Children Mourning

A review of Volumes 2 & 3 of John Bowlby’s Attachment and Loss

[Vol. 2: Separation – Anxiety and Anger (1973);
Vol. 3: Loss – Sadness and Depression (1980)]
(All references are to the Penguin editions.)

In the preface to the second volume of Attachment and Loss, Bowlby clearly states that, according to his observations, the responses of young children to being separated from their mothers (or ‘attachment figures’) “seemed to be the same as those found to be active in older individuals who are still disturbed by separations they have suffered early in life.” (p12) Among the difficulties of these people in later life, he lists “various forms of acute or chronic anxiety and depression, and difficulties of every degree in making and maintaining close affectional bonds, whether with parent figures, with members of the opposite sex, or with own children.” (p14) In short, his thesis is that the unresolved griefs resulting from childhood separations can directly give rise later to these difficulties in adults. And since these “diffi­culties” are so prevalent and so important as symptoms of adult unhappiness, it is plain that Bowlby is claiming to have identified a very important area of human need.

In fact, Bowlby’s thorough and insightful research into this thesis leaves little room for doubt that he is substantially correct. The two volumes which I am discussing make the similarities between childhood responses to separation and later symptoms and mourning processes in adults very plain indeed. In Separation Anxiety and Anger, he outlines with heart-rending clarity the pained responses of young children to even quite brief periods of separation from their mothers, and describes over and over again from clinical material the “deteriorative sequence of protest, despair and detachment” which the children display. I will quote this passage at length because it is typical of the sympathetic yet objective style which Bowlby adopts throughout – a style which makes light, perhaps, of some real difficulties inherent in his thesis.

“Whenever a young child who has had an opportunity to develop an attachment to a mother figure is separated from her unwillingly he shows distress; and should he also be placed in a strange environment and cared for by a succession of strange people such distress is likely to be intense. The way he behaves follows a typical sequence. At first he protests vigorously and tries by all the means available to him to recover his mother. Later he seems to despair of recovering her but none the less remains preoccupied with her and vigilant for her return. Later still he seems to lose his interest in his mother and to become emotionally detached from her. Nevertheless, provided the period of separation is not too prolonged, a child does not remain detached indefinitely. Sooner or later after being reunited with his mother his attachment emerges afresh. Thenceforward, for days or weeks, and sometimes for much longer, he insists on staying close to her. Furthermore, whenever he suspects he will lose her again he exhibits acute anxiety.”

“Bowlby goes on to develop the idea of “anxious attachment”, where the clingy child is suspicious of mother in the way outlined above and relates similarly to other attachment figures in later life. In Volume 3 (Loss – Sadness and Depression) he explicitly identifies this process with “disordered mourn­ing” in adults (II,9) and notes that the protest can be unexpressed and unre­solved (as in “displaced anger”), that the despair can be unyielding (as in “chronic mourning”) and that the detachment too may persist (as in “repres­sion, dissociation and splitting”). The implication quite clearly is that child­ren who are separated unwillingly from their mothers for quite short periods of time (Bowlby cites studies of children separated for as little as a week from their mothers) are likely to suffer serious psychological damage and to develop “anxious” attachments in later life instead of the secure attachments which can be formed by children whose mothers are available on request.

And there we come to the problem. Although Bowlby has been attacked (I think unjustly) for implying that women should stay at home and mind the children, in fact he makes it quite clear that even when mother does stay at home all the time, this is no guarantee that her attention will always be exactly what the child may require. He talks about her being present but not emotionally available, for instance; there is no mistaking that this could easily imply the supplanting of one child by the next, or even just the fact that the woman would doubtless be performing the household chores. Furthermore, his research shows clearly that children between the ages of six months and three years are in fact most vulnerable to such psychological damage – the very time when siblings are likely to appear. In short, the implication of his work seems to be that the unresolved griefs of childhood are all too likely to affect most of us, even if mother stays home to look after us. It is not a very difficult step to argue that, if mother stays cooped up in the house feeling miserable and lonesome, she will be emotionally un­available to her child in exactly the way Bowlby suggests can be so damag­ing. Quite how this “unavailability” is to be avoided is not explained. At the same time, there are unmistakable elements of blame which Bowlby does express, especially towards those women who “threaten” to abandon the family or who blame the child for their unhappiness and problems.

“In earlier discussion of the childhood experiences that lead to the most intense anxiety, especial emphasis is laid on parent’s threats to abandon a child or commit suicide. When exposed to such threats, which are often made deliberately by an exasperated mother in an attempt to control him, a child becomes very anxious lest he lose her for ever … Small wonder therefore if, when his mother does die, or in later life his spouse, he should blame himself for its having happened.” (Vol.3, p220)

In contrast with his earlier analysis of controlled experimental results in Volume 2, this major element in Bowlby’s thesis relies on post hoc reports from his patients – or even, on occasion, on the implications which Bowlby perceives within what patients may have said. Whereas the observed material about children suffering separations in Volume 2 makes plain their need and ability to mourn their losses (however temporary), in Volume 3 where Bowlby is linking the symptoms of his adult patients with the observed behaviour of children separated from their mothers, he seems impelled to assume that complaining or selfish behaviour on the part of a mother will be responded to with similar intense anxiety to that which her actual absence can be shown to cause. Even in Volume 2, Bowlby has felt the need to rely on such assumptions.

“There is certainly a minority of parents who, in fits of exasperation and temper, say the most horrifying things which they later greatly regret… Their effect, moreover, is magnified should the parent, father or mother, subsequently be so ashamed of having made such a threat that he or she cannot acknowledge either what was said or how frightening it must have been to the child … Furthermore, when families of this sort reach a psychiatric clinic, there is small likelihood that the true facts will be divulged. It is then very easy to attribute the child’s fears either to his own guilty phantasies or to his having projected onto others his own guilty wishes.” (Vol.2, p267)

The element of blame here is very obvious – Bowlby is ticking such parents off – and strangely out of keeping with his insight that there is often a pattern of “disordered mourning” running through families from generation to generation. In his admirable desire to prevent such recur­rences, Bowlby seems to have fallen into the trap of seeing parents as if they were not also children – or indeed, I might suggest, also children in mourn­ing:

Ironically it seems to me that this flaw (if it is one) in Bowlby’s work in fact underlines the importance of his thesis. It may be true that in his therapeutic desire to make things better, he longs to be able to blame and reform parents; but equally the fact that he can see children as plunged into anxious, angry feelings of loss and insecurity by parental threats gives emphasis to his claim that the psychological process called mourning is of paramount importance to psychological health. Although Volume 3 is largely concerned with death as a precipitator of mourning in adults (reflect­ing the fact that the research is largely on widows, widowers and people bereaved by death), Bowlby never assumes that death is the only or even the major cause of mourning. He argues that childhood experiences of separa­tion form the pattern of later mourning – hence his desire to reform parents, so that children have less traumatic separations. But he stops short of the next – to me, obvious – step, which would be to acknowledge that the inner world of the child may be quite different from what adults perceive to be “real”. Instead, Bowlby continually seeks explanations in actual events for the experiences which his patients disclose. It is this literal-mindedness, it seems to me, which leads him to assume that parents threaten their children so much, but then cover it up and don’t tell the psychiatrist the truth. His continual mistrust of all the psychoanalytical assumptions about the phantasy-life of human beings forces him to assume that parents must be to blame.

Nevertheless, I believe there is no better or more convincing account of the psychology of mourning than we find in Bowlby. He identifies the responses to separation, the processes of mourning and the ways in which mourning may fail with great clarity and exactness but never coldly. The work is moving and humane – as I say, even its shortcomings may endear it to the reader. However there is still another aspect of this work which I believe is underrated and of great value to anyone interested in psycho­therapy and psychology: and that is, the number of questions which it raises. There are so many avenues of exploration opened up in this work, it is quite astonishing. For example, I noticed a great number of passing observations on the differences between boys and girls/men and women in the implica­tions of mourning:

“Instead of developing anxious attachment, they become more or less detached, apparently neither trusting nor caring for others. Often their behaviour becomes aggressive and disobedient … This type of development occurs much more frequently in boys than in girls; whereas anxious clinging is commoner in girls …” (Vol.2, p261)

And there is a section on “Differences between Widows and Widowers” in Volume 3. How intensely interesting it would be to follow up these insights – Bowlby himself recognizes how important social aspects of mourning are, and that the support of social rituals is rarely available to children who suffer bereavement, still less to those whose mourning may be caused by events which the adult world does not even recognize as being especially traumatic. If there are indeed marked differences between boys and girls in this regard, would that not imply intense socialization? Again, Bowlby notes that “there was a significant correlation between the sex of the referred child (referred for psychiatric treatment) and the sex of the dead parent, the girls having more often lost a mother and the boys a father …” (Vol.3, p298). I feel the implications of such passing observations, to which Bowlby has only time to give brief attention, could also be of major import­ance to our understanding of ourselves. The feeling which remains, after all the detailed analysis and painstaking exploration has blurred in the reader’s memory, is of a book which expresses the greatest possible humanity – one which approaches the most distressing and tragic feelings of human beings not only with sympathy and understanding but with intense originality and insight and makes us acknowledge deep wells of pain and sadness with its precise, yet light, touches. Bowlby’s conclusion is, I think, worth quoting at length:

“Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler or a school child but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others. These are matters about which current science and traditional wisdom are at one.”

Mary Montaut