Bowlby: The Cognitive Map of Attachment of a Child to his Mother – VII

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A child’s pattern of attachment usually correlates with the way his mother treats him. By preschool age, this matrix will have become a function of the child himself or herself. This internalisation or, in Bowlby’s terms, “cognitive map” of attachment may also correlate with the child’s participation in the regulation of his or her care and mothering. Bowlby likens the regulation of mothering to the regulation of food, opines Prof. Ashoka, in seventh-part of his erudite research, in the weekly column. A Different Truths exclusive.

In volume one of Attachment, Bowlby suggests that five main classes of behaviour should be considered in any attempt to assess the attachments of a child. These are:

  1. Behaviour that initiates interactions, such as greeting, approaching, touching, embracing, calling, reaching, and smiling.
  2. Behaviour in response to the mother’s interactional initiatives that maintain interaction (all the initiating behaviours plus watching).
  3. Behaviour to avoid separations, such as following, clinging, and crying.
  4. Exploratory behaviour, as it is oriented toward the mother.
  5. Withdrawal or fear behaviour, especially as it is oriented toward the mother.

None of these considerations fit the Freudian picture of the infant or young child, which describes the infant as being enclosed in a state of primary narcissism, “shut off from the stimuli of the external world like a bird in an egg.” The child’s object relations are seen as minimal. The contrasting view of attachment theorists points to the quality of mother-infant interaction, which is built up out of communication ‘games’ as well as proximity-maintaining behaviours. The success or failure of this mutual endeavour is crucial to the arousal of a baby’s interest in the first weeks of life. Indeed, Ainsworth and Bell (1970b) have correlated the attachment behaviour of 1-year-old children placed in a strange situation with the extent to which they had been permitted to be an active partner in the feeding situation as 3-month-old infants. Such findings suggest that the mother’s ability to conceive of the relationship as a partnership affects the development of both attachment and exploration.

One fascinating detail of this research, which again contradicts the primary narcissism hypothesis, pertains to fluctuations in the responsiveness of each partner to the initiatives of the other. The infants responded on every occasion when the mother initiated interaction. However, whereas some mothers were encouraged by their baby’s social advances, others evaded them; where some mothers were made more solicitous by their child’s crying, others became more impatient. By the time the children’s first birthday was reached, the magnitude of the differences between one pair and another could hardly be exaggerated.

Two other researchers, David and Appell (1969), describe, at one extreme, a pair who interacted almost continuously throughout the baby’s waking hours, and, at the opposite extreme, a pair who were hardly ever together, and mother occupying herself with housework and largely ignoring her daughter. In a third pair, mother and son spent much time silently watching each other while each was engaged in some private activity. Such findings suggest that mothers play a much larger part in determining interaction than do infants. For instance, although initially there is little correlation between a baby’s crying and a mother’s responsiveness, by the end of the first year, a baby cared for by a sensitive, responsive mother cried much less than one cared for by an insensitive or unresponsive mother.

One of the strengths of attachment theory, initiated by Ainsworth (1982) and Bowlby (1982) is that it has stimulated a very able group of developmental psychologists to make such empirical studies of socioemotional development. These studies would be extremely useful to psychoanalysts, particularly those working with children and young people.

As is only too obvious to the layman, a child’s pattern of attachment usually correlates with the way his mother treats him. By preschool age, this matrix will have become a function of the child himself or herself. This internalisation or, in Bowlby’s terms, “cognitive map” of attachment may also correlate with the child’s participation in the regulation of his or her care and mothering. Bowlby likens the regulation of mothering to the regulation of food. Both mothers and professional people often ask whether or not a mother should meet her child’s demands for her presence and attention. If she gives in on mothering, will this encourage the child to demand that she give in on everything else? Will the child ever become independent? Bowlby (1969) responds with an answer which he tells us is “now well known”:

From the earliest months forward it is best to follow a child’s lead. When he wants more food, it will probably benefit him; when he refuses, he will probably come to no harm. Provided his metabolism is not deranged, a child is so made that, if left to decide, he can regulate his own food-intake in regard to both quantity and quality. With few exceptions, therefore, a mother can safely leave the initiative to him…Thus, in regard to mothering —as to food—a child seems to be so made that, if from the first permitted to decide, he can satisfactorily regulate his own “intake.” Only after he reaches school years may there be the occasion for gentle discouragement.

By 4 to 5 years of age, the child’s capacity to consider another person’s point of view provides additional clues to the status of the child’s goal-corrected partnership. Another variable by which we can measure the security of an attachment is a child’s resilience. A child whose background state is one of anxious attachment will have few resources to draw on when faced with untoward and stressful circumstances. In conclusion, then, the organization of attachment, which is initially labile, becomes progressively more stable. This development may be cause for optimism or concern.

Let us now consider what the attachment model implies for the growth of self-reliance. Psychoanalysts have looked at development as a linear progression from a state of dependence to one of independence. This has distorted our understanding not only of dependence in childhood but also of independence in adulthood. For Bowlby, self-reliance goes hand in hand with reliance upon others. Confidence in the attachment figure and in the self, are built up together. Indeed, the capacity to rely on others when the occasion demands and to know upon whom it is appropriate to rely is essential for true self-reliance. Many people have confused self-reliance with the kind of independence that Bowlby characterizes as compulsive caregiving and compulsive self-sufficiency. The compulsive caregiver and the fiercely self-sufficient person will experience their own needs for love and care through, respectively, administering to others or apparently needing nothing. Bowlby believes that a person’s success in finding appropriate people to help him or her through hard times depends upon childhood experiences. This ability holds a special importance for dealing with a serious loss. A major determinant of reaction to loss is the way the bereaved’s attachment behaviour was evaluated and responded to by the bereaved’s parents-whether they could share his or her fears, unhappiness, and grief or whether he or she had to bear sorrows alone. The solitary child has a hard time finding a comforting shoulder in later life. Such people shun the thought and disavow the need for solace. What children learn to expect in the nature of comfort from their parents determines in large part whether, as adults, bereavement will make them sad or whether it will overwhelm them with despair and depression.

(To be continued)
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.