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Attachment Theory and Good Enough Parenting

Originally posted May 8, 2019.

Attachment theory is a complex, broad theory that encompasses human, primate and mammalian behavior. It’s a biologically based relationship defined and strengthened (either positively or negatively) by the quality and quantity of social interactions with the baby’s immediate family and social environment.

The attachment bond is formed early on by the dance of interaction and survives over space and time as the relationship strengthens and deepens.

Just remember that the attachment relationship is real and is based on our biology; the make-up of our body and brain.

Attachment theory was first developed in the 1950’s by John Bowlby, MD, born out of the theories of evolutionary biology.

In the 1940’s, Dr. Bowlby observed that children suffered when separated from their parents for their own safety during his work with tragic war neuroses in World War II. He also observed the failure to thrive syndrome and psychological profiles of babies and children raised in orphanages. In the 1950’s, at the Tavistok Clinic, he continued his work around the mental health of World War II evacuees. He expanded his work about the impact of family separation on child development. Dr. Bowlby observed how children undergoing necessary medical procedures in the hospital suffered from the hospital procedure of separating children from their parents. Back in the 1950’s, it was common hospital procedure to keep children separate from their parents. There was no rooming in policy. Dr. Bowlby published his book, Maternal Care and Mental Health in 1953. As he was Advisor to the Word health Organization, his work had a large impact. As a result of Dr. Bowlby’s work, hospital policies regarding families changed. It is now routine for parents to stay with child when the child is hospitalized.

D.r Bowlby’s other renowned works are A Secure Base and the three book series Attachment, Separation and Loss. These works are all genius and set the stage for so many more further developments in human relational work.

In the 1960’s, Mary Ainsworth, Ph.D, expanded and validate Dr. Bowlby’s work. She developed the seminal research experiment called “Strange Situation.” She identified three main Attachment styles as they emerged from the data of Ainsworth’s research with infants and mothers in the Strange Situation. Mary Main, Ph.D. identified a fourth style, which was added in. The four Attachment styles have endured over the years and are in use in psychological research and practice: Secure, Insecure-Ambivalent, Insecure-Avoidant and Disorganized-Disoriented.

Many researchers have expanded on this important work, including Martin Teicher, M.D. who has done extensive research regarding the negative, measurable, physical impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) both psychological and physical trauma, have on the developing brain. His research show that childhood maltreatment actually alters brain structure. Teicher’s research shows that childhood abuse affects the development of cortical regions and other areas of the brain, depending on the stage of development and the type of abuse.

Dr. GoodEnough!

Alan Stroufe, Ph.D., long with other colleagues, conducted the 35-year long Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaption (MLSRA) whose data showed that the quality of the early attachment influenced later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, even when temperament and social class were accounted for. The most salient finding was that secure attachment early in life led to greater independence later in life. Comversely, insecure attachment led to more dependence later in life.

Now, for you good parents out there reading this, take a page from D. W. Winnicott, M.D. I call him Dr GoodEnough.

Before you go listing all the times you were not perfect…all the times you were not a perfect parent, and left the room in frustration, or forgot to pick your child up from somewhere (and apologized for this) …Remember that a normal, loving environment should be good enough for a secure attachment to develop.

Research shows that parents of securely attached children are only attuned to their baby/child about 30% of the time. That is, the parents can miss cues 70% of the time, but if it is in the context of a whole, loving relationship, it is still a secure relationship. The work of D.W. Winnicott reminds that we just need to be a good enough parent to help a child develop a healthy sense of self, not a perfect parent.

In additon, attachment is not the only factor that feeds into human development. From the 1956 – 1970, Doctors Chess and Thomas conducted longitudinal studies that shows us that infants have innate temperament dimensions.


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