'Coming out’ as a psychotherapist can be stigmatising enough, but if you happen to be an attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist, the recent media reports about the rise in the popularity of so-called ‘Attachment Parenting’ do not help. Reports about seven year-old children being breastfed and three year-olds being schlepped around in slings must have contributed to the fact that the word ‘attachment’ is met with many raised eye-brows. Attachment Parenting literature frequently references - and very quickly contradicts - Bowlby and his attachment theory, in the way that it is partly misinterpreted and accordingly implemented. Central to attachment parenting seem to be the 'Three Bs' – breastfeeding, babywearing and bedsharing, and parents are advised to practise these until the child decides to stop them, which often doesn’t happen until a child is half a teenager.
In his theory about attachment, which attachment-based psychotherapy is based on, Bowlby did state that emotionally sensitive and responsive childcare is vitally important for human beings and their development, especially in the first two years of life. By providing this, a caregiver regulates a baby’s emotions and gradually teaches him or her to be able to start doing this himself or herself. (First clue.) A caregiver should also provide this in a consistent manner, all of which is likely to lead to a secure attachment between infant and caregiver, which will simultaneously facilitate separation. Such care will provide a secure base that allows the child, on his or her own terms, to gradually start exploring the external world, knowing that there is a secure relationship / secure base with the caregiver, who can offer help or consolation should something go wrong during exploration. The secure base is so important because it facilitates exploration. (Second clue.)
Attachment parenting (as portrayed by the media), if it entails frequently carrying a child around, especially after two years of age, restricts the child’s opportunities to explore, to have his or her own experiences, and is likely to affect the child’s development. Separation is avoided, and Winnicott’s idea of a ‘facilitating environment’, characterised by the gradual, child-driven testing of boundaries, risk-taking, socialising, playful exploring and separating in a secure environment is largely being denied. Such a ‘facilitating environment’, encouraging exploration and play, is essential for the child to develop a creative, ‘true self’, as opposed to a false one. A lack of this can stifle development, emotionally and mentally, but also physically. Motoric skills are acquired by letting toddlers crawl, walk, run, climb and fall over. They are surprisingly good at slightly pushing the boundaries while generally keeping themselves quite safe, and can do amazingly difficult things if they are given the freedom to gradually build up these skills with a sense of self-agency from early on. Of course under a watchful, but not over-interfering, eye of the parents.
I doubt that continuously carrying your child around beyond, say, two, as well as making your child’s every wish your command, was the kind of good mothering Bowlby had in mind to ensure the development of secure attachment. The same applies to co-sleeping and homeschooling. Yes, quickly and sensitively regulating your baby’s affect states and being dependable and available, especially in the first few months of life, are essential for brain development and for how we physically and emotionally will deal with stress factors in the future. But in order to bring up a securely attached child with a firm sense of self, someone who can relate but also has developed into an autonomous human being, a child has to go through a process of ‘optimal frustration’ (Winnicott, 1971). It is developmentally essential that a child goes through a phase of feeling omnipotent, but it is equally important that the caregiver ‘weans’ the baby off the notion of being omnipotent, by introducing boundaries and by very gently and gradually introducing frustration and delayed gratification. This is also necessary in order to teach a child how to deal with feelings of anxiety, frustration and anger in a healthy and constructive way (Bowlby 1973). Furthermore it is important for the development of a sense of autonomy and agency, and encourages self-initiative (Stern 1985). This explains why the weaning process is highly significant developmentally, and leaving it totally up to the child as to when to stop breastfeeding means losing out on the opportunity to utilise this process. Alice Miller and Heinz Kohut agree that the gradually increasing frustration of the child’s narcissistic needs is vital for the development of a healthy sense of self. It is essential for the consolidation of the self, to develop self-confidence and self-esteem, to become resilient to deal with life’s difficulties in positive ways, for one’s objects to become real, and to be able to conduct ‘reality checks’ and to relate without having to merge. You need to have separated to a degree in order to be able to relate and to be securely attached.
This article is primarily intended to clarify what attachment-based psychotherapy is and is not about. If you have different experiences of attachment parenting than the kind portrayed by the media, please leave a comment below.
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. London: Routledge
Bowlby, J. (1973) Separation: Anxiety & Anger, Attachment and Loss (vol. 2). London: Hogarth Press
Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London, New York: Routledge
Sears, W. and Sears, M. (2001) The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Child, New York: Hachette Book Group
Stern, D.N. (1985) The interpersonal world of the infant: A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Winnicott D. W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock
Winnicott, D. W. (1957) The Child and the Family. London: Tavistock
Winnicott, D. W. (1957) The Child and the Outside World. London: Tavistock
Silke Steidinger - Psychotherapist writing about developments in psychotherapy