Bowlby, John (1907-1990)
Bowlby, John (1907-1990)
English psychiatrist best known for his studies of the effect of maternal deprivation on a child's mental health and emotional development.
The interaction between children and their families is the main focus of British psychiatrist John Bowlby's work. In fact, his study "Maternal Care and Mental Health," published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1952, sparked interest and controversy that continues even today. In his research, Bowlby studied children confined to institutions and found them deficient in emotional and personality development. Bowlby's conclusion that maternal deprivation had caused the deficiencies stimulated future studies of infant-mother bonding and the effects of early separation.
John Bowlby was born in 1907, the son of a London surgeon. Following in his father's footsteps, John studied medicine along with psychology at Cambridge and in 1933 completed his medical training in London. He spent five years as an army psychiatrist before beginning an extended tenure at the Tavistock Clinic and the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in 1946. Serving as a clinician, teacher, and researcher, Bowlby concentrated on child and family psychiatry. His particular fascination with the effects of parents on children stimulated much of his research and led to the renowned WHO report.
It would be difficult to overlook the impact that John Bowlby has had on the field of child development research, especially in the area of attachment relations and the social-emotional development of the young child. His 1952 report, for example, led to extensive changes in how children were treated in hospitals and institutions. It is also important to understand how his work departs from traditional psychoanalytic thought and method, although both approaches share an emphasis on early development and the importance of the mother-child relationship.
Bowlby's accounts of the importance of healthy, secure, sustaining attachments in human development are based on observations of children rather than on the retrospective accounts of adult patients. His epic three-volume series, Attachment, Separation, and Loss, develops his observations of instinctive attachment behaviors across species, and the role of these behaviors and the mother-offspring relationship in growth and survival, into a theory of attachment and its place in development. According to Bowlby, when attachment behaviors are nurtured by the caregiver, the child develops a sense of security from which exploration of the world and internalization of a positive sense of self can proceed. Rejecting or ambivalent caregivers, on the other hand, provoke insecurity in the child.
How is attachment displayed? Infants demonstrate attachment behaviors, such as seeking and maintaining proximity to the mother, when they are distressed or threatened. Secure attachments are evidenced in the mother's ability to calm her infant and to diminish the threat of external stimuli by her presence. As the child's relationship with his or her mother develops into "a secure base," that child is able to leave the mother and explore the environment, knowing that the mother will be available should that environment become threatening.
Bowlby argues that when the child is separated from the attachment figure, intimate emotional bonds and the associated sense of security are strained and may lead to deviations from normal personality development. The disruption of the attachment system through death, and the resulting depression and mourning, are even more serious manifestations of the critical role of attachments throughout development.
Many of Bowlby's ideas have spawned lines of research. Mary Ainsworth has investigated attachment between mothers and infants cross-culturally; Robert Hinde has studied attachments in non-human primates; and Colin Murray Parkes has studied the role of attachments in adult relationships. Numerous other researchers have integrated the concept of attachment into their work, resulting in an enormous, eclectic, and evolving collection of studies and findings.
Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books, 1969.
. Attachment and Loss. Vol. 2: Separation: Anxiety and Anger. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
. Attachment and Loss. Vol. 3: Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books, 1980.
. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. New York: Basic Books, 1988.
Parkes, CM., and J. Stevenson-Hinde, eds. The Place of Attachment in Human Behavior. New York: Basic Books, 1982.
—Doreen Arcus, Ph.D.
University of Massachusetts Lowell