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Bowlby and Winnicott’s Study of Child Development

Info: 1803 words (7 pages) Essay
Published: 23rd Aug 2021 in Psychology

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John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott both worked independently in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s developing different theories of child development. Bowlby’s theory of attachment and Winnicott’s theory of a good enough mother continues to be relevant and influential to this day in the study of a child’s psychological and physical growth and wellbeing. Understanding child development and the different theories is important because it allows us to get an insight into how a child’s emotional, social, and physical health grows over the years. In these early years, children are learning to properly develop their personalities, self-worth, self-control and their ability to make decisions. For many children, their parent figures strongly impact who they will choose to become in the future. Children look up to their parents or parent figure to help shape themselves and, for some, this can be a very negative thing. Certain children will pick up on their parent’s different habits and in order to make sure they do not inherit the bad ones, parents have to strive to be the best for their child. Having a strong connection with their child can improve their chances of a better and healthier relationship with other family and peers in the future. Though these theories are highly looked upon, they both contain a fair amount of flaws. Both, the positive and negative aspects of these theories will be discussed.

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Bowlby’s Theory

Bowlby’s attachment theory explains the importance of sharing a strong bond between mother and child. His theory suggests that children are born biologically programmed with the need to attach to their mothers. An important factor he believed in his theory was that an infant needs to be able to connect with at least one caregiver for the child to become successful in social development, emotional development and for the child to learn how to properly express their feelings. This person will become, almost like a safe zone for the child. Even if they, themselves, are not very emotionally balanced, the child can still form a close attachment to them. Attachment is formed from the caregiver who plays the largest role in their lives. Mother, father, nanny, grandparents, or even close family friends – as long as there is some sort of positive consistency an attachment can be formed.

John was born into a wealthy family of six. With an upper-class family, his parents hired a nanny, and that had become his main caregiver. With him only seeing his mother for short periods of time, he formed an attachment with his nanny. When he was four, his nanny left and he was sent to boarding school. So, although he was raised in a wealthy family, his lack of attachment to his parents, mainly his mother, had caused him to focus his life and career to discovering the consequences of difficulties in forming attachments in childhood, and the effects this would have on an infant’s later development.

Bowlby’s Theory Testing

OBJECTIVE: To determine the long-term causes of negative experiences with attachment theory. Testing the effects of broken maternal bonding. determining if this, in fact, causes issues later in life with social, intellectual, and emotional development.

PROCEDURE: Bowlby selected a group of forty-four juvenile thieves from the clinic where he was working at the time. He made sure to have their IQs tested along with their emotional attitudes before the actual test/interview. Bowlby also had interviewed and recorded information about their child’s early life and the level of attachment. Making sure not to share their information, Bowlby and another psychologist made separate reports. Finally, Bowlby sat with the children and interviewed them with their parents present.

RESULTS: Bowlby found that more than half of the children were separated from their mothers for long periods at a time in their early childhood. Due to this they have become emotionally unattached and struggled with processing theirs and others emotions. Out of the group of forty-four, only fourteen suffered from “affectionless psychopathy” disorder, which is the inability to care for others. Bowlby later concluded that the affectionless psychopathy disorder was caused by a lack of emotional development as a child.

FLAWS IN HIS TESTING: Since Bowlby had worked in the facility, it might be seen as him having prior knowledge of the patients background and visitation logs. This implies Bowlby was requesting patients that he knew would support his theory. In the interview with the kids, he would ask them to think back to the times where they were left alone or without their mother. These interviews could have been purposely influenced by suggestive questions to get the answers he needs. Also, the involvement of Bowlby structuring the “guided” questions and with the interviews being done by him, it may seem bias and manipulated. Not to mention that these children may have not been visited by their family in some time, so, their answers could have been influenced by their own anger at the time. The possibility that their actions could have been caused by other factors like school, financial problems, family problems, or drugs was not brought up or looked into during the time of his research. Bowlby was also the one to “diagnose” some of the children with Affectionless Psychopathy Disorder, which he claimed to be caused by lack of development due to issues in their early childhood. Bowlby’s theory was focused too much on the mothers that it clouded his work and judgment and many would see his testing as invalid.

Winnicott’s Theory

Winnicott’s theory of A Good Enough Mother states that there is an instinctive need that must be met by the mother in order to ensure a healthy lifestyle. The theory focuses on the mother and her role responsibility to recognize and properly provide the infants needs throughout all their stages of life. Winnicott’s theory has three major stages of development, them being Subjective Omnipotence, Objective Realty, and the last stage being Independence. These stages in a child’s life, according to Winnicott, are only properly met when the role of a good mother is present. The amount of encouragement and support the child receives during these stages is responsible for the success of the child’s future. Transitional periods in between these stages are also just as important and the “better” the mother is, the higher the chances will be of a positive childhood.

Winnicott’s Stages

Subjective Omnipotence: At this stage, the few weeks after birth, the mother is their prime source of food and comfort. The infant, unable to provide for itself, relies on the mother and her consistency of feeding time. Feeding time allows the baby to form a close bond with the mother and also during this stage the child is not aware of themselves and only knows the life of being connected with the mother. This time is crucial for the mothers presence to be positive. The lack of involvement can cause the baby to become unhappy with life and they may never fully grow emotionally.

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Objective Realty: During this time, it is important for the mother to know and understand theirs and the child’s limits. The child needs to learn independence, so, during this time the mother should slowly distance herself and let them explore things on their own. The mother should still help the child but keep in mind that they have to learn things on their own and realize that the world is bigger than just the two of them. Venturing out with the mother allows them to see others being independent and can push them into a state of comfort that allows them to be without their mother. Until then though, the child continues to stay safe with the mothers supervision but the mother has to make sure that the child is not being overly protected during this time. This can be very confusing to the mother and child because while she is teaching independence, she does not want to force the child into it. She has to know what she and the baby are capable of and understand that not all children are the same so what might work for one can be harmful to her child.

Independence: During this final stage the child is growing into becoming an individual and will be comfortable being separated from their mother, as long as the environment is safe. In order to ensure the healthy development in a child, the child should be given a safe environment that will allow them to adapt easily and where the child’s needs can be properly met. But, this does not mean that during this time the child is fully independent. Winnicott states that the “never absolute” stage necessary for them to socially, emotionally and intellectually grow. Never absolute stage of independency is never fully letting go and allowing the child to become isolated. This stage will determine whether or not the child grows to become secure or insecure.

Bowlby and Winnicott

Although both of these theories hold significant meaning and inspired people to look further into child development, they still may not get the appreciation they intended. One thing the two theories  had in common was the fact that both theories relied on the mothers to shape the foundation for their child’s life. This is understandable due to the fact that when these theories were being developed most mothers around the world were considered to be primary caregivers. But, as we look at it now, this is not the case anymore. It may seem “out-dated” because of the lack of relevance it has on children now. Still, their theories are widely used around the world and have had a huge impact on the research we do today.


  • John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory Explained. (2017, January 24). Retrieved from https://healthresearchfunding.org/john-bowlbys-attachment-theory-explained/
  • Attachment Theory (Bowlby). (2016, July 27). Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/attachment-theory-bowlby.html
  • Follan, M. and Minnis, H. (2010), Forty‐four juvenile thieves revisited: from Bowlby to reactive attachment disorder. Child: Care, Health and Development, 36: 639-645. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2214.2009.01048.x
  • The Attachment System Throughout the Life Course. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.personalityresearch.org/papers/lee.html
  • Winnicott’s ‘good-enough’ mother. (2017, August 02). Retrieved from https://mothersapartproject.com/2017/08/02/winnicotts-good-enough-mother/


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