Emotional health and subsequent behaviour

It has been established that human social development depends in a fundamental way on the early formation of lasting bonds with other people. The processes involved in the formation of bonds are known as attachment. The word ‘attachment’ has been applied to the reciprocal processes between an individual/infant and another specific individual/person, which is the foundation for acceptance of each other.

Early relationships are thought crucial to emotional development as a caregiver that is consistently caring gives a child the self-assurance that will carry on in subsequent relationships. Freud and learning theorists once thought that bonding and attachment process between infant and mother was ‘cupboard love’ due to the mother providing the infant with nourishment. Basic needs of an infant such as nourishment were given priority over emotional needs because little was known of their emotional needs. Studies and research, ( Schaffer and Emerson 1964) show basic needs are inter-related and inter-dependant upon emotional needs for example, an infant that is hungry will not eat if unhappy and may need physical contact as the priority. (See Harlow’s studies of primates that prefer comfort to food detailed on page 6)

This assignment attempts to critically evaluate some of the many studies of the psychological theory of attachment and their importance or otherwise to child development and whether early experiences such as separation from a significant carer has any detrimental or lasting effect to emotional health and subsequent behaviour. Attachment theories will be analysed to determine what extent the theory influences contemporary social work practice and whether knowledge of the theory benefits a social work practitioner working with children and families.

Whilst many studies have explored and explained attachment theory as a lifelong process developing throughout the life cycle, this assignment will focus on attachment patterns from infancy up to young adults. After analysing the theory links will be made to attachment theory in relation to adoption and fostering practice. Gross (1996) propose there to be studies highlighting the existence of primary and secondary attachment formations. Primary attachment studies pertaining to relationships with immediate/close family and carers and secondary attachments relating to other attachment formations such as with a favourite pet or toy.

Whilst both primary and secondary attachment are considered important and significant to our self-concept, it is acknowledged that loss of our main attachments may result in a redefining of oneself that could lead to emotional difficulties, whilst loss of secondary attachments are usually less significant to a persons well being. Consequently this assignment will be concentrating on primary attachments, and not on secondary attachments. John Bowlby published the first major study of attachment in 1951. It is analysis of this study that will begin the assignment and other studies that agree with Bowlby will be explored. Challenges to Bowlby’s theory, conflicting studies and criticism of Bowlby’s theory will then be examined.

How the theories, research and studies impact on or influence social work practice will be discussed. John Bowlby a psychoanalytic theorist described attachment as “an invisible ‘affectionate bond’ between two people that consisted of instinctive interactions”. Bowlby believed infants had a biological instinctive urge to attach to someone, and mothers had a biological instinct to be near their child, and that this was universal. Bowlby believed that the formation of an early bond is crucial to a child’s mental health as an adult. Children need their mothers or at least another person who would be their mother substitute and with whom they could form an attachment.

Bowlby argued that behaviours such as crying smiling and clinging are examples of genetically inherited skills that infants use to keep their carers close by. It was Bowlby’s belief that these behaviours aided that attachment process through the stimulus of a smile for example initiating the response e.g. cuddle from their mother. Further stimuli would enhance and strengthen this bond. Bowlby (1951) put forward as a consequence that “motherlove in infancy is as important for mental health as vitamins and proteins for physical health” When a child does not have a warm loving and continuous relationship with one significant person the child is said to be experiencing maternal deprivation.

Because the bonding process of stimulus for response was an intimate interaction Bowlby argued that only one significant attachment could be formed, he called this Monotropy. Bowlby (1969/73) went further suggesting that individuals who have a psychiatric disorder had developed the behaviour as a direct consequence of ineffective or disturbed attachments in childhood. Agoraphobia a common mental disorder affecting between one and six per cent of the population is cause through the patient having lost the ability to tolerate separations form attachment figures. Reacting in this extreme way as a loss to their ‘safe base’.

Bowlby described the child who did not form an early attachment as an ‘affectionless character’ and he emphasised the need for continuous care, he argued that any subsequent care could not make up for any earlier deprivation. Bowlby studied 44 juvenile delinquents at a clinic for mentally disturbed young people; all the participants were thieves. He compared their mental health development with 44 adolescents who had emotional problems but were not thieves and deduced that maternal deprivation had contributed to the delinquency. (Bowlby 1946) Bowlby also studied the affects of war on children in relation to maternal deprivation, especially on the effects of broken attachments. Bowlby also looked at research from ethologists who were studying the effects on animals who had been deliberately separated from their mothers.

As attachment is the theory of the existence of an invisible bond and therefore unobservable studies look at attachment behaviours, all the skills a child uses to keep someone they are attached to close by for example, smiling and crying. Other studies look at the behaviour children display when their attachment figure leaves their sight or their behaviour when their attachment figure returns.

The attachment behaviour patterns can be seen to develop in stages. The first stage around three months of age consists of ‘proximity promoting’ behaviour to keep its carer close-by. From three months to around six months the infant begins to responds to the carer that looks after them most for example giving them more smiles. After six or seven months of age a bond between the child and the main care giver can be seen to have formed as the child will get upset if their main care giver is out of sight. During this phase a child may also display a fear of strangers for the first time. The infant uses this person as a safe base from which to explore their environment and this is seen as proximity promoting giving way to proximity seeking.

As speech and awareness develops the fourth stage is entered and the interaction between the child and the main caregiver becomes more complex this is thought to reinforce and maintain the developing attachment. It was Bowlby’s belief that if an attachment was interrupted during this stage or the attachment broken then the child’s ability to form attachments would be irretrievably damaged and behavioural problems would occur.

Criticisms were levelled at Bowlby’s theories due to his ideas stemming from work he had undertaken with juvenile delinquents that had been separated early in life from their mothers as being unrepresentative of the general population, and too small a sample. It was also argued that not all maternally deprived children became juvenile delinquents. But in agreement with Bowlby, Stroufe (1979) stated that “we cannot assume that early experiences will somehow be cancelled out by later experiences. Lasting consequences of early inadequate experiences may be subtle and complex” Bowlby came from a psycho-dynamic background of psychology which itself emphasises early experiences and relationships as being crucial to adult well-being, many critics therefore felt his studies were consequently biased and other factors such as environmental may have been overlooked.

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