Seventy years ago, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, came up with Attachment Theory as a good way to describe close relationships in families, how they do or don’t go well. His own childhood was a key influence.
Apparently Mrs Bowlby suggested he should call his a theory of ‘Love’. But Bowlby wanted to be taken seriously and chose a more scientific-sounding word.
The field of Attachment Theory has grown and developed massively since then. Famous for developing Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples and families, one of many approaches that have been based on Attachment, Sue Johnson now does call it ‘the science of love’. Her focus on couples highlights how the same patterns of safe and disturbed Attachment of children and parents are found in intimate adult relationships and separation.
It is certainly time to move it on from being mere ‘theory’ to call it Attachment Science. It is the basis of major research across the world. It provides an integrated framework for child development, neuroscience, emotion, psychology, adult relationships, mental health and personality disorder. It has spawned dozens of effective therapeutic approaches.
A safe base in stormy seas
No surprise that Attachment is particularly useful for understanding the stormy seas of family separation. Breaking up can be a ‘life and death’ experience that severely affects the adults and their children who had counted on their family to be their safe base for life.
Even the most disturbed and abusive relationships and individuals – including those that come to family courts – can be understood if not helped within an Attachment framework. See the further resources below for more.
But just being such a well known idea doesn’t mean everyone automatically knows what Attachment is.
So here is my best pocket-sized effort to summarise it. This version was for an audience of family lawyers, a way to throw light on how family law systems everywhere so often fail children and families.
Normally, children take their Attachment for granted. Secure Attachment breaks cover in the devastating fear, freeze, fight and flight reactions that are triggered for you as a child, for example in the instant you realise you’ve lost your mum in the department store.
If you’ve ever had that experience – as parent or child – you’ll never forget the feeling. Hold onto that feeling for just a moment … that’s Attachment.
In childhood, Attachment gives us confidence, comfort and a safe base from which we explore and face challenges and risks, and to which we return to recover when things go wrong.
Grown up children are the same, but we can carry the idea of safe Attachment in our minds as we develop our mature Attachments.
Those ancient visceral reactions to threat and loss of Attachment are still a matter of life and death. They scream out for survival and a return to safety. Attachment has been our universal biological inheritance from animal ancestors, long before legal systems got involved.
Humans aren’t like antelopes who are on the go shortly after they’re born: we have years more dependence during which our Attachments continue to develop to become parents ourselves.
When Attachment goes wrong we use well-recognised cognitive and emotional strategies to keep variations of Attachment going.
The most disturbed of those variations don’t work well. In fact they fit with named psychiatric disorders. That’s the arena into which you can usher children if you don’t take proper care with their Attachments.
In the news, we see the worst situations in the world. How outraged were you at President Trump’s Mexican border policy of separating children from their parents? Outrage is right. Yet week in and week out, those working in private law may be involved in something almost as traumatic for the children involved.
What happens with children’s Attachment when their parents separate is not as simple as a child’s terror in a store where reunion occurs in minutes.
And of course when parents separate well, children can safely continue their Attachments with both parents with little interference or disturbance in their pre-separation relationships. In other words, the Attachment is never broken.
But where separation goes badly, one or both Attachments is disturbed or broken – often for months or years in our family law system. … It’s the willingness of private law to become involved that inadvertently creates the conditions for some parents to interfere with or even destroy their own child’s Attachments.
What goes wrong with Attachment is often like this more complicated example which I know rather well … it’s my own story:
Age five and the eldest, my Mum took me on a long train journey in India to start a life-time of boarding school. There was no going back at this point because I had panicked when introduced to a local school. I sensed my parents weren’t good at talk or emotions; that my Mum would slip away so her upset wouldn’t upset me. So I’d manned up in advance. Decades later I wept and wept when it finally dawned on me that my Dad had never been there to see me being brave.
What I hadn’t calculated on when arriving at the new school was the ritual tin bath in public. I could never rage at my parents – internally I had to protect them from my rage because they were the only Attachments I’d got. Instead my newly grown up self wailed with rage at the indignity of the public bath. I redoubled my self control so I could cope on my own. Which I did.
School rules were clear. Holidays didn’t make any more sense of things. You might say I survived and you’d be right: I did man up. But I became a pseudo-mature child; in effect my childhood was taken from me
Note that my Attachment experience was desperate, but that I couldn’t have known or voiced that if asked at the time. If anyone had asked, I would have said “I’m fine” because I knew I had to be fine for my parents’ sake.
Mine was a three-monthly loss of both parents three times a year. The loss of a parent by death is more straight forward. We know it’s less disturbing for children than separation and divorce, which feature prominently in the list of Adverse Childhood Experiences that directly stack up to cause lifelong mental and physical ill health. And we have ample evidence pre and post separation that having both parents in your life is best for children.
Even children who have been abused by, or who fear, a parent, do not need or want that parent to be evaporated from their lives as so many people righteously assume. Those children need someone to work out how to understand what happened, to help repair and sustain as safe an Attachment as is possible with the only parents they have. Or to help them work through their loss if that’s the truth.
And of course abusive adults will have been abused themselves and can benefit from help on the way to better Attachments for their children. It’s the perspective of the vengeful mob that it’s best for these children if an abusive parent is evaporated.
To sum up
Children whose Attachment to one parent is lost or shaken by separation, may man up or break down. They may work harder to secure their remaining Attachment. They may worry and take extra responsibility to look after their remaining parent’s needs and stress. They may grieve and worry and feel guilty for the separation, the stress and for their missing parent. They may be unable to bear the strain of being placed in the middle; so they may split it off completely in 100% loyalty to one parent and that parent’s views. Their fear and rage may be unwittingly or purposely shaped by the remaining parent.
Children may not be screaming in fear; they may look fine. But in fact they may have lost BOTH their safe Attachments.
So Attachment may be straightforward. Or held together by less effective or disturbed strategies. Attachment may be fine in awful-looking situations. Or awful in fine-looking situations.
Old and new ways to mess children up
Strangely, parents in the more privileged social classes still do extraordinary things with their children’s Attachment. In a remarkably ignorant or cruel but well-meaning way, these parents – Bowlby’s and my parents – delegate the loving and the childcare to (interrupted) nannies or ayahs, and to boarding schools. It’s not hard to see the parents’ own disturbed Attachment patterns as their way of coping with their own childhoods.
Nannies and boarding schools may make a kind of sense in the circumstances. They can be done well with care. But only Attachment comes with the guarantee to ‘crawl over broken glass’ for your own. Interrupted or delegated Attachment is liable to hand the misery on down the line.
In more modern times, thanks to Bowlby and his successors, the benefits of a less privileged way to do Attachment have become clearer. But now all social classes face new kinds of harm to children’s Attachments. In particular the disturbance may be amplified and dragged out through the best intentions of the helping and legal professionals who have the power in our systems of social service and family law.
Attachment remains the safest base to work from.
Nick Child, Edinburgh
Find out more about modern Attachment:
Multi-author consensus/dissensus paper summarises it all (2021) Attachment goes to court: child protection and custody issues
Ed Tronick: Still Face Experiment