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Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation

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Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation

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 have harmful long-term effects on 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.

What would be the definition of maternal deprivation?

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.

Let us now describe Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation.

What is Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation?


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

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 stated that ‘maternal love in infancy and childhood is as important to mental health as vitamins and protein are to physical health’, underscoring how important he considered this maternal bond. He also established a link between maternal deprivation and later delinquency and unloving psychopathy, which we will discuss in more detail later in this article.

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Father-infant attachment, Pexels

The three basic types of disruption to attachment

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

    • Short-term separation when mother and child are separated for a short time.

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

    • Long-term deprivation when the child loses the care of their mother.

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

    • Privation when a child never has the opportunity to bond with their mother, such as when their mother passes away during childbirth.

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, separation is harmless in the long term, while deprivation can have lasting adverse effects.

Separation is the absence of a caregiver for shorter periods. Separation is very unlikely to cause psychological harm to the child unless it happens so regularly that the child has no opportunity to 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 is a deprivation that can lead to developmental problems later in life.

Short-term separation

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:

  • Protest the child displays angry protest behaviours such as crying, screaming, and clinging to the parent to prevent leaving.
  • 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.
  • Detachment– the child begins to engage with others and rejects the caregiver when they return, exhibiting angry behaviour.

Long-term deprivation

Long-term deprivation occurs when a child loses their primary caregiver, and their attachment to them is disrupted. According to Bowlby, this type of separation can have serious negative consequences.

An example of long-term deprivation would be when a child is placed in foster care during the critical period (ages 0 to 3), permanently disrupting their attachment to their mother.

Privation

Privation occurs when a child has no chance to bond with a primary caregiver.

An example of this would be a child placed in a foster home almost immediately after birth. The child has not had enough time to bond with its mother and, because of the nature of foster homes, cannot attach to any of the rotating staff members.

Effects of maternal deprivation on development

  • Intellectual 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 IQ in children placed in institutions than those in foster care. Foster children had a higher standard of emotional care and a higher IQ.

  • Emotional development 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 aleximythia (the inability to identify and describe one’s feelings).
  • Affectionless psychopathy 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. Affectionless psychopaths 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 effects, 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 unloving psychopathy and their criminal acts.

Aim

The purpose of this study was to examine the possible relationship between maternal deprivation and affectionless psychopathy.

Procedure

The sample in this study consisted of 44 delinquent teenagers accused of theft. 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.

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 caused affectionless psychopathy.

Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation evaluation

What would be the strengths and weaknesses of Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation?

Limitations of the 44 thieves study

Here we go into some criticism of Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation through the limitations of the 44 thieves study.

  • Experimenter bias: the evidence in Bowlby’s study is retrospective clinical interviews. There may be a strong experimenter bias, primarily 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.
  • Correlations: 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 might play a role, such as family conflict or socioeconomic status, which Bowlby did not consider.
  • Generalisability: Bowlby’s findings are also not easily generalisable because the participants all came from a single youth guidance clinic in 1940s London, which is 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.

Supporting studies to the theory of maternal deprivation

  • Goldfarb (1947) found that children who had spent more than three years in foster care had lower IQ 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 children in foster care ranging from 4 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.
  • Koluchova (1972/1991) studied a group of Czech twins who had been abused during the first seven years of their lives and could not attach to a primary caregiver. She found that the boys managed to emotionally bond with their adoptive family and that by the age of 20, they exhibited normal adult development and above-average intelligence.
  • Curtiss (1977) observed Genie, a little girl isolated from other people for 13 years by her abusive father. As a result, she could not form attachments. Despite years of intervention by specialists, Genie never fully recovered and continued to have problems with language and social skills into adulthood.
  • 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 they 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.

  • Bowlby stated that ‘maternal love in infancy and childhood is as important to mental health as vitamins and protein are to physical health’, underscoring how important he considered the maternal bond.

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

  • To further examine maternal deprivation and its effects, Bowlby conducted a study on the relationship between maternal deprivation and affectionless psychopathy. Bowlby found that 14 of the 44 thieves could be described as affectionless psychopaths. He concluded that prolonged early separation/deprivation leads to affectionless psychopathy.

Frequently Asked Questions about Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation

The theory states that separation from the mother in early childhood can have harmful long-term effects on 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.

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.

John Bowlby proposed the maternal deprivation theory in 1951.

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. 

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

Final Bowlby Theory of Maternal Deprivation Quiz

Question

When was the maternal deprivation theory proposed?

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Answer

In 1953.

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Question

Who proposed the maternal deprivation theory?

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Answer

John Bowlby.

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Question

What is deprivation?

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Answer

Deprivation refers to when a child loses their primary caregiver, which disrupts their attachment to them.

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Question

What is separation?

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Answer

When mother and child are separated for a short period.

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Question

What is privation?


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Answer

When a child never has the opportunity to form an attachment with their mother.

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Question

 What is an example of deprivation?


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Answer

An example of long term deprivation could be when a child is placed into foster care during the critical period, permanently disrupting their attachment to their mother.

Show question

Question

What is an example of privation?

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Answer

An example of privation could be a child placed into the care system almost immediately after birth. As a result, they did not have enough time to attach to their mother and, due to the nature of foster homes, are unable to attach to any of the rotating staff members.

Show question

Question

What is an example of separation?

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Answer

An example of separation could be if the mother goes on a weekend away and leaves their baby with her grandparents.

Show question

Question

What is affectionless psychopathy?

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Answer

It is the inability to experience guilt or empathy for others. Affectionless psychopathy prevents the person from developing normal relationships and is associated with criminality.

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Question

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

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Answer

Protest, Despair, Detachment.

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Question

What was found in the 1947 study by Goldfarb?


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Answer

Children who had spent over three years in foster care had a lower IQ, and showed more social immaturity and aggression than children who had spent less than three years in the system.

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Question

Why is the 44 thieves study subject to experimenter bias?

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Answer

Since Bowlby himself was conducting the interviews and likely had a vested interest in proving his theory correct, this bias affects the validity of the study.

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Question

What was measured in the 44 thieves study?

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Answer

IQ, emotional attitudes to testing, affectionless psychopathy.

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Question

What was found in the 44 thieves study?

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Answer

Bowlby found that 14 of the 44 thieves could be affectionless psychopaths. He concluded that prolonged early separation/deprivation caused affectionless psychopathy.

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Question

Does the case study by Kolochova support or refute Bowlby’s idea that maternal deprivation causes affectionless psychopathy?


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Answer

Support.


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