138: Most of what you know about attachment is probably wrong

New parents often worry about attachment to their baby – will I be able to build it? My baby cries a lot – does that mean that we aren’t attached? If I put my baby in daycare, will they get attached to the daycare staff rather than to me?

Based on the ideas about attachment that have been circulated over the years, these are entirely valid concerns. But it turns out that not only should we not worry about these things, but the the research that these ideas were based in was highly flawed.

It’s often forgotten that attachment theory was developed in the period after World War II, when policymakers were trying to get women out of the jobs they had held during the war, and back into their ‘natural’ place in the home.

In one of his earliest papers Dr. John Bowlby – the so-called Father of Attachment Theory – described 44 children who had been referred to his clinic for stealing, and compared these with children who had not stolen anything. He reported that the thieves had been separated from their parents during childhood, which led them to have a low sense of self-worth and capacity for empathy. He went on to say that “to deprive a small child of his mother’s companionship is as bad as depriving him of vitamins.”

But much later in his life, Bowlby revealed that he had conflated a whole lot of kinds of separation into that one category – everything between sleeping in a different room to being abandoned in an orphanage. And in addition to being separated, many of the thieves had also experienced physical or sexual abuse. The fear that spending time apart from your baby will damage them in some way is just not supported by the evidence.

What other common beliefs do we hold about attachment relationships that aren’t supported by evidence? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out! Listen in for more.

Check this episode for more attachment research: What it is, what it’s not, how to do it, and how to stop stressing about it



Link to the book mentioned:

Cornerstones of Attachment Research (Affiliate link).



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Jump to highlights:

  • (03:30) Download the free Right From The Start Roadmap
  • (06:11) Dr. John Bowlby, who is known as the founder of attachment theory
  • (06:40) A brief overview of attachment theory
  • (08:06) What is attachment theory
  • (09:44) A closer look at the word attachment
  • (12:55) Five aspects out of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory
  • (14:32) 44 Juvenile Thieves – One of the major ideas about separation from parents
  • (17:50) What is the word monotrophy
  • (18:49) The four dimensions that distinguish African-American views of motherhood from American views by Dr. Patricia Hill Collins
  • (20:49) Aka Pygmy tribe in Africa
  • (21:37) What is PIC or Parental Investment in the child Questionnaire by Dr. Robert Bradley
  • (24:19) The Strange Situation Procedure developed by Dr. Mary Ainsworth
  • (30:30) White middle class mothers in Baltimore stand for what attachment should look like in families of all types around the world
  • (33:36) Two main cross cultural studies
  • (40:13) The cognitive thinking component of the attachment relationship
  • (47:29) What is Outcomes
  • (01:01:25) Summary




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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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