Close to home

The son of pioneer psychologist Sir John Bowlby spoke to Judy Siegel-Itzkovich about the critical importance of early attachment.

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April 21, 2007 22:21
Close to home

bowlby 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Fortunately for human understanding of parent-child relationships but unfortunately for him, John Bowlby was cared for as an infant and toddler in London during the early part of the 20th century almost solely by a nanny. His aristocratic mother - wife of a baronet who was a surgeon to the King's household - saw him and John's five siblings for only about an hour a day, believing that giving children affection and attention would "spoil" them. When the nanny resigned to work elsewhere when he was only four, poor John was devastated. Compounding his grief, he was separated from his family three years later when sent to boarding school. Later, as a psychoanalyst, psychologist and leading researcher in developmental psychology and early attachment relationships between parents and young children, Sir John devoted his life to studying the repercussions of separation from primary caregivers, and launched "attachment theory." He confessed in his book Separation: Anxiety and Anger that his detachment from the nanny was as painful as when his own mother died. Because of his experiences, he was very sensitive to the suffering of children through his long career. SEVENTEEN YEARS after his death and 44 years after he came to Israel to attend a symposium on psychopathology and go birdwatching in Rosh Pinna, his son Sir Richard Bowlby made his first visit to Israel to lecture in Rosh Pinna's Mifne Institute for the treatment of victims of developmental communications disorders under the age of four. The methods used in the Mifne center are based on Sir John Bowlby's attachment theory, with treatment in children younger than four encompassing the entire nuclear family. Founded in 1987 by family therapist and autism expert Hanna Alonim, the center has two clinics and a training school. It offers an intensive, three-week program of individual treatment that focuses on the child's potential for pleasure as a lever for change and "reciprocal play therapy that brings mutual pleasure to the child, the therapist and parents. The autistic child is helped to develop a sense of security, trust, comfort, acceptance and affection as the basis for becoming engaged with his family and therapist. Sir Richard, president of the Children's Mental Health Center in London that promotes his father's work, is not a trained psychotherapist or psychologist. Before his retirement in 1999, he was a medical and scientific photographer who illustrated medical research communications. He then decided to spend his time studying his Sir John's theory on the attachment between parents and their young children, and hopes to promote a wider understanding of the research findings to health care providers and the general public. "I AM an amateur," Sir Richard told The Jerusalem Post during his 72-hour visit to Israel with his wife. "I've studied it seriously for 15 years from books after being asked to present an introduction to a lecture about my father. I really knew nothing about it. But since then, I have travelled all over the world and have my own way of connecting with people." His London center doesn't treat children but is "a place for communicating science and specifically, attachment theory. We disseminate knowledge." In attachment theory, Sir John Bowlby insisted that there is a unique connection between babies and their parents, especially their mothers or other primary caregivers. All infants, he insisted, require a special adult in their lives to nurture, protect, stimulate and comfort them. This connection makes a child grow up feeling loved, certain that he or she will be cared for and valued, and assured that the world is a welcoming and secure place. By feeding the baby when hungry, and comforting when it is upset or sick, the nurturer becomes a figure that the child learns to depend on. This relationship, said Sir John, is vital in a child's emotional development. Toddlers shift between fierce attachment to their parents and the desire to become independent explorers. Sir John argued that if a toddler has a good attachment relationship, he or she will feel more confident and more easily go out and explore. Mary Ainsworth, one of Bowlby's students, researched, tested and extended his theories. She made many home visits and observed mothers with their babies under controlled situations. Ainsworth created the "Strange Situation," in which the mother (or caregiver) was separated from the year-old baby and then brought together again. First she put the mother and infant in a toy-filled room. A stranger was sent in and the mother left, followed by the stranger. Then the mother came back and comforted the child. The mother then left, prompting the stranger to enter and try to comfort the child. The mother then returned and comforted the child. The babies were classified by Ainsworth according to their behavior when the mother rejoined the baby. If the baby made a fuss when the mother left and quieted down when she returned, then accepted comfort from her and went back to the toys, their relationship was called secure attachment. If the baby was hardly upset or calm when the mother left, instead playing with the toys and not reacting when the mother returned, the relationship was classified as avoidant. If the child was sad when the mother left, agreed to be picked up and even comforted by the stranger, and when the mother returned was cool to and even angry at the mother and then returned to play, the relationship was called ambivalent. Ainsworth said that the first was preferable to the second, while in the third case, the child would probably find it hard coping with difficulties in life. Subsequent research by others has suggested that in school, securely attached children get along well with others; avoidantly attached children tend to victimize peers; and ambivalently attached children may be victimized by other children. There is now overwhelming, long-term scientific evidence that targets the first two years of life as the critical period for establishing human personality traits. These patterns of behavior, Sir John posited, are wired into an infant's developing brain, and when they themselves become parents, they will frequently find themselves repeating the experiences of their own childhood with their children. Sir Richard actively promotes a wider understanding of the rapidly expanding body of attachment research, and is in touch with many attachment workers and their organizations. "At last count, when you Google-search 'attachment theory,' you will come up with over 600,000 references," he said proudly. He gives introductory talks on attachment, draws on personal insights into how his father assembled his research information, and freely disseminates information and training videos. He noted that "disruptive children, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, depression and crime are problems that usually share a common origin: It is the quality of the earliest attachment relationships formed between parents and their babies that tend to predispose the behavior of the developing child and emerging adult." Sir Richard called his first visit to Israel "a real pleasure," even though before leaving he had been "quite anxious" about speaking on attachment theory given the personal losses due to the Holocaust, war and terror. "I thought the meetings would be very emotionally charged and didn't want to tread on toes, but at my lecture to some 100 professionals at Mifne, I was very impressed by their knowledge and thoughtful views of attachment theory. I think it's a good idea to preach to the converted. My role is to help people feel emotionally connected with what can be thought of as dry academic science." Sir Richard said he was grateful that he and his siblings were raised by their biological mother. "Grandmother died when I was 15. I think my father was raised by her the way Prince Charles and his siblings were raised by Queen Elizabeth. She went for a year's world tour, leaving Charles at home as a boy. Poor old Charles. Princess Diana really tried not to repeat that cycle, and she did a pretty good job with William and Harry, even though they have had troublesome episodes." Fathers generally have less of a nurturing role than mothers, but "fathers can be 'mothers' if the mother dies or leaves. Fathers matter in any case, as many young criminals lost their fathers when they were young. If fathers didn't matter, there shouldn't have been such an effect." Sir Richard added that according to one important study, fathers who had excited their children and were very sensitive to what they wanted and were doing at a specific moment could engage them to feel a thrill and excitement and pleasure from being alive." This, he continued, has to be done by age two. The researchers who examined children at the age of six "weren't studying the fathers but the mothers. Two decades later, the researchers identified a group of young adults who were very competent socially and found that their fathers had played with them in an exciting way. They needed a consistent, reliable and secure base from their mothers, bu had become very socially secure from their father's contribution. "Single mothers (or single fathers, or lesbians, or gay couples) can get this right too, but it is harder. "It takes a village to raise a child," he said, quoting the title of a book written years ago by Senator Hillary Clinton, "but it really is that you need village to support parents to raise a child. Parents need everybody to support them. We weren't designed to raise babies by ourselves; traditionally it was done by an extended family." UNDER TWO YEARS, he said, babies have little ability to anticipate events. "They are pre-verbal. When they're older, they can understand language and know that their mothers will return because they say they will. Before that stage, they know only that their mothers are talking. Babies under two live in the present. It's a biological thing, because the neurons in the prefrontal cortex just begin to be myelinated at six months. At 12 months, it is more developed, and at 12 to 14 months it is at the peak of attachment seeking." Sir Richard believed that if parents are unable to give their babies long-term support because they have to work, it is "OK if the child has a stable bond with a caregiver or babyminder that lasts for five years. The caregiver must not take the mother's place, as the primary role must not be violated." Israeli parents can only moan about such a requirement. Paid maternity leave from work lasts only 12 weeks and does not fully cover salaries (the Knesset is extending such leave to 14 weeks), but in England, "women have nine months of fully paid maternity leave, and the government is working to extend this to a year," said Sir Richard. But even in generous England, he added, day nurseries with a lot of people coming and going are being introduced because caregivers get the minimum wage. The major question for a working parent to answer is whether he or she knows the full name of their child's caregiver. If they do not, this is a bad sign that the child has been cared for by a series of people whom the parent did not get to know. The child, as a result, "is thus less likely as an adult to create enduring relationships." But if your caregivers keep changing, at least if there is a meaningful attachment relationship over time with a grandmother, father, uncle, aunt or older sibling, you can get away with it, Sir Richard continued, basing himself on his father's writings. The lack of an enduring relationship with a caregiver if it is not the parent is not good for a child's emotional development, he insisted. He recalled being young when Sir John visited Israel. "I remember him saying he was worried about kibbutz children who spent nights away from parents. Night is frightening, and it's natural to be afraid of the dark. Children's needs are elevated at night," Sir Richard said, aware that young kibbutz children now spend the night with their families. His father would have been pleased.

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