So, Tell Me About Your Mother?

Good old Freud- he paints an interesting picture for us modern day Psychologists. Classic Freud, the whole psychodynamic perspective gave us a really good grounding in Psychology and how we worked as people. Rene Descartes, the French Philosopher was one of the great minds who started all this off, back in the 1600’s, when he postulated, “I think, therefore, I am”. Yes, the Greek Philosophers Socrates, Aristotle and Plato were the fore fathers of Psychology, but Descartes statement really hit home. The idea that the brain and the body were connected (Hothersall, 2003).

Psychology has come a long way since then. Freud really brought Psychology in to the main stream; but his work has left a bitter taste in many a Psychologists mouth. There is no doubt that Freud was hugely influential in the grounding of modern Psychology; if you ask the lay person about Psychology, I guarantee Freud is the first name that comes up, along with sniggers of Oedipal Complexes and ‘Tell me about your father/mother’ statements.


So, where have we come since then? Does Therapy still ask about your mother and father? And if so, why is it still important?

There are many different models of Psychological theory. One of these, that I ascribe too and, after working with client for so long, see in working practice every day, is Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1969). So, what is it and why is it important to me?

Attachment theory is the work of two Psychologists- John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, the work of who was published in 1991. Quite a modern theory, you may notice, but Bowlby had been working on his theory for decades before this. Bowlby theorised that the relationships and bonds between people, in particular our early caregiver (traditionally the Mother, but this could also be an Father, Aunt, Step-Mother/Father, Foster Parent etc.) are intrinsically important in our ability to form relationships, romantic or otherwise. Bowlby described his theory as the ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969). This was the result of decades of work, and has proven to be a very effective model.


So, what is it and why does it affect us?

Bowlby hypothesized that the main caregiver, who nourished, loved and cared for the child, created a bond with them, where the child learns that in times of fear or distress, the main caregiver provides comfort and reassurance. This is essential to the survival and wellbeing of human beings. By developing this bond and understanding, the child grows into a confident toddler, and therefore, a confident child, teenager and adult. The important aspect here is the bond between caregiver and child. It’s what gives the child confidence to explore the world- have you ever watched a toddler exploring a new place? They will go and look at toys, or crawl or wander over to another area, but a securely attached child will be able to do this, occasionally looking back to ensure that the caregiver is there, watching and waiting, should anything go wrong.

This is all part of normal, human development. By being responsive and available to the child’s needs, we are allowing them the space and security to be curious and investigate their surroundings. But what happens if this isn’t the case? And how might it affect me?


But why is my primary caregivers role so important?

In the 1950’s and 60’s an American Psychologist performed research on maternal deprivation, his name was Harry Harlow (Harlow, 1958). What Harlow did, was actually quite cruel, but gave a very good insight into the importance of the caregiver to an infant.

Harlow took newborn baby rhesus monkeys away from their mothers, and put them in a cage to live. In the cages were two wire monkey mothers. One of the wire monkeys held a bottle from which the infant monkey could obtain nourishment, while the other wire monkey was covered in a soft terry cloth. What Harlow found was that the monkeys would feed from the wire monkey with the bottle, but they would spend the majority of their days with the soft terry cloth ‘mother’. In times of fear and discomfort, the baby monkeys would instinctively head to the soft cloth ‘mothers’ for comfort and support.

From this, Harlow ascertained that the role of the caregiver is not just to do with nourishment, but a large proportion of the importance stems from the love and affection we get from a soft, loving, comforting parent.

A child whose primary caregiver was absent, or perhaps not as attentive as a caregiver should be, will develop in a different way. Perhaps your caregiver had PND (Post-natal depression) and found it difficult to develop a bond with you. Maybe your primary caregiver died, or was busy at work to keep the home above your heads. Perhaps the primary caregiver was cruel and did not show the amount of love we would hope a caregiver would give a child. We can then see how it might be difficult for that child to form the bond needed to allow them the space to be curious and to explore the world. A child, whose caregiver responds in this way, may become avoidant or ambivalently attached- this means that as you grow, you may find it difficult to develop and maintain a relationship- after all, your experience of relationships has not been a positive one.


So why does attachment matter? And why is it so important?

Well, a secure attachment base with out caregiver helps to increase our self-esteem, which is a rather large part of us and how we function. People, who have a secure attachment, as babies tend to be more independent, higher confidence levels, perform better in school, are less likely to suffer from depression and have more successful social relationships.

Low self-esteem issues can make the smallest things in life seem incredibly difficult. Perhaps you don’t have the confidence to ask for a pay rise, or the confidence to apply for a job or ask a girl/boy out? Low self-esteem can affect us in many ways, and it can be really difficult to build up, especially if you have no template of what self-esteem and confidence is!

Attachment issues can really affect some people, and for others, they manage to form secure and healthy attachments with no problem- like anything to do with the human Psyche, it is a very personal and unique experience for each person! How we deal with it can change from situation to situation; perhaps your new boss at work reminds you of your mother and how your relationship wasn’t easy, which in turn makes you unable to stand up to your boss, which means more work is heaped upon you. Attachment issues can affect us in many ways, and perhaps it isn’t until we have spoken to someone about this, that we know that it is affecting us.

I am not espousing that Attachment is the root of all evil, but if you are on the receiving end of a negative attachment experience, it really isn’t a pleasant feeling and you can carry it with you, and the effects it has, throughout your life. The thing is, you may not even be aware of your attachment difficulties- after all, didn’t we all have a ‘normal’ upbringing? What I think is ‘normal’ is different to what everyone else things is normal, so how do we know that our primary attachments weren’t nourishing? Sometimes, it is only through therapy that we can make sense of our experiences, and, as I said, all of our experiences are different, and unique to us!


Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment. : Vol. 1. , New York: Basic Books.

Harlow, H. (1958) ‘The Nature of Love’, American Psychologist, vol. 13, pp. 673-685.

Hothersall, D. (2003) History of Psychology, 4th edition, New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.