The Emotional Dynamics
in Attachment Relationships
and Clinical Intervention
Children’s reactions to separations from their parents have played a critical role in documenting the operation and regulation of the attachment system. During the 1940s and 1950s, John Bowlby and James Robertson used films of young children undergoing such separations to demonstrate the fundamental importance of the attachment relationship (Karen, 1994). These films highlighted the emotions that accompany disruptions of the attachment relationship. It was apparent to most observers that the children experienced the separations as a fundamental threat to their well-being. The films documented the significance of this threat by showing the young children’s emotional reactions, including fearful expressions, angry protests, and desperate efforts to find the missing parents. The more extreme emotions of fear and anger that were immediately evident following the parents’ departure eventually gave way to more subtle expressions of sadness and despair. Careful observation revealed that after a prolonged period of sadness, the infants regained some composure and became detached and less emotionally expressive. Subdued activity and a notable lack of joy or enthusiasm marked this detached stance. Much of the impetus for Bowlby’s (1969/1982) attachment theory came from his effort to account for the mechanisms and processes that organize children’s reactions to separation.
Yet, despite the power of separations to illustrate the importance of attachment relationships, it soon became evident that the simple presence or absence of an attachment figure was inherently limited as a means of understanding attachment in older children and adults. The most casual observer of children could see that by 3 or 4 years of age, physical separations no longer present as serious a threat to a child, and consequently do not produce the same kinds of emotional reactions. In large part, the child’s developing capacities to represent an absent parent, talk about impending separations, and plan for reunions with the parent reduce the problem posed by separations from an attachment figure. As a result, Bowlby (1973) faced a dilemma in the second volume of his Attachment and Loss trilogy. On the one hand, young children’s responses to separations provided compelling evidence of the emotional significance of the attachment relationship. On the other hand, the lifespan and clinical implications of attachment