Donate Child Support Calculator
Skip navigation

Dr Jennifer McIntosh and the Bowlby / Ainsworth Paradigm

Family Law

Summary  The Australian clinical psychologist Dr Jennifer McIntosh has edited and largely co written a special edition of the journal Family Court Review on 'attachment' almost exclusively from a Bowlby perspective. Bowlby saw the 'mother as an important determinant of mental health' (1986).

SCRIPT - Dr Jennifer McIntosh and the Bowlby / Ainsworth Paradigm

According to the Australian Clinical Psychologist Dr Jenn McIntosh,

As a body of knowledge, attachment theory was spawned in the 1950s by John Bowlby, then nurtured and developed significantly by Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, and their colleagues. Recent years have seen a burgeoning of new psychological and neurobiological research into attachment relationships, aiding understanding about the process of attachment formation and its developmental functions through the lifespan.

In a Special Edition of Family Court Review called 'Attachment Theory, Separation and Divorce: Forging Coherent Understandings for Family Law', Dr Jenn McIntosh, brings together multiple conversations with internationally acclaimed attachment theorists and researchers given the task of providing current, authoritative, accessible knowledge about attachment, and of grappling with conundrums and complexities of applying attachment knowledge in family law disputes. The only drawback is that all the experts for the Special Edition, that was conceived, and largely co-written by Dr McIntosh, are drawn from what is described as the 'Bowlby / Ainsworth tradition'.

Dr John Bowlby believed is that there is a critical period for attachment formation. If a separation occurs between mother and infant within the first few years of the child's life, the bond would be irreversibly broken, leading to severe emotional consequences for the infant in later life. He referred to this disruption of the bond with the mother as 'maternal deprivation'. Even towards the end of his career in 1986 when he was asked to describe his citation classic he chose 'Maternal Care and Mental Health', published in 1952, because he said,
'It focused attention on the relationship of a young child to the mother as an important determinant of mental health'.

Given this view of attachment it is not surprising that according to Dr McIntosh a consistent point made by the experts in the Special Edition is that,

While being a woman is clearly not a prerequisite for being a primary caregiver, Schore suggests from current neuroscience that dominant mother care of infants is not just sociologically informed: in normal development, the female brain is specifically equipped for the largely nonverbal, affiliative, nurturant aspects of attachment formation with an infant.

And that amongst other points agreement was also clear that:
Care arrangements in infancy should support the growth and consolidation of the primary relationship, and where possible, at the same time allow for familiarity and growing attachment with the second parent.

The term primary parent does not denote being a better parent, but being primary for fundamental aspects of the attachment development.

An alternative view is given by Professor Sir Michael Rutter in his seminal work 'Maternal Deprivation Reassessed' 1972 who was knighted for his work on the welfare of children.

  i.Investigations have demonstrated the importance of a child's relationship with people other than his mother.
  ii.Most important of all there has been repeated findings that many children are not damaged by deprivation.
  iii.The old issue of critical periods of development and the crucial importance of early years has been re-opened and re-examined. The evidence is unequivocal that experiences at all ages have an impact.
  iv.It may be the first few years do have a special importance for bond formation and social development. (Page.217)

The purpose of the Family Law Review Special Edition is to provide meaningful guidelines for attorneys, judges, parents, and even mental health professionals who are often poorly equipped to accurately apply developmental knowledge to these decisions. In order to justify post separation guidelines the Special Edition refers to the work of, Professor Sir Michael Rutter, who the authors describe as a London psychiatrist noted for his discoveries in psychiatry, child development, and developmental psychopathology, (Rutter, M., Kreppner, J., & Sonuga-Barke, E. (2009). Emmanuel Miller Lecture: Attachment insecurity, disinhibited attachment, and attachment disorders: Where do research findings leave the concepts? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 50 (5), 529543.) In particular they base their own conclusions on five key landmarks in the history of the field of attachment as described by Rutter's own research.

Despite some reservations the authors of the Special Edition argue that in the interim , increased familiarity with the above measures will assist custody evaluators both in standardizing their assessment procedures and their capacity to gain more from the observational data available to them. Such increased standardization and depth of observation should be highly beneficial to the courts.

But the purpose of the Rutter research is to illustrate how a standardised interpretation of attachment as adopted according to the Bowlby / Ainsworth paradigm in the Special Edition on Attachment Theory, Separation and Divorce: Forging Coherent Understandings for Family Law, is a useless measure because security is not necessarily an indication of health and well being in children.

Throughout this Special Edition and more recently in a set of guidelines for the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health called 'Infants and overnight care - post separation and divorce' Dr McIntosh focuses 'squarely to the importance of the questions we ask on behalf of very young children about post separation living arrangements, and protecting the child's sense of comfort and security as the prime and determining element to which courts must attend in resolving custody disputes.

But as Rutter states, 'It is seriously misleading to view all of these patterns through the lens of security / insecurity'.



Kingsley Miller is the author of 'even Toddlers Need Fathers', a critique of the principle of 'Maternal Deprivation' as applied in family courts, which Professor Sir Michael Rutter described as an, 'interesting and informative guide'. He has also received a letter from Buckingham Palace stating, 'It was thoughtful of you to enclose a copy of your book 'even Toddlers Need Fathers' and Her Majesty has noted your concerns'.
1 guest and 0 members have just viewed this.

Recent Tweets