Attachment: The connecting thread between the individual and systems theory

The psychodynamic inquiry concerning attachment contains within it social, emotional, cognitive and behavioural elements that form the basis of Bowlby’s (1973a, 1973b, 1973c) works on Attachment, Separation and Loss. Bowlby’s theory of attachment is based on the recognition of how the affectional bonds between children and their caregivers have a biological basis related to the need for the survival of the infant. The concept of an internal working model that is central to the theory of attachment is also central to the capacity to ascribe meaning to experience and events. Attachment is not perceived as a ‘stage’ of development to be outgrown, but rather as a developmental process that endures throughout the lifespan and undergoes transformation over time. It is interesting to note that whilst focusing on the individual infant, attachment theory already has strong systemic elements. The infant and caregiver are part of the same system in which they are inextricably linked to each other through the context of their interactive activity (Bowlby, 1988).

Interestingly, Bowlby had written one of the first papers on family therapy as early as 1949 in which he used family therapy sessions to accompany individual therapy with a child that had reached an impasse (Bowlby, 1949). Family therapist John Byng-Hall (1991) has discussed the particular contribution of attachment theory to family systems thinking with respect to recognising how the whole setting of family therapy can be said to provide a secure base for the family. By so doing, the secure base can be used as a model by the family to continue their exploration of their problems once the therapy is concluded. Contemporary research on attachment highlights this process in relation to emotion regulation, information processing, psychobiology and culture. Attachment is perceived as giving rise to the capacity for self-organisation in the infant and young child. This capacity for emotional regulation utilises a dynamic systems theory that reflects an interdependence of system elements that in turn give rise to new behavioural forms (Goldberg, 2000; Powell et al., 2014).

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