Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation

In Bowlby’s monotropic theory, a child’s attachment to their mother is their most crucial bond, and children need to bond with their mothers for the first three years of life. In the Bowlby theory of maternal deprivation, Bowlby explains the effects of disrupted or absent attachment.

Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation

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Contents
Table of contents
    • We will start by covering the maternal deprivation definition.
    • Then we will describe Bowlby's theory of maternal; deprivation.
    • After, we will delve into the maternal deprivation effects on development and the research on the impact of maternal deprivation.
    • Finally, we will explore Bowlby's theory of maternal deprivation evaluation, including criticism of Bowlby's theory of maternal deprivation,

    Maternal Deprivation Definition

    Attachment is a deep emotional bond formed between an infant and their primary caregiver over time. But what happens when the child is deprived of that bond? Bowlby’s idea of maternal deprivation provides an answer.

    John Bowlby proposed the maternal deprivation theory in 1951. The theory states that separation from the mother in early childhood can harm the child’s psychological and social development.

    Bowlby assumes that continuous care from the mother (or another primary caregiver) is essential for normal psychological development, and therefore separation from this figure harms development.

    Deprivation refers to the lack of emotional care usually a primary caregiver provides, in the case of maternal deprivation, the mother.

    An example of this would be when a child’s mother becomes seriously ill and cannot care for her child for an extended period.

    The maternal deprivation hypothesis explains Bowlby’s theory of what can happen when the bond between mother and child is absent or disrupted.

    He hypothesises that attachment disruption leads to severe, permanent damage to the child’s emotional, social, and intellectual development.

    Bowlby established a link between maternal deprivation and later delinquency and unloving psychopathy, which we will discuss in more detail later in this article.

    Describe Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation

    There are three types of disruption to attachment: short-term separation, long-term deprivation, and privation.

    When a mother goes away for a weekend and leaves her baby with the grandparents, the child may experience short-term separation.

    When social service takes away the child and places them in foster care, they may experience long-term deprivation.

    When a mother passes away during childbirth, the child may experience privation (no connection with the mother).

    Bowlby's Theory of Maternal Deprivation, child crying alone near pots, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Crying may be a sign of maternal deprivation.

    Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation: Separation versus Deprivation

    Separation and deprivation are two types of disruption to the attachment bond. It is essential to distinguish between separation and deprivation because, in most cases, short-term separation is harmless in the long term, while deprivation can have lasting adverse effects. Long-term separation can also have severe consequences for the child.

    Separation is the absence of a caregiver for shorter periods. Separation is unlikely to cause psychological harm to the child unless it happens so regularly that the child cannot form an attachment.

    Deprivation is the loss of something wanted or needed over an extended period. If a child experiences the loss of their primary caregiver after establishing an attachment, this deprivation can lead to developmental problems later in life.

    Bowlby and Robertson (1952) found that children show signs of distress when they experience a short-term separation from their primary attachment figure. They divided this response into different stages of despair and described them using the PDD model:

    1. Protest the child displays angry protest behaviours such as crying, screaming, and clinging to the parent to prevent leaving.
    2. Despair the child appears calm on the surface when he stops protesting but instead withdraws and is upset. It usually rejects attempts by others to comfort them.
    3. Detachment– the child begins to engage with others and rejects the caregiver when they return, exhibiting angry behaviour.

    Maternal Deprivation Effects on Development

    Bowlby believed that children deprived of maternal care for too long during the critical period suffer delayed intellectual development characterised by abnormally low IQ. Adoption studies demonstrated this finding as well.

    For example, Goldfarb (1947) found lower IQs in children placed in institutions than in foster care. Foster children had a higher standard of emotional care and a higher IQ.

    A child who has experienced maternal deprivation will likely suffer from stunted emotional development. A child who struggles with emotional development may suffer from symptoms such as alexithymia (the inability to identify and describe one’s feelings).

    Bowlby noted that maternally deprived children might develop an inability to feel guilt or empathy for others (affectionless psychopathy).

    Affectionless psychopathy prevents the person from developing normal relationships and is associated with criminality. They cannot comprehend the feelings of their victims and therefore feel no remorse for their actions.

    Effects of Maternal Deprivation: Bowlby’s (1944) 44 Thieves Study

    To further investigate maternal deprivation and its impact, Bowlby conducted a study on the relationship between maternal deprivation and affectionless psychopathy.

    In this study, his participants were 44 adolescent thieves and 44 control participants of the same age group.

    Bowlby examined the children’s early childhood attachments and how these might correlate with affectionless psychopathy and their criminal acts.

    This study aimed to examine the possible relationship between maternal deprivation and affectionless psychopathy.

    Researchers interviewed all ‘thieves’ for signs of affectionless psychopathy, characterised by a lack of affection, guilt, and empathy for their victims.

    They also interviewed their families to determine if the ‘thieves’ had experienced a long, early separation from their mothers.

    A control group of non-criminal but emotionally disturbed adolescents was formed to see how often the children who were not thieves were separated from or deprived of their mothers.

    These participants were matched to the ‘thief group’ based on age and IQ, which a psychologist tested at the beginning of the study. The IQ test was also used to measure the emotional attitudes of both groups towards the test.

    Bowlby took the information gathered about the children’s emotional state and early childhood and compared it to see a correlation between these factors.

    Effects of Maternal Deprivation: Bowlby’s (1944) 44 Thieves Study: Findings

    Bowlby found that 14 of the 44 thieves could be described as affectionless psychopaths.

    • Of these 14, 12 had experienced prolonged separation from their mothers.
    • Of the thieves who were not diagnosed as affectionless psychopaths, only 3 of the remaining 30 had experienced a maternal separation in childhood.
    • In the control group, only 2 of 44 had experienced prolonged separation.

    It was concluded that prolonged early separation/deprivation was correlated with affectionless psychopathy.

    Criticism of Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation

    The evidence in Bowlby’s study is retrospective clinical interviews. There may be a strong experimenter bias since Bowlby himself conducted the interviews and probably had a vested interest in proving the accuracy of his theory. This bias affects the validity of the study.

    The links Bowlby made in this study are also correlational rather than causational, i.e., although it shows a link between maternal deprivation and affectionless psychopathy, it does not indicate that maternal deprivation causes affectionless psychopathy.

    Rutter (1972) added that other factors, such as family conflict or socioeconomic status, might play a role, which Bowlby did not consider.

    Bowlby’s findings are also not easily generalisable because the participants came from a single youth guidance clinic in 1940s London, a fairly specific demographic.

    Therefore, it is difficult to generalise these findings to all age groups and cultures and a modern society, which can be described as a lack of population validity.

    Bowlbh Theory of Maternal Deprivation, woman sitting in orange jump suit behind bars, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Bowlby tried to show how maternal deprivation may contribute to psychopathy.

    Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation Evaluation

    Goldfarb (1947) found that children who had spent more than three years in foster care had lower IQs and showed more social immaturity and aggression than children who had spent less than three years in the system.

    Silver (1967) claimed that maternal deprivation might play a role in developing dwarfism in children. This study found that children who had experienced deprivation were often shorter than their peers, had sleep problems, had larger appetites, and had delays in sexual development.

    Spitz (1945) found that children in low-budget orphanages lacked emotional warmth and attention. This led to anaclitic depression, a form of depression characterised by strong negative feelings toward oneself and fears of abandonment and loneliness.

    Hodges and Tizard (1989) studied young foster care children aged four months to 16 years. The children were well cared for in their institutions, but attachments were discouraged. It was found that these children had problems forming relationships outside the home.

    Freud and Dann (1951) studied six German Jewish orphans separated from their parents during the Holocaust. They were placed in a concentration camp between six months and one year old. The other inmates cared for them but did not develop attachments and had no toys to play with.

    Three years later, after the camp was liberated, they were placed in a children’s home in England. The children all had a close bond with each other.

    They were highly aggressive with the adult staff in the children’s home but eventually built relationships. They continued to make good progress and grew up to lead everyday lives.

    Although they could not form bonds with adults in the concentration camp, they had a strong bond with each other, and the staff in the children’s home were caring and sensitive to their needs.

    Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation - Key takeaways

    • John Bowlby proposed the maternal deprivation theory in 1951.

    • The theory states that separation from the mother in early childhood can have long-term adverse effects on the child’s psychological and social development.

    • It assumes that the disruption of the attachment relationship leads to severe, permanent damage to the child’s emotional, social, and intellectual development.

    • There are three types of disruption to attachment: short-term separation, long-term deprivation, and privation.

    • Bowlby found that 14 of the 44 thieves could be described as affectionless psychopaths.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation

    What is Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation?

    The theory states that separation from the mother in early childhood can harm the child’s psychological and social development. Bowlby assumes that continuous care from the mother (or another primary caregiver) is essential for normal psychological development, and therefore separation from this figure harms development.

    Why is Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation socially sensitive?

    Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation is socially sensitive as it states the mother is crucial to the child’s development. This could put a lot of pressure on mothers who, for example, need to go back to work and would need to leave their children. Mothers may also face discrimination and judgement from others who think their place is at home.

    When was Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory proposed?

    John Bowlby proposed the maternal deprivation theory in 1951.

    What is the main principle in John Bowlby’s theory on child's development? 

    The main principle in Bowlby’s theory on child development is that attachment to a primary caregiver is crucial for a child’s emotional, social, and intellectual development. 

    Is Bowlby nature or nurture? 

    Bowlby’s theory leans toward nature as he believed all infants have an innate need to attach to their mothers or a motherly figure.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was the maternal deprivation theory proposed?

    Who proposed the maternal deprivation theory?

    What are the three levels of distress in the PDD Model?

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