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Expression of separation anxiety is usually the mark of a healthy attachment between child and caregiver. However, if separation persists for long periods of time this can cause ‘bond disruption’ which, according to Bowlby, can damage attachment and have a negative effect on development. The child may suffer emotionally and greet the caregiver indifferently or even aversely when they return; rather than with joy, as in a healthy attachment.
A highly influential study conducted Robertson and Robertson, supports Bowlby`s ideas about the negative impact of prolonged separation. One of the children involved in the study was a one and a half year old boy named John, who was placed in a residential nursery for nine days. While this may seem a fairly short period of separation, the observations showed that he went from being a happy, well-adjusted child, to being so distressed by the experience that he rejected his mother when she returned, (class notes).
The work of Bowlby and the Robertson’s brought about a significant change in hospital policies. At the time of the study many hospitals allowed parents no, or very limited, visits to their children; as the focus was on caring for their physical, rather than emotional, needs. It has now become generally accepted that parents and children should be allowed unrestricted visiting when either are in hospital to avoid the consequences of bond disruption, (Flanagan, 1999).
The research also contributed to the closure of many institutions, (children’s homes). Bowlby suggested that children should be fostered by families, rather than put in to institutions, as it would be difficult for the children to form close attachments; and they would not be properly ‘socialised’. Therefore they would find it difficult to adjust to life outside of the institution once they were old enough to leave.
Bowlby went as far to state that ‘bad homes are better than good institutions’; this was because he believed that a bad home would still provide some sort of attachment for a child. While attachment is now seen as very important for all children, as evident by the closure of institutions and changes in hospital policies, Bowlby also believed that there are different levels of attachment. He theorised that children can form multiple attachments, but that they are not of equal importance to each other.
He believed they formed a hierarchy with the primary caregiver at the top, (Flanagan, 1999). He then coined the term ‘monotropy’ to describe how a child has just ‘one’ primary attachment figure. Bowlby believed that there is a ‘sensitive period’ for the development of attachment, which occurs before the age of five years, with the first two and a half years being of particular importance. Bowlby believed that after this period it would be too late, (or very difficult) for a child to form an attachment.
He also stated that if a child`s attachment was damaged, (or if no attachment developed at all) within the sensitive period that they were likely to have difficulties with emotional, social and intellectual development, (class notes). Bowlby conducted a study which supports these claims; the case study consisted of two groups of forty four participants, all of whom were quite young. One group were juvenile thieves; fourteen of whom were diagnosed by Bowlby as affectionless psychopaths. The other group were not thieves but had experienced some emotional problems.