Attachment – Chapter 2

During World War II many children in England were separated from their parents in order to keep them safe from the bombings. In this chapter Bowlby (1969/1974) discusses what impact this sort of separation has on a child, both in terms of the the short term response and the longer term consequences for emotional and personality development.

Bowlby describes the reaction of a securely (happily) attached child who is separated from his (or her) mother (or caregiver) and placed in the care of a stranger (carer, nurse, etc.). The typical response sequence is as follows:

  1. Protest: a vigorous, noisy and teary response which lasts from several hours up to a week or more.
  2. Despair: a withdrawn and lethargic state of mourning and sadness. The child will not be comforted or cheered up by the presence of the carer-stranger.
  3. Detachment: a state of listlessness and apathy, yet also increased compliance with carer-strangers, often mistaken as a form of emotional recovery. Once a child has reached this state, there is typically a striking absence of enthusiastic response to the mother when she does reunite with the child.

This sequence is at the core of attachment theory and will be referred to throughout the three volumes.

Bowlby then describes what happens to a  child who experiences not only the loss of his mother, but also the repeated loss of temporary mother-figures who have cared for him, i.e. carers or nurses who work at the institution for a limited period of time each. Bowlby observes that after a series of upsets at losing several of these carers, to whom the child has given some trust and affection, the child will gradually commit himself less and less to each successive carer. In time, the child will stop attaching himself to anyone at all (i.e. the state of detachment will be reached):


The process of becoming emotionally detached

Bowlby explains that this child will become “increasingly self-centred and, instead of directing his desires and feelings towards people, will become preoccupied with material things such as sweets, toys, and food.” (p. 28).

I wonder to what extent this type of “preoccupation” will result in later addictions to various substances and activities, as the grown up individual seeks to satiate their unmet childhood thirst for interaction with their attachment figures. Bowlby goes on to describe how a child who has reached the state of detachment will no longer show desire for his parents when they visit him. He will appear sociable and cheerful, but “this sociability is superficial: he appears no longer to care for anyone.” (p. 28). What Bowlby is describing here suggests the roots of a depressive personality, a person who will experience emotional numbness and apathy towards other in adulthood.

Bowlby points out (p. 29) that attachment distress is reduced when the child is in the company of a sibling (Heinicke & Westheimer, 1966; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), or when the child is in the care of one, constant mother-figure, especially when the child has met him or her before in the mother’s presence (Robertson & Robertson, 1967; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974).

In the contemporary Australian context we do not face the same situation as English children in the 1940s (WWII), and, thanks to people like Bowlby, we are generally much aware of and responsive to a child’s emotional needs than sixty years ago. Nevertheless, there are situations today which may have similar implications for children’s emotional and mental health, and which Bowlby’s writings can prepare us for. Children living in boarding schools might provide an example of this. Or amongst younger children, children attending day care when their parents returns to work is likely to be a source of distress in the first few weeks of this experience.

From Bowlby’s and others’ findings, then, parents of children going into day care can be equipped with the knowledge that: (a) previous contact with the carer in the presence of the child’s mother, or primary caregiver, can reduce the distress of separation, (b) prior familiarity with the environment in the presence of the mother may also reduce the distress response, and (c) being with a sibling can be of great comfort to a child while in the absence of the mother.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, parents and carers should appreciate that a child’s distress response is not a “problem” to be managed, rather is it the natural, “right” response of a healthy child  (an 18-month-old who doesn’t cry when left with strangers on their first day at day care is more of a concern than the child who does). Bowlby writes: “the more affectionate the relationship has been [with the mother] the greater the child’s manifest upset during separation” (p. 33). Thus parents shouldn’t feel embarrassed by their child’s tears, nor should they try to persuade their children to be “good” by not crying. The “good” (i.e. healthy) child is the one who protests vigorously when mummy leaves him. The “good” / healthy mother is one who tolerates and permits her child to experience and express his sadness. Likewise, those looking after a child who is besides himself and who wants nothing but to be with his mummy or daddy, ought to refrain from dismissing or downplaying his emotions. Carers should respect the fact that the child may not wish to respond enthusiastically towards a replacement carer. They should empathise with his pain and divert his attention towards enjoyable activities, until he is reunited with the eagerly-desired parent. This way, it would seem, the child’s emotional state will hopefully remain one of protest, and not have to advance to that of despair and detachment.

This parent – and replacement carer – side of the attachment relationship will be revisited in later discussions.



Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.


2 Responses to “Attachment – Chapter 2”

  1. Do you mean, how do you move from being a detached person to an attached person?
    In short, I don’t know if Bowlby goes on to give an answer as such. His books are more about proposing a theory for understanding how people get to be the way they are rather than changing whatever way that is.
    I think your question is the question that the whole of psychotherapy/ psychology is trying to address – that it’s very complex and uncertain how much people can change. Going to a counsellor or psychologist would be a good start.

  2. From the perspective of a person who is “detached”, I detest the use of the terms “mummy” and “daddy”. They give the theory a sense of warmth that it should not have. The figures are “male parent” and “female parent” – not “daddy”, not “mummy”. At its most casual, I would have accepted “mum” and “dad”.

    On a separate note, does the book go on to explain how to fix it?

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