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Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing
Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing

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2.3 Background to attachment theory

John Bowlby developed his attachment theory when working as a psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic in London in the 1950s. His work focused mostly on children who had been separated from their parents (particularly mothers) in early childhood due to circumstances such as prolonged hospital stays, or children who were living in residential institutions. It is important to set Bowlby’s work in the UK within the time frame following the Second World War, when many children had lost parents or were temporarily separated from them. These issues were discussed in Session 1 and particularly in the case study of Sheila, the evacuee.

The reason why Bowlby’s ideas were so groundbreaking was that for the first time the psychological and emotional wellbeing of young children was being placed ‘centre stage’. Today it can be hard to realise that care settings did not consider such issues to be equally as important as children’s physical health.

As a consequence of Bowlby’s work, various policies and practices changed for the better, such as hospitals allowing parents to visit their sick children, which today is taken for granted. There was also a greater emphasis on examining the quality of relationships between adults and children in institutional settings, which is now seen as a key indicator of how well an early years setting is functioning.

Since Bowlby’s original work, there has been a great deal of controversy around some of the statements he made in relation to the role of mothers as the main caregivers. He did not fully appreciate the wider family and care network that a young child might have. For example, some children are not raised by their mothers and are ‘perfectly well adjusted’, because other adults have been their primary caregivers and attachment figures. Originally, he stressed the need for mothers, as significant carers, to stay at home in the early years of a child’s life in order to avoid the development of future mental and emotional problems.

This is a black-and-white photograph of women working in a factory during the Second World War.
Figure 4 Women working in a factory during the Second World War

Even today there are many different opinions that arise about the extent to which significant carers should remain at home in the early years of a child’s development, and also the age at which young children should attend more formal early years settings. Despite the debates around Bowlby’s work, it is still significant and continues to influence our understanding of the importance of attachments for children’s social and emotional development.