Effects of deprivation and privation

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Effects of deprivation and privation

Attachments can be damaged if the relationship between the caregiver and infant is broken. Much research has focused on the effect of this brake on future development.

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Separation could be considered the same as short-term deprivation. Robertson and Bowlby (1952) investigated its effects on young children separated from their mothers. They found that the distress felt by the children fell into three categories called the protest-despair-detachment (PDD) model.

Move your mouse over each of the three stages to read a summary:

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The child seems to hide its distress during despair and detachment rather than being content with the separation.

However, not all children pass through all three stages. In fact, some children may respond in a different way altogether - there are wide individual differences based on factors such as personality, age, gender and past experiences.

Short-term effects of deprivation are highlighted above but what are the long-term consequences of a lost attachment?

Again, Bowlby has been very influential in this area. His maternal deprivation hypothesis states that long-term intellectual, social and emotional damage follows the deprivation of an attachment during a critical period in the child's development.

This view is supported by Bowlby's research into the case histories of 44 juvenile thieves (Bowlby, 1946). He found that 86% of thieves exhibiting affectionless psychopathy had spent considerable time in hospitals or foster homes as infants. Only 17% of non-affectionless thieves had the same experiences. Bowlby concluded that disruption during attachment formation was responsible for the poor emotional development.

Although this research had massive influence, it relied on retrospective evidence and the degree of separation varied greatly between the infants. Also, Bowlby had not considered the differences between deprivation and privation and their different consequences (Rutter, 1981).

More support for Bowlby came from research showing that children raised in institutions have reduced intelligence (Goldfarb, 1943) and some evidence of depression (Spitz and Wolf, 1946). However, these problems may have occurred as a result of poor environmental stimulation in the institutions rather than a lack of attachment.

Research into privation tends to involve carefully studying individuals who have experienced a privated infancy. These include case studies of tragically neglected children and longitudinal studies of institutionalised children, such as orphans.

The table below summarises two of the more important case studies:

Study: Description: Evaluation:
Czech twins(Koluchova, 1972, 1991)

Aged 2 - Identical twin boys locked in cellar and abused for 6 years leading to physical and linguistic problems.

Aged 9 - adopted into a loving family.

Aged 14 - normal behaviour.

Aged 20 - emotionally and socially stable with above average intelligence.

- Cannot generalise findings to the whole population.

- Retrospective evidence.

- Were able to bond emotionally with each other.

- Were able to recover once put into a loving home.

Genie (Curtiss, 1989),

Girl locked in a room for most of early life with little outside contact.

Aged 13 - physical problems, poor social skills and no language abilities.

Education led to the recovery of much ability but language and social skills remained poor.

- Cannot generalise findings.

- Retrospective evidence.

- Genie may have had innate psychological problems.

- A series of carers meant that Genie continued to lack a stable, loving home.

A particularly important piece of research involved a longitudinal study of children who had spent their early childhood in institutional care and, consequently, had been unable to form attachments (Hodges and Tizard, 1989):


To investigate the long-term effects of early institutional care.


Longitudinal study and natural experiment. Children aged younger than 4 months at start. Received good physical care but formation of attachments was discouraged. Some children stayed in the institution, others were adopted and some returned (restored) to their families.


Aged 16, relationships between adopted children and parents did not differ much from a control group of non-adopted families but were considerably better bonded than restored children and parents. Unlike non-adopted children, adopted and restored children had similar problems in forming relationships outside the family.


  • Adopted children form better relationships with their families than restored children (possibly owing to the greater desire of the adopting parents to make those relationships work).

  • Adopted and restored children experience problems forming relationships outside the home (possibly owing to low self-esteem or poor emotional development caused by early experiences).


  • A wide variation in relaionship formation meant that some adopted children did badly and some restored children did well. This means that individual differences are important factors.

  • A biased sample was left at the end of the study because greater numbers of well adjusted restored children and maladjusted adopted children dropped out.

The evidence suggests that early childhood experiences (including privation) can be overcome later in life, provided the conditions are right. This contradicts Bowlby's view of a critical period during which time children develop attachments that provide a model for future relationships and ensure healthy emotional and social development.

Much research focuses on the negative effects of early childhood experiences. It is the factors that allow healthy development to occur in some people, despite early deprivation or privation, which need to be investigated.

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