Back to Articles

How attachment to mother in early life affects adulthood
Posted on 17, Jun 2017

Psychiatrist and psychologist John Bowlby (1907-1990) is famous for his work on how children form attachments, particularly to their mothers, or mother substitutes.

He described the strong affectional bonds that they form and, resulting from his studies on children evacuated during World War II and on delinquent children, he described the impact of flawed bonds on the child. He also showed how attachment difficulties were transmitted from generation to generation.

This work is relatively recent, beginning during the war and coming to fruition with publication in the late 1960s and early 70s. Bowlby's pupil, Mary Ainsworth, went on to describe different types of attachment, based on direct observation of young children and their mothers in clinical setting. These are relevant today.

Bowlby believed attachments formed in the first nine months after birth continued to play a role in the person's life through adulthood. He said that children needed these secure attachments with their mother (or mother substitute) so as to have healthy adult relationships themselves.

We all recognise attachment behaviour in our everyday lives even though we may not have given it a particular name. Take any office, and women working there bring their newborn babies to proudly show them off to their workmates. You know the scene: you hold the baby and it is happily pulling a long strand of hair while paying attention to the whereabouts of its mother. If the mother disappears from view, the baby cries, but if she remains in close proximity, the baby interacts and smiles at you.

So, attachment behaviours (crying, clinging, and calling out) are used to seek out the attachment figure in order to elicit care and protection from their presence. When the mother returns, the child is comforted and returns to play. Thus, the attachment behaviour system is not constantly in operation but is activated in times of danger, distress and novelty. This is known as secure attachment.

We know from Mary Ainsworth's subsequent work that parents contribute hugely to the health or otherwise of the attachment. She identified two additional types of attachment - insecure-avoidant and insecure-anxious-ambivalent. The avoidant type stems from mothers who are insensitive and rejecting of the child's needs and are not available during times of distress. This results in a detached child who is not distressed if the mother leaves the room but will react normally with a stranger. The child shows little interest when the mother returns. As adults, they show a mistrust of others, a strong reluctance to display feelings or needs and have powerful tendencies towards self-reliance.

The ambivalent type is intensely distressed when the mother leaves but avoids strangers. When the mother returns, the child approaches her for comfort but may also push her away - hence the term ambivalent. This type of attachment derives from inconsistent parenting. In adulthood, they experience others as unpredictable and themselves as helpless, and tend to exhibit much anxiety in their attachment relationships.

Until recently much of this was speculative and little research was carried out. Yet some researchers began to speak of "symbolic attachment", particularly in older adults. In this, the individual forms a mental representation of the attachment figure. This enables them to achieve feelings of psychological closeness and security and might include preoccupation with thoughts about the parent, a yearning to be with them, and feelings of excessive anxiety or concern about them if they were still alive.

A new stand of investigation is examining the role of these early bonds among those who develop dementia. Bowlby believed that these attachments had continuing importance even with the onset of this condition.

If proven, it would provide some understanding of the inner world and behaviour of the person with dementia. It has been suggested that the experience of dementia, particularly when insight about what is happening is still present, diminishes feelings of safety and security and activates attachment behaviours from infancy as a refuge.

In the early stages of dementia, overt attachment behaviours, such as calling out their parents' names or crying, can be used to seek reassurance from familiar others. Recent research also shows that those who, in childhood, had shown avoidant attachment, based on interviews with family members, exhibited higher levels of paranoia, while those who had an ambivalent attachment style showed greater anxiety and depressed mood.

These cradle-to-grave studies are in their infancy. In so far as attachment is concerned, they hold fascinating potential. The Bard himself (in As You Like It) described the final years of life as "Second childishness and mere oblivion". Had he been writing today, he might have rephrased it slightly to read "Second childhood and mere oblivion" - an altogether happier scenario than the original.

(Published by the Irish Independent on the 2nd August 2016)