Attachment Theory – The Origin Story!

So, you may have heard the term “Attachment theory” thrown around every now and then when it comes to parenting. You may have even heard about “Attachment Parenting”, and you may wonder – if this guy is about attachment and about parenting, so – is this an attachment parenting blog?

Well, no.

But this IS a blog about making parenting better and for that attachment theory has a lot to give. So, let’s go.

 

A brief definition of Attachment Theory

Attachment is a psychological theory that looks on the way children interact with their parents. These interactions help develop a child's perception of the social world. Those views are integrated into the child and affect him in later relationships. As stated by John Bowlby, the psychologist who developed this theory, attachment interactions affect the development “from cradle to the grave”.

As I said, that was only a brief definition. Attachment Theory is a huge discipline with tons of research and sub-areas that I cannot summarize in one post, not even in a series of posts. I could write a whole blog on that if I wanted to. But I won’t, because you and I are here to talk about parenting, right?

Luckily, attachment is a really important and useful theory when we think about parenting. It could help you understand what’s going on between you and your children, between you and your parents, and even between you and your spouse, should you want to.

father and son holding handsBecause attachment is such an important part of my parenting and my practice, and a huge part of the conversation I want to have with you, I wrote this series of posts about attachment theory in order to set the basis of the matter. This is the first post and in it we’ll have a look at the origins of attachment theory. The next posts will delve deeper into the meaning of attachment and how you and I, as parents, can learn from it and use it to have a better parenting experience.

 

In the beginning, Freud created Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud, aka “The Father of Psychoanalysis”, worked days and nights in order to understand the human psyche. His contributions, however controversial today, have had a huge impact on our society as a whole and specifically on the practice of psychology. Many people have followed in his footsteps and took psychology to new places, some closer to his views and some, well, not.

It’s important for me to acknowledge Freud's work because that's where John Bowlby started. He was a psychoanalyst at first, and his theory grew under those lights (later he was kind of shut off from the psychoanalytic society but I’ll leave that to the history blogs).

 

So, who was John Bowlby

John Bowlby was born in London in 1907 to a well-off family. His father was an important physician who worked for the Royal Family and his mother was a well-known socialite. According to the standard practice for this kind of families in that era, John and his siblings were taken care of by a team of nannies.

john bowlby
John Bowlby

One of those nannies, Minnie, was actually the significant parental figure for little John. When he was four years old she left the Bowlby household, an event that deeply affected the little boy who later remembered the pain of that loss as one that almost matches that of losing an actual mother.

When he was ten years old, John was sent with his older brother to a boarding school. It was during the first World War and London had suffered many bombings, and children were sent off outside the city. The same situation repeated during the Second World War, and Bowlby, now a grown man, objected to that action wholeheartedly.

 

Bowlby started his career following in his father’s footsteps, going to medical school. However, he found himself bored with medicine and decided to become a psychoanalyst (because that was what you did back then if you wanted to be a mental health practitioner).

During his psychoanalytic training, Bowlby was supervised by Melanie Klein, a prominent psychoanalyst who pushed the field into therapeutic interventions with children. Now, I cannot go into Kleinian theory in this post, but let me say that: Klein understood children by looking mainly into their inside world, trying to analyze and interpret their fantasies and wishes.

Bowlby, to say it simply, didn’t like Klein’s view and especially the way she tended to disregard the influence of the outside environment. For example, when treating a three years old boy, Bowlby was concerned with the mental state of his mother. Klein instructed him to ignore the mother and keep on interpreting the child’s world. The treatment was cut short when the mother was hospitalized during a mental breakdown. This case – and others like it – eventually made Bowlby break away from Klein and proving her wrong was a driving force in his career.

 

Why did the psychoanalytic world turn its back on Bowlby

So, after parting ways from Klein and deepening his work with parents and children, Bowlby was starting to develop his own theory, which grew into Attachment Theory, where he really emphasized the influence of the outside environment – mainly the parents – on the development of the child’s psyche.

But he wasn’t the only one to do that. For example, Donald Winnicott – also a student of Klein – was a prominent psychoanalyst who also put a lot of emphasis on the parental environment. However, to this day Winnicott is highly respected in the analytic community and has been all along. So, why did Bowlby get the cold shoulder? The answer is complex but I’ll state two points.

First, Bowlby didn’t develop a “one man theory”. You see, psychologists love to name-drop. “Well, Freud said that…” and “According to Kohut yada yada yada…”

You can even find psychologists who identify professionally as Kleinians etc.

Attachment Theory isn’t like that. There’s no “Bowlbian Theory”. Actually, Attachment Theory would have never developed as it did without the major contributions made by other people. One such person is Mary Ainsworth who took Bowlby’s ideas and put them to the test.  It's because of her that I am able to write this blog and talk with you about Secure and Insecure Attachment Patterns (don’t worry, we’ll get there). To this day, attachment theory is maintained and developed by researchers and therapists around the world, and in that, it’s different from other classic theories.

Secondly, Bowlby put a lot of emphasis on actual research and encouraged other researchers to test his hypotheses and develop his ideas, which is something most of the other psychoanalysts of the time just didn’t do.

 

SO – that’s the origin story of attachment theory in a nutshell. I hope it was interesting for you even though I didn’t really go into what attachment actually is and why I think it’s so important to parenting.

Not to worry – the next post will do just that – we'll look into why we need attachment theory to understand parenting better.

Thank you for reading all the way here. I’d love to hear your comment and questions, please feel free to comment down below or send me a message (I do my best to read and answer them all).

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