Barely a month ago, I turned 70 years old, and on this first day of a new year and new decade, I want to reflect on milestones of my clinical and academic professional life. So much has happened during my life time; so much has profound impacts on my life now.

Oliver Morgan

Dr Oliver Morgan

I was born in November of 1949, the same year that John Bowlby published what is often considered one of the earliest works in the field of family therapy, The study and reduction of group tensions in the family (Human Relations, 1949). The article is a case study regarding a young boy — Henry, 13 years old — who had poor school performance and ongoing difficulties at home, particularly with his mother.

In that same year Bowlby was commissioned by the fledgling World Health Organization (WHO, established in 1948) to write a report on the mental health of homeless children in Europe. This report, Maternal Care and Mental Health, was published in 1951 and laid out some initial ideas about attachment and child well-being.

Although the development of attachment theory began in the 1930s, as Bowlby became interested in the links between maternal separation, deprivation, loss and later child development, these two publications present several tenets of later attachment theory:

    1. Disturbances or deprivations of maternal caregiving can have profound and long-lasting effects on child development.
    2. Each child’s future mental health depends on the quality of parental care received in early years.
    3. A warm and intimate relationship with mother will equip the developing child for dealing with the anxiety and guilt that arises later in life.
    4. Symptoms of physical and/or mental/behavioral illness (e.g. anxieties, delinquencies) may accompany various degrees of maternal deprivation.
    5. The major preventive action that can facilitate good maternal care is the preservation of the family. The family group is key.
    6. Family life depends on the economic, social and medical forces within a given social system or societal ecology.

The weaving together of these tenets creates the fabric of attachment theory regarding physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral health. It is important to note that, though he was trained psychoanalytically, Bowlby had a deep appreciation for the surrounding social ecologies and influences that he saw in child development. His focus became the intergenerational transmission of attachment relations and the possibility of helping children by helping their parents and improving the wider environment.