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John Bowlby (February 26, 1907 – September 2, 1990) was a British psychoanalyst, notable for his interest in child development and his pioneering work in attachment theory.

John Bowlby’s background

John Bowlby was born in 1907 in London to an upper-middle-class family. He was the fourth of six children and he was raised by a nanny in a traditional English fashion. His father, Sir Anthony Bowlby, second Baronet Bowlby, was a surgeon who had a traumatic history. When Sir Anthony was just five years old, his father, who had been serving as a war correspondent in the Anglo-Chinese Opium War, was brutally killed. Normally, Bowlby saw his mother only one hour a day after teatime. During the summer she was more available. She thought that spoiling her children was dangerous, so that attention and affection was the opposite of what was required. When Bowlby was almost four years old, his beloved nanny, who was his primary caretaker, left the family. Later, he was to describe this as tragic as the loss of a mother.

At the age of seven Bowlby was sent off to boarding school, because his father had to work as surgeon in a war. His later work, for example Separation, Anxiety and Anger shows that this was a terrible time for him. Because of his experiences as a child he had an unusual sensitivity to children’s suffering during his entire life.

His intellectual career started at the University of Cambridge, were he studied psychology and pre-clinical sciences. He won prizes for outstanding intellectual performance. After Cambridge he took some time to work with maladjusted and delinquent children. At the age of twenty-two, he enrolled at University College Hospital in London, at the age of twenty-six he qualified in medicine. While still in medical school he also found time to enroll himself in the Institute for Psychoanalysis. After graduation of medical school he went off to train in adult psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1937, he qualified as an analyst. Because of his former work with maladapted and delinquent children, he became interested in the development of children and started working at the Child Guidance Clinic in London.

Bowlby was interested in finding out the actual patterns of family interaction involved in both healthy and pathological development. He focused on how attachment difficulties were transmitted from one generation to the next. The three most important experiences for Bowlby’s future work and the development of attachment theory were his work with:

  • Maladapted and delinquent children.
  • James Robertson (in 1952) in making the documentary ‘A Two-Year Old Goes to the Hospital’, The film illustrated the impact of loss and suffering experienced by young children separated from their primary caretakers. James Robertson made "Going to Hospital with Mother" in 1958. In the 1960s he researched "Young Children in Brief Separation" with his wife Joyce Robertson, publishing the results in the Psycho-analytic Study of the Child and as films: 'John', 'Jane', 'Kate', 'Lucy' and 'Thomas'.
  • Melanie Klein during his psychoanalytic training. She was his supervisor, however they had different views about the role of the mother in the treatment of a three-year-old boy.

The most famous and enduring work of John Bowlby was about attachment styles of infants with primary caretakers (see attachment theory). In his view, attachment behavior was an evolutionary survival strategy for protecting the infant from predators. According to Bowlby, initial development of attachment takes place in four phases. Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby’s, extended and tested his ideas. John Bowlby died at the age of 83 on September 2, 1990 at his summer home in Isle of Skye, Scotland. He had married Ursula Longstaff, herself the daughter of a surgeon, on April 16, 1938, and they had four children, including (Sir) Richard Bowlby, who succeeded his uncle as third Baronet and has in recent years been supportive of interest in his father's work and has spoken internationally on the subject of attachment theory.


Main article: Attachment theory

Attachment theory is highly regarded as a well-researched explanation of infant and toddler behavior and in the field of infant mental health. It is hard to imagine any clinical work with an infant or toddler that is not about attachment, since dealing with that issue has been shown to be an essential developmental task for that age period.

Following Bowlby‘s leads, a few established child-development researchers and others have suggested developmentally appropriate mental health interventions to sensitively foster emotional relationships between young children and adults. These approaches used tested techniques which were not only congruent with attachment theory, but with other established principles of child development. In addition, nearly all mainstream approaches for the prevention and treatment of disorders of attachment attachment disorder use attachment theory. Treatment and prevention programs include Alicia Lieberman ("Parent-child Psychotherapy"), Stanley Greenspan ("Floor Time"), Daniel Hughes ("Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy"), Mary Dozier (autonomous states of mind), Glen Cooper, Kent Hoffman, Robert Marvin, and Bert Powell ("Circle of Security"), Phyllis Jernberg ("Theraplay"), Daniel Schechter (intergenerational communication of trauma), and Joy Osofsky ("Safe Start Initiative").

Some clinicians have used Bowlby's theory as the basis for controversial interventions (commonly termed Chaffin et al, 2006, p77[1], also known as "holding therapy," that have no acceptance among established practitioners or researchers and which do not meet standards set by various groups, such as the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, or the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, to name a few. (Attachment & Human Development, Special Issue: Current perspectives on attachment disorders, edited by Thomas O'Connor and Charley Zeanah, vol 5 #3, Sept. 2003)

See also



  • Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss, vol. I Attachment, London: Hogarth.
  • Bowlby, J. (1973) Attachment and Loss, voL 11 Separation, Anxiety and Anger, London: Hogarth.
  • Bowlby, J. (1980) Attachment and Loss, vol. III Loss, Sadness and Depression, London: Hogarth.
  • Bowbly, J., (1988) A Secure Base, NY: Basic Books.

Chapters in books


  • Bowlby, J. (1951) Child Care and the Growth of Love, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Bowlby, J. (1956) The effects of mother-child separation: a follow-up study, British Journal of Medical Psychology 29: 211-47.
  • Bowlby, J. (1958) The nature of the child's tie to his mother, International Journal of Psychoanalysis 39: 350-73.
  • Bowlby, J. (1960) Separation anxiety. International Journal of Child Psychoanalysis 4t: 89-113.

Further reading

  • Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. Routledge; ISBN 0415077303
  • Holmes, J., (2001), "The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy." Philadelphia, PA: Brunner-Routledge. ISBN1-58391-152-9
  • Greenspan, S. (1993) Infancy and Early Childhood. Madison, CT: International Universities Press. ISBN 0823626334.
  • Siegler R., Deloache, J. & Eisenberg, N. (2003) How Children develop. New York: Freeman.


  1. Chaffin M, et al. (Feb 2006). Report of the APSAC Task Force on Attachment Therapy, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and Attachment Problems. Child Maltreatment 11 (1): 76-89.)

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