Deprivation of attachment

What happens when attachment is disrupted because a child is separated from its primary caregiver for a period of time?

Does separation lead to emotional maladjustment?

Is there support for Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis?
Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis
Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis states that if an infant is unable to form a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with its mother or maternal figure, then the child will have difficulty forming relationships with other people and be at risk of developing behavioural and emotional disorders.

There are three important features to Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis.
  • There must be a continuous relationship between a chid and its mother or maternal figure. Discontinuous relationships ( ones in which there are separations) are unstable and disrupt the development of a stable relationship.
  • The relationship between a child and its mother or maternal figure must develop before the age of two and a half years (30 months), otherwise there is the risk of emotional disturbance. Disruption to the relationship up to five years old can also be harmful.
  • The relationship does not have to be with the child's mother. A maternal substitute is sufficient, but the child must develop a primary relationship with one caregiver.

The juvenile thieves study (Bowlby, 1944)
Bowlby tested his maternal deprivation hypothesis on a sample of 88 children who had been referred to a child guidance clinic. 44 of the children had been referred because of stealing, and Bowlby identified 16 of the thieves as 'affectionless psychopaths' (a behaviour disorder in which the individual has no sense of shame or guilt and lacks a social conscience). The other 44 children had not committed any crimes and, although they had some emotional difficulties, were not anti-social and none were affectionless psychopaths.

Bowlby interviewed all 88 children and their families, focusing specifically on their early life experiences. The findings were that 86% of the children diagnosed as affectionless psychopaths had experienced prolonged periods of separation from their mothers, only 17% of the other thieves had experienced separations from their mothers, and less than 4% of the non-thieves control group had experienced such separations.

As the chlldren with affectionless psychopathy had experienced most separations, Bowlby concluded that maternal deprivation does in fact lead to emotional and behavioural disorders, and in its most severe form it leads to antisocial behaviours such as theft.

The study does therefore seem to support Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis. However it must be remembered that the findings are correlational and therefore, although affectionless psychopathy and maternal deprivation are linked, maternal deprivation cannot be said to cause affectionless psychopathy. Also the data was collected retrospectively and so it may not be reliable as, for example, the people Bowlby interviewed may have overestimated or underestimated the frequency and duration of separations.

The case of John (Robertson & Robertson, 1971)
Robertson & Robertson made film recordings of a variety of children under the age of 3 who were separated from their mothers for a short period of time while their mothers were in hospital. One of the children, John, was cared for at a residential nursery and the other children were cared for by a foster mother in her own home.

John spent 9 days in a residential nursery while his mother was in hospital. Staff at the nursery were extremely busy and had little time to care for his personal needs other than to feed and dress him. The staff regularly changed shifts, and John would see several different carers every day. John was initially overwhelmed by the strange environment he was in and clung to a teddy bear for comfort. Over the next few days he became progressively more withdrawn to the point of despair. When he was reunited with his mother, John rejected her and continued to punish her with outbursts of anger for several months.

In direct contrast to this, the children who had been cared for by a foster mother appeared to develop no emotional problems from their separation. The foster mother arranged for the children to visit their mothers in hospital regularly so that the emotional bond was maintained, and at the end of their stay they welcomed their mothers openly and warmly.

This research shows that maternal deprivation does seem to cause emotional difficulties for children, however it can be prevented by providing high quality substitute emotional care with a single substitute caregiver. The quality of substitute emotional care is important as was demonstrated by Skeels & Dye (1939).

Skeels & Dye (1939)
Skeels & Dye (1939) compared the development of two groups of orphans. One group was raised in a normal institution, in which the staff were too busy to give much attention, and the other group was raised in a home for women who were mentally retarded in which the mentally retarded women gave the orphans attention. After 18 months the average IQ of the children cared for in the normal institution fell from 87 to 61 points, but the children raised in the home for mentally retarded women had a rise in IQ from 64 to 92 points. It seems that the emotional care the children received from adults in the home reduced the emotional deprivation experienced by children in the institution.

Evaluating maternal deprivation hypothesis
Much of the evidence used to support the maternal deprivation hypothesis comes from children who were deprived of many other things as well as a strong emotional bond with a mother or maternal figure. Their emotional disturbances may not therefore be caused by there maternal separation but by other factors such as physical deprivation (lack of care for physical needs).

Maternal deprivation does not always lead to emotional disruption. Bowlby et al (1956) studied a group of children who were hospitalised with tuberculosis under the age of 4. The hospital had strict nursing regimes in which only the children's basic physical needs were cared for without any attention to their emotional needs. The children were visited weekly by their families. When the children were followed up between the ages of 7 and 14 they, when compared with a control group of children who had not been hospitalised, were no different to the control group in terms of anti-social behaviour or problems forming social relationships. Bowlby suggested these children may have been protected from the negative effects of maternal deprivation due to individual differences (e.g. personality, secure attachment before hospitalisation, etc).

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA1 AQA A specification)
What has research told us about the effects of deprivation of attachment? (8 marks)
4 AO1 marks come from describing research studies. Bowlby's 44 thieves, Robertson & Robertson's study of John, and Skeels & Dye's orphans.

4AO2 marks come from evaluating the research and drawing a conclusion. Discuss the correlational nature of Bowlby's research, the difficulty of knowing how the children had developed in terms of attachment and emotional difficulties before deprivation, and the fact that deprivation does not always cause emotional disturbance (Bowlby et al, 1956).