Child psychologists, Psychology

Child Psychologist John Bowlby Presents: The Guilt Factor

Child Psychologist

Child psychologist John Bowlby

Bowlby is known primarily for his theories on bonding and attachment. For all working mothers consumed by guilt for leaving their children in the care of others, you now have a name to attach to that guilt. Child psychiatrists often hold differing opinions on children’s emotional development, which can be confusing for parents who want to raise their children in the way that will be most beneficial to them.

Learning about the differing views of a child psychologist can be helpful, if only to discover the few things upon which they can all agree.

The Development of Attachment Theory

To arrive at a universal truth regarding human development and behavior, Bowlby felt it was necessary to utilize several fields of scientific inquiry rather than rely on existing theories of psychoanalysis alone. Psychoanalysis focused on what it regarded as the resolution of childhood fantasies, which Bowlby regarded as real life experiences. His research methods included evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, cognitive science, control systems theory and ethology. Bowlby’s interest in ethology, the study of human behavior and social organization from a biological perspective, led to the development of evolutionary psychology.

As a child psychologist, Bowlby’s theory rests on the concept of monotropy, or attachment to a single individual, which he believed served as a prototype for all future interpersonal interactions. This prototype provides a model for trustworthiness, a sense of personal value and effectiveness in achieving mutually satisfying interactions. He called the lack of such a consistent attachment “maternal deprivation” which he believed could lead to cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties, and in extreme cases, affectionless psychopathy.

To test his theory, in 1944, he conducted a study in which he interviewed 44 adolescents remanded to a juvenile detention facility for stealing. His control group consisted of 44 other youths referred for emotional problems, but who had not yet committed any crimes. The study found that

  • over half of the first group had experienced a separation from their mothers of over six months before the age of 5,
  • 32% of them displayed affectionless psychopathy
  • only 2 percent of the control group had experienced such a separation and none displayed affectionless psychopathy

The study, however, relied primarily on the memories of those interviewed and did not take a number of other variables, such as into account, such as income, education, diet, and other social influences.

Zoologist Robert Hinde conducted several experiments with rhesus monkeys in which he studied their emotional and behavioural reactions to separation from their mothers, as well as their interactions with other monkeys.

In 1959, Harry Harlow, inspired by Bowlby’s attachment theory, conducted an experiment in which a group of rhesus monkeys were bottle-fed by surrogate mothers made of wire mesh covered with terrycloth. These monkeys, in contrast with monkeys that experienced meaningful interaction with their biological mothers during feeding, demonstrated aggressive, antisocial behaviors in adulthood. The results of these studies supported Bowlby’s hypothesis that

“the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”

Critics of Attachment Theory—Nature Versus Nurture

Psychology researcher J.R. Harris, in her book “The Nurture Assumption”, asserts that genetics and peer interaction play a much larger role in a child’s emotional development than child psychologist Bowlby’s theory took into consideration. Using studies of twins who had been separated at birth, yet displayed remarkably similar characteristics of personality despite differences in environment, Harris demonstrated the importance of genetic predisposition as a factor in human development.

Tiffany Field, medical researcher and child psychologist, believes that Bowlby’s theory relied too heavily on behavior exhibited during stressful separation rather than on the quality of daily interactions. Like Harris, she also felt that his theory did not take into account the human ability to form multiple attachments over the course of a lifetime.

Social Context of Attachment Theory

When judging the merits of any theory regarding human development, it is important to consider the social context in which the theory gains wide acceptance. It is interesting to note that at the time that Bowlby’s theory gained wide acceptance, women were being discouraged from working in order to increase the number of jobs available for British soldiers returning home from war.

Any child psychologist agrees that it’s important for children to be able to successfully bond with others. However, human children, unlike the monkeys in the experiment, are not faced with the choice between their mothers or a lifeless wire mesh surrogate holding a bottle. Meaningful positive interaction in the form of eye contact, smiling, and physical affection can result in the child bonding with a variety of people, including fathers, grandparents, siblings, or even neighbours.

Mothers who must return to work almost immediately after giving birth rely on family, friends, or day-care providers to care for their babies. While Bowlby’s research focused on the potential harmful effects of separation, other research indicates that the more people a child feels safe and comfortable with, the less separation anxiety they will experience. Many children even develop emotional ties to a blanket or teddy bear which serves as a physical link between them and their emotional “homes”.

While there is still some disagreement about whether the modern nuclear family is the result of the industrial revolution, most people agree that it can isolate people from other family and relationships. This can result in more pressure placed on each family member, especially mothers. Isolation can also result in children learning fewer negotiation and conflict resolution skills, which are so necessary to successfully navigate within society as a whole.

Any child psychologist would agree that it is the pleasurable quality of interaction that is most conducive to children forming meaningful attachments. So rather than feeling guilty for those times when you’re too overwhelmed to radiate happiness during those interactions, view them as opportunities for your child to further develop other valuable emotional attachments.

Here you you will find more about attachment and bonding, and here are some extra sources:

Child Psychologist
Maternal Caress, Mary Cassatt, 1890–91, Credit Line Gift of Paul J. Sachs, 1916. Metropolitan Museum of Art
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