression.
- Reduced intelligence levels.
- Affectionless relationships.
This means attachment theory looks at the pre-programmed attachment a child must make as part of the overall environment the child experiences. When a child feels like their primary attachment figure is affectionless, they feel like this is what every other child experiences in the world. It becomes their “normal.”
Children develop the inability to care for others because they have learned in their environment that this is how the world operates. This creates impulsiveness because the emphasis is on survival instead of safe exploration.
#4. Separation from a primary attachment figure creates immediate stress.
Bowlby proposed that the distress a child experiences when it is separated from its primary attachment figure is progressive in nature. There are three distinct stages to this distress and each is characterized by specific behaviors.
- Stage 1 – Protesting: In this stage of distress, a child will scream, cry, and display anger if their primary attachment figure leaves. Older children may even attempt to cling to the attachment figure in an attempt to prevent them from leaving.
- Stage 2 – Despair: In this stage, the child appears to calm down. The opposite is actually true. Although the outward behaviors begin to stop, the child begins to internalize the feelings of being separated from their primary attachment figure. This causes the child to withdraw, refuse comfort, and may display little interest in anything around them.
- Stage 3 – Detachment: In this stage, the child begins to engage with their environment once again. This includes playing with their peers or other caregivers or individuals with a subsequent attachment. If the primary attachment figure returns, however, the child will display anger at sometimes extreme levels.
Older children may be able to cope with these triggers, but younger children do not have the ability to logically comprehend what is occurring. This is due to their attachment programming, according to Bowlby. If the separation occurs on a regular basis, the resulting trauma being experienced can fundamentally change how the child develops into an adult.
#5. Every child uses their attachment relationships to develop an internal working model.
Every child follows a similar internal working model that is based on their initial attachment programming. This includes the behavior of the primary attachment individual to the child and how a child begins to see itself. The internal working model begins to develop around the age of 3 and compliments what has occurred from birth until that time.
There are three basic outcomes that Bowlby proposes in his attachment theory.
- Children who experience positive attention and love from their primary attachment figure feel secure. In return, they will display positive attention to their primary attachment to reciprocate the security.
- Children who feel rejected or unloved by their primary attachment figure will display avoidant behaviors. As they grow older, they will also reject the figure and encourage further avoidance.
- Children who feel confused or have anger triggered by their primary attachment figure will become resistant. This creates resistance toward the attachment figure in an attempt to return anger with anger.
How Can Some Children Offer Security When They Receive None at Home?
These outcomes may occur within those circumstances, but the final response by the child is not guaranteed. This is because how they view themselves can influence how they treat other people. If a child sees other people as being trustworthy, see themselves as being valuable, and can use this information to adapt to changing environments, then the affectionless outcomes can be avoided with others.
A child in this circumstance would likely be affectionless to their primary attachment figure, however, because they would see that individual as responsible for their initial lack of safety.
What to Remember About John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory
Bowlby’s attachment theory is more of a guide instead of a prediction of what will occur to a specific child. It is a mental representation that serves to show what may happen when specific emotional, social, and/or physical interactions occur between a child and their primary attachment figure.
Children who are in loving relationships with their primary attachment figure can grow up to be affectionless, guiltless adults who care for no one but themselves. On the other hand, children without a primary attachment figure and very little security can become some of the most empathetic, compassionate adults the world has ever seen.
What we can use John Bowlby’s attachment theory for is to examine family environments to maximize the opportunities for children to form connections. Not only will this help them to explore the world with feelings of safety, but it can promote higher levels of intelligence while reducing the potential for delinquency or depression.
We often say that children are our future. Life can throw a curveball from time to time and limit opportunities for children to take advantage of their potential pre-programmed need to attach to someone. With the right supports, every child can have the chance to succeed.