Privation of attachment and institutionalisation

What happens to a child's social and intellectual development when they do not have the opportunity to form an attachment to a caregiver?

Can the negative effects of privation be reversed?

What have case studies of privation (Genie and the Czech Twins) and longitudinal studies of institutionalised children found about the effects of privation?
The case of Genie (Curtiss, 1977)
Genie was discovered at the age of 13 when her mother, supposedly mistakenly, took her to a social services office. When she was discovered she was severely undernourished, could not stand properly or walk normally, could not understand any language, and could not speak. Genie had spent the first years of her life imprisoned alone in her bedroom by her father in order to 'protect' her as she was 'mentally retarded'. She spent many hours tied to a commode (a chair with a potty) and was fed baby food by her brother who was not permitted to talk to her. Her parents did not spend any time with her and she was punished if she made any sound. Following her discovery she was adopted by psychologists who researched her at the same time as giving her intensive help in developing language skills, teaching her to walk, and trying to educate her. She improved quickly in some areas, but her language did not develop properly, and she never got beyond communicating using basic speech, for example, ‘Go store bananas’ for ‘We need to go to the store to buy some bananas.’ She developed attachments to her foster carers, but as she grew older she was moved to a succession of short-term foster homes, in some of which she was mistreated. Her mother regained custody of her and refused to allow anyone access to her. It is not known what happened to her in later life.

Evaluating the case of Genie
Genie was a case study the afforded psychologists the overwhelming benefit of providing a unique case to study in extremely rich detail, however it must be remembered that she was just one unique individual and so the findings cannot necessarily be generalised to the whole population. Key evaluation points of the case include:
  • A unique opportunity to study a unique individual in great detail.
  • A unique case that may not be generalisable to the whole population.
  • It is not known what underlying abnormalities Genie may have had when she was born. Her father stated that she was 'mentally retarded', but we only have his word for that. We can never know, therefore, if Genie failed to develop skills in all areas including language because of her privation or because she was born with an underlying learning difficulty.
  • Genie was studied at length by the researchers who adopted her, and she formed a degree of attachment to them. However it could be argued that they treated her unethically by using her as a research subject instead of simply giving her the love and caring she needed. It is possible that the researchers had their own agendas that were not completely in Genie's best interests.

Can the effects of privation be reversed?
The case of the Czech Twins (Koluchova, 1976)
Koluchova reported a case study of identical Czechoslovakian twins who were discovered at the age of 7 years. They had been kept locked in isolation in a cellar with only each other for company, and had been mistreated and beaten, and so they had not formed any attachment with any adult caregiver. When they were discovered they had very little speech and communicated mostly in gestures. After they were discovered they were fostered by two sisters who gave them a loving home. By the age of 14 years they had caught up to the extent that they were basically the same as other 14 year olds, and at the age of 20 years had above average intelligence, became university students, and were able to develop good relationships with others.

It seems therefore that, given the right sort of loving and caring environment and the opportunity to develop an attachment to a sensitive caregiver, the effects of privation may be reversible.

Evaluating the case of the Czech Twins
Although the case of the Czech twins seems to show that the effects of privation can be reversed by providing a caring, sensitive and loving attachment figure, there are some important evaluation points that must be considered when making such a conclusion:
  • The twins were discovered at the age of 7 which may explain why they recovered from the effects of privation where Genie, who was discovered at the age of 13, did not.
  • The twins were not completely isolated as they had each other. Being able to form an attachment to another person, in this case the other twin rather than a caregiver, may have protected them from some of the negative effects of privation.
  • Although the twins developed to be described as 'above average', it is not known how well they may have developed had they not suffered privation, and so it is not known exactly how well the negative effects were reversed.
  • Again, this is a case study of unique individuals and so the findings may not be generalisable to the whole population.

Institutionalised children
Children who live in large children's homes do not necessarily have the same opportunity to form an attachment to a single primary caregiver as children in normal family homes. Whilst this is not as severe as privation, the lack of a sensitive primary caregiver still has negative effects on social and intellectual development Several studies have looked at the extent of the negative effects of institutionalisation and whether or not the effects can be reversed.

Hodges & Tizard (1989) longitudinal study of ex-institutionalised children
Hodges & Tizard (1989) carried out a longitudinal study on 65 children who had been placed in a children's home when they were less than 4 months old. The children's home had a policy forbidding the staff to form attachments with the children, and so the care given was functional and lacked warmth. By the age of 4 years, 24 of the children had been adopted by foster parents, 15 had been returned to their natural families, and the rest remained in the home. The children that had been adopted and 'restored' were assessed at ages 8 and 16, their parents, teachers and peers were interviewed, and the findings were compared with a group of control children who had not been institutionalised.

The findings of the study were that the adopted children fared better than the 'restored' children in that they tended to form closer attachments to their adopted parents than the 'restored' children did to their natural parents. However, both groups of children were less successful than the control children at forming peer relationships, and both groups also tended to seek far more adult attention and approval than the control children did. This suggests that relatively privated institutionalised children are able to overcome some of the negative effects of their privation if they are able to form attachments to sensitive and caring adults (the natural parents may not have been as good parents as the foster parents), but overcoming the negative effects does not necessarily extend to peer relationships outside the family home.

Evaluating Hodges & Tizard
The research by Hodges & Tizard ignores the underlying temperament of the children involved. It may well be that the children selected for adoption were more emotionally stable and sociable than the ones reunited with their natural parents, and this individual difference in temperament could account for them forming closer relationships with their adopted parents. Without accounting for temperament it is impossible to conclude that the warmer more committed parenting provided by the foster parents contributed to overcoming the negative effects of privation.

Romanian Orphans (Rutter et al, 2007)
In the 1980s and 1990s many children were discovered in overcrowded Romanian orphanages with very little care provided by the staff running the institutions. The children were fed, clothed and kept warm, but the vast majority had never experienced any form of sensitive care on an emotional level. A number of the orphans were adopted by Western families, and Rutter et al (2007) followed a group who had been adopted by British families, some before the age of 6 months and some older than 6 months. The children were assessed at the ages of 4, 6 and 11 years with the findings that the children adopted younger than 6 months developed normally in line with British adopted children, but those adopted older than 6 months showed disinhibited attachments (forming an attachment with any adult rather than maintaining a strong bond with one primary caregiver) and had problems forming peer relationships. This suggests that the effects of privation can be overcome if an attachment is formed within the first 6 months, but after 6 months the negative effects tend to be more permanent.

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA1 AQA A specification)
What has research told us about the effects of privation of attachment? (12 marks)
6 AO1 marks come from defining privation and describing the research. Case studies are useful but you should also include research into institutionalised children. Using all 4 key studies on this page will show depth to your knowledge.

6 AO2 marks come from evaluating the research and drawing a conclusion. Genie and the Czech twins are both case studies and can be evaluated as such, and they lead to the conclusion that providing a loving attachment before the child is too old can overcome the negative effects. Hodges & Tizard is a longitudinal study that attempted to establish good cause and effect between parenting types after privation and outcome, but it ignored temperament which confounded the results. Rutter's research of Romanian orphans shows a clearer pattern, concluding that privation can be overcome, but only by providing an attachment before the age of 6 months.