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Attachment Disorder’s Early Pioneers: Bowlby and Robertson

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For some adoptive and foster parents, attachment theory is a new concept though it was first described in the 1950’s. In a London hospital, psychiatrist, John Bowlby and social worker, James Robertson, studied the effects of children under the age of three, separated from their mother. In the 50’s, long hospitalizations and excluded parents were a common practice even though it was common knowledge in the community that children, especially under the age of three, were “changed for the worse” when they returned home. Robertson stated, “A hospital experience has dangers of emotional trauma for the young child.” Bowlby and Robertson identified three stages for separated children: Protest, Despair, and Denial/Detachment.

  1. Protest – The child expects mom to respond to his cries. When she doesn’t come, the child is heartbroken, visibly upset and searches for her.
  2. Despair – With mother’s continued absence, the child gives up hope, becomes withdrawn and quiet, and becomes what Robertson called, “settled-in.”
  3. Denial/Detachment – The child shows more interest in his surroundings and seems happy which Robertson saw as a danger sign. In actuality, the child is merely making the best of the situation. Robertson noticed, “When his mother comes to visit, he seems hardly to know her, and no longer cries when she leaves.” Once the child returns home, and if his stay was long, he seems to not need any mothering at all. His relationships are described as shallow and untrusting.

These three stages occur for any young child separated from his mother over a period weeks, and sometimes even in a matter of days. Bowlby and Robertson were able to witness firsthand the effects of a child being separated from his mother. Parents whose children suffered early abandonment did not witness their child’s separation but can imagine and understand their child’s trauma and fears.

Because of this early separation, foster and adopted child will have current events that trigger past experiences of loss or abandonment. Let’s look at the example of Jacob, 8 years old, adopted from Colombia at age 2. Jacob was taken to the orphanage several days following his birth. The orphanage was in a poor area; it had a few broken toys, shared clothes, and meager food for the children. Jacob’s adoptive parents, Julie and Ron, know his tantrums occur when he has things “taken away” and especially when he loses food as punishment. This year in school, his teacher’s behavior plan was to take away tokens from misbehaving children. Jacob’s parents know this will trigger his old trauma and without delay, they talk to the teacher. Luckily, the teacher understands the significance of Jacob’s early loss and she changes the classroom behavior plan. Now, the children earn tokens when they mind their teacher.

Bowlby and Robertson were pioneers in identifying the three phases leading to attachment difficulties. Their work has been invaluable in understanding how to prevent attachment difficulties. Although we may not be able to prevent all children from early separation and loss, Bowlby’s and Robertson’s work provides a backdrop of comprehending the three phases children experience when they suffer from neglect, abandonment or loss.

1 Robertson, J. (1958) Young Children in Hospitals. New York.: Basic Books.



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