John Bowlby: Theory & Biography

Instructor: Gary Gilles

Gary has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology and has been teaching and developing courses in higher education since 1988.

John Bowlby was a researcher who developed a theory about children and their developmental needs that has had a profound effect on childcare, education and psychology. Learn about Bowlby's life and theory, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Overview of John Bowlby

John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who is best known for his work in establishing what is called attachment theory. Bowlby's research and writing have made a significant contribution to our current understanding of how children develop and how best to meet their emotional needs in a healthy way.

John Bowlby

Early Years

Bowlby was born in London to parents who belonged to the upper-middle class. His parents had a philosophy (not uncommon in the early part of the 20th century) that children could be spoiled by showing them too much attention and affection. Therefore, they hired a nanny to attend to most of his childcare. As a result of the time spent with his nanny, he became closer to her than to his own parents. That is, until she left the family when Bowlby was almost four years old. At seven years of age he was sent off to a boarding school. Both the loss of his nanny and being sent away to boarding school at such a young age were events that he later recalled as being very difficult for him and significant in the development of his theory.

Academic Training

His many academic achievements included attendance at Trinity College in Cambridge where he began his work in child development with delinquent children. After graduation, he studied psychiatric medicine and eventually became a psychoanalyst. His earlier work with delinquent children earned him a commission by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1949 to write a report on the mental health status of children in Europe after the war.

WHO Report

In his research for the report, he found that institutional care for sick infants and young children was often very inadequate. The WHO report started a wave of reform in Europe regarding the types of therapy used for children and visitation rules for parents. For example, many parents of sick children were prohibited from seeing or holding their children while in the hospital because hospital personnel feared parental contact with the children might bring harmful germs into their sterile environment. Bowlby saw this as depriving the sick children of the nurture and relational contact the children longed for from their parents. The WHO report set in motion a research path for Bowlby that would become his life work - attachment theory.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory, as proposed by Bowlby, suggested that the relationship formed between an infant and the child's parent(s) or primary caregiver is of profound importance to the child's healthy development. It not only affects the child's physical and cognitive development in those early years but sets the pathway for how the child will develop and maintain relationships throughout his life span.

The main theme of attachment theory is that a child instinctively wants a secure relationship with his caregiver. But, for that to happen, the caregiver must be responsive to the child's needs in a nurturing, consistent and dependable manner. When this occurs, the child gradually begins to trusts that his needs will be met, and this creates a feeling of security in the child that enables him to explore the world in a healthy way without fear.

Bowlby's research also led him to discover that children who failed to develop secure relationships were often subjected to significant loss in their relationship with the caregiver. This loss might be experienced through death or because of a prolonged separation from the parent. In his research for the WHO, he saw that extensive separations were common (sometimes months in duration) when a child or parent needed to be hospitalized for a serious condition.

Bowlby developed his attachment theory by drawing on existing research in cognitive and developmental psychology as well as evolutionary biology. But, he received criticism from the psychoanalytic community because his ideas broke with the conventional view of the day that an infant's internal world was based more upon fantasy than real life. Bowlby believed that it was the quality of the relationship between infant and caregiver that was the most important component of the child's healthy emotional development.

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