Attachment Theories: Bowlby and Winnicott I am particularly interested in attachment theories and ideas arising from objects theory namely Winnicott’s concepts of the transitional object and the “good enough mother”. Having two children, now aged 12 and 14 years old, I can see how the theories applied to them as babies and how it continues to be of significance now they are entering adolescence. It has also allowed me to understand relational patterns in my own life.
I particularly like the recognition and evidence that, though childhood experiences are important in a therapeutic setting, past experiences can be reconsidered and changes made. What is Attachment Theory? Attachment theory is a theory in developmental psychology that highlights the importance of “attachment” in personal development. McLeod (2007) states that it is the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical attachment to another person which gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, grow and develop as a personality. John Bowlby
The British psychologist John Bowlby (1907 to 1990) coined the term attachment. His field was psychiatry and his influences were Freud, Melanie Klein and Lorenz. Jacobs (2006) states that Bowlby’s evolutionary attachment theory suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive. According to Hopkins (1999) Bowlby observed children separated from their parents in hospital, or institutions and revealed they passed through three stages: separation anxiety (threat of loss), grief and mourning (acceptance of loss) and defence (protection from loss).
Bowlby also added on the nature of the tie with the caregiver which could be lost and called this tie attachment. His work in the late 60s established the precedent that childhood development depended heavily upon a child’s ability to form a strong relationship with at least one primary caregiver, usually the mother. This relationship involved the exchange of comfort, care and pleasure. Hopkins (1999) felt this attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences.
Jacobs (2006) noted that Bowlby felt babies were programmed at birth to recognize a few caregivers. The full intensity of the baby’s attachment is only manifest from the latter half of the first year. I would agree with this at birth most friends and relatives could feed my sons. However, by 6 months they rarely would go to strangers and would rather be with me or my husband. When I returned to work I employed my nanny for 2 weeks prior to returning so the children would get used to her and come to see her as a safe attachment figure.
Jacobs (2006) explained that Bowlby’s theory also suggests that there is a critical period for developing attachment (about 0-5 years). If an attachment has not developed during this period then the child may suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression. The roots of the research on attachment began with Freud’s theories about love however John Bowlby’s research usually credits him as the father of attachment. Our early attachment styles are established in childhood through the infant/caregiver relationship.
Bowlby calls those templates of relating Internal Working Models (IWM). Though Bowlby saw the infant’s IWM as the base or template of later relationship, he did not see them as fixed (Bowlby 1988). Attachment is about accessibility and responsivesness. Can I get to you? Will you respond to me? Can we have the contact that’s meaningful to me? Is there emotional engagement and contact? According to McLeod (2007) Bowlby suggests four characteristics of attachment. I can recall seeing these characteristics in my own children: Proximity Maintenance -The desire to be near the people we are attached to. If my children were at a play group and strayed too far where they could not see me they would want to come back or be within a safe distance. 2 Safe Haven- Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat. There are lots of examples but I can remember when my son Louis was frightened of fireworks he would run back to me for reassurance that the fireworks/noises would not hurt him. Secure Base-The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment. Both my children would run off in the playground to the swings or slides but would always return to me having explored a piece of play equipment. 4 Separation Distress- Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure. An example of this for me would be when I lost my son in a shop in Brent Cross and he was distraught until we found each other again. Jacobs (2006) noted that Bowlby identified four types of attachment: Secure Attachment
This occurs when the caregiver responds appropriately, promptly and consistently to needs and forms a secure parental attachment bond to the child. McLeod (2007) noted that the characteristics of a secure attachment are that: as children we are able to separate from the parent, to seek comfort from the parent when frightened, the return of the parents is met with positive emotions and we prefer our parents to strangers. Jacobs (2006) felt as adults if there was a secure attachment we will have lasting relationships, good self esteem, be comfortable sharing our feelings and will seek out social support.
Ambivalent Attachment McLeod (2007) said this occurs when the caregiver gives little or no response to a distressed child. Discourages crying and encourages independence. McLeod (2007) noted that the characteristics of ambivalent attachment are that:children may be wary of strangers and become greatly distressed when the parent leaves. They do not appear to be comforted by the return of the parent. In adults this will be shown by a reluctance to get close to others, worry that their partner does not love them and becoming distraught when a relationship ends. Avoidant Attachment
This occurs when the caregiver is inconsistent between appropriate and neglectful responses and generally will only respond after increased attachment behavior from the infant. An example of this is were the caregiver ignores the child until the child is begging for care, chasing the care giver. According to McLeod (2007) the characteristics of avoidant attachment are that children may avoid parents, not seek comfort or contact from them and show little preference between the parent and stranger. As adults they may have problems with intimacy, invest little emotion in relationships and be unwilling to share thoughts and feelings
Disorganised Attachment This occurs when the caregiver is frightened themselves or they generate frightening behavior. They are intrusive, withdrawn, negative, and there often is role confusion whereby the child takes on the parenting role to the adult. There is communication errors and maltreatment. It is often associated with child abuse. McLeod (2007) felt the characteristics of disorganized attachment are that the children show a mixture of avoidant and resistant behaviours and may seem dazed, confused or apprehensive.
By the age of six the child may have taken on a parental role and act as a caregiver to the parent. According to Hopkins(1999) Mary Ainsworth built on Bowlby’s work on attachment styles. Ainsworth used the “strange situation” test to provide an assessment of infant security. This is a standardized test. The child is left briefly alone in a strange room and then reunited with its mother. The reactions on re-meeting are felt to show the type of security with the mother, as they show the expectations the child has developed about her physical and emotional availability when they are afraid.
My own mother suffered from depression when I was born and since studying on this course, on reflection, I have noticed that I bore some characteristics of both ambivalent and avoidant attachment. As a child I was applauded if I coped, kept quiet and was well behaved. I find it hard to open up about my feelings even today, to trust or depend on others and worry about being let down if I do or if I rely on other people. It tends to take me a long time to trust people but over time I have become more balanced in my approach as I do agree with Bowlby that with enough good experiences you can relearn new ways of being.
Adolescence Bowlby (1988) believed what was central to good parenting was “the provision by both parents of a secure base from which a child or adolescent can make a series of sorties into the outside world and to which he can return knowing for sure that he will be welcomed when he gets there, nourished physically and emotionally, comforted or distress, reassured if frightened. ” To create this environment the parents must have an understanding of attachment and ideally be supported themselves.
As a mother of two adolescents you cannot help but notice this gradual process of them wandering further from their home (the secure base) for longer periods. It starts with play dates, leads to sleep overs, to holidays away from the family with school or friends, to no doubt eventually going to university and leaving home. Donald Winnicott Donald Winnicott was a pediatrician and a psychoanalyst. He developed a series of ideas about the relationship between babies and their carers which I feel naturally progresses on from Bowlby and resonates with me.
I have considered three of his ideas: – The Good Enough mother: Providing the ‘holding environment’ and facilitating transition. – True Self False Self: Integrity and growth. – The Transitional Object: For comfort and not-me identification. Like Klein and Bowlby, Winnicott gave the mothers a central place in child development . Like Bowlby he down played the importance of fantasy and developed the concept that children’s development was as a result of a real relationship with a real parent with fantasies forming in that context (Jacobs 2006).
The Good Enough Mother Howard (2012) considered Winnicott felt that a baby cannot exist psychologically without a mother who mirrors his experience and adapts to him. Howard (2012) felt Winnicott proposed that in the third trimester of pregnancy a mother becomes increasingly identified and absorbed by the baby. This continues for the first few months after the birth enabling the mother to be sensitive to the baby’s needs. The baby will have the illusion of being in charge of the relationship. So if he cries the mother will pick him up. He will think he has created her.
Winnicott saw this as vital in the early months. This resonates with me certainly in the last trimester of both my pregnancies I was very focused on the baby and I remember when they were born not being able to take my eyes of them or bear to separate from them in case I missed something or they needed me. Certainly at the beginning the boys were desperate to be physically near to me and I was desperate to be there and understand their needs. Winnicott noted that if the mother does not come when the baby cries he may fall into an “unbearable state of anxiety”.
Alternatively if she responds when he does not need her he may feel “impinged on” in Winnicott’s terminology (Winnicott 1967). Winnicott felt the baby could become overwhelmed by the enviroment and the mother protects him from the extremes of psychological discomfort and distress by providing a “holding environment” until the baby is able to become more autonomous (Winnicott 1960). I like this idea and I certainly felt that my close proximity and home provided a containing environment for my children. False Self According to Waddell (2002) Winnicott felt the child will develop a healthy false self if the quality of the care is good enough.
However, Some mothers are unable to prevent impingements so to protect itself the baby creates an unhealthy false self. This false self will be compliant and won’t complain if it is picked up when it does not want to be. It will protect the baby’s true self from the hurt of the failure of the relationship with it’s mother. In later life the baby may grow up finding it difficult to form intimate relationships and may have only superficial relationships. According to Howard (2012) ,Winnicott did not demand perfection from the mother but felt she needed to be “good enough”.
By that he meant that the baby can tolerate some failure in sensitivity as long as it is not too much. I like this view after all real mothers are not perfect it takes an imperfect mother to raise a child well. Children need to deal with: disappointments and frustrations; not to be greedy and accept the world does not revolve around them; to learn other peoples boundaries and limits including their mother and Winnicott recognizes this in a real way. As a baby gets older and his ego is stronger he will be able to tolerate more frustration.
It will then be up to the mother to work out how much the baby can tolerate. I think mothers do this intuitively by recognizing different types of crying those requiring an immediate response and those which can be left and are likely to resolve on their own with minimal involvement. Transitional Object Howard (2012) states Winnicott came up with the idea of the transitional object ie a comforter (usually a toy, blanket, dummy). The separation from the mother happens through play and the use of a transition object He can tolerate being away from mother as long as he has his comforter.
The important thing is that it must be chosen by the baby as only the baby will know what represents his mother. It is called a transitional object as it facilitates a transition from dependency on the mother to the beginning of psychologically separating and becoming more autonomous. This resonates with me as both my boys had transitional objects. One had a dummy which he took everywhere and the other a teddy. Particularly my son with the teddy found this to be very reassuring if he was going somewhere new or to bed.
Without the teddy I certainly feel my son would have struggled to settle to sleep at night. I love the idea that the teddy some how represented me. Jacobs (2006) explains that in a therapeutic situation Winnicott created a holding environment for his patients to allow them to regress to a level of dependency to enable aspects of their relationship with their mother to be recreated. I think it is very reassuring that by creating this holding environment this may be sufficient to allow people to rework relationships and make lasting changes.
Conclusion Both Bowlby’s and Winnicott’s ideas resonate with me. They deal with the reality of a situation. Bowlby reached his conclusions on attachment by observing children in real situations. His theories revolutionized the thinking about a child’s tie to the mother and its disruption through separation, deprivation and bereavement. Mary Ainsworth’s strange situation test made it possible to test and verify his ideas but also helped to expand the theory to look at the nature of the mother’s availability when she is present with the baby.
Bowlby’s theory has stood the test of time and has been built upon. I like Winnicott’s concept of “the good enough mother”. He recognizes the reality of motherhood. Winnicott sees motherhood as a mixed bag full of wonderful and dreadful experiences. He sees mothers are capable of great dedication yet there is room for the idea of resentment. His ideas of the false self and transitional objects all resonate with my own experiences with my own children and I could easily relate them. Laura Pena Word Count is 2,622