Privation and Attachment

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Bowlby used the term maternal deprivation to refer to the separation or loss of the mother as well as failure to develop an attachment.  Are the effects of maternal deprivation as dire as Bowlby suggested?

Michael Rutter (1972) wrote a book called Maternal Deprivation Re-assessed.  In the book, he suggested that Bowlby may have oversimplified the concept of maternal deprivation.  Bowlby used the term 'maternal deprivation' to refer to separation from an attached figure, loss of an attached figure and failure to develop an attachment to any figure.  These each have different effects, argued Rutter. In particular Rutter distinguished between privation and deprivation.

Michael Rutter (1981) argued that if a child fails to develop an attachment this is privation, whereas deprivation refers to the loss of or damage to an attachment.

Deprivation might be defined as losing something in which a person once had, whereas privation might be defined as never having something in the first place. Privation occurs when there is a failure to form an attachment to any individual, perhaps because the child has a series of different carers (which was the case for many of Bowlby's juvenile thieves) or family discord prevents the development of attachment to any figure (as Rutter proposed). Privated children do not show distress when separated from a familiar figure, which indicates a lack of attachment.

From his survey of research on privation, Rutter proposed that it is likely to lead initially to clinging, dependent behavior, attention-seeking and indiscriminate friendliness, then as the child matures, an inability to keep rules, form lasting relationships, or feel guilt. He also found evidence of anti-social behavior, affectionless psychopathy, and disorders of language, intellectual development and physical growth.

Rutter argues that these problems are not due solely to the lack of attachment to a mother figure, as Bowlby claimed, but to factors such as the lack of intellectual stimulation and social experiences which attachments normally provide. In addition, such problems can be overcome later in the child's development, with the right kind of care.

Many of the 44 thieves in Bowlby’s study had been moved around a lot during childhood, and had probably never formed an attachment. This suggested that they were suffering from privation, rather than deprivation, which Rutter suggested was far more deleterious to the children. This led to a very important study on the long term effects of privation, carried out by Hodges and Tizard (1989).

Typically, research into privation uses the case study method to due to the obvious ethical issues of deliberately separating a child from their mother.

Genie Case Study– Curtiss (1977)

When Genie was between 14 and 20 months of age and was just beginning to learn speech, a doctor told her family that she seemed to be developmentally delayed and possibly mildly retarded. Her father took the opinion more seriously than it was expressed by the doctor, apparently deciding that she was profoundly retarded, and subjected her to severe confinement and ritual ill-treatment in an attempt to "protect" her.

Genie spent the next 12 years of her life locked in her bedroom. During the day, she was tied to a child's potty chair in diapers; at night, she was bound in a sleeping bag and placed in an enclosed crib with a cover made of metal screening. Indications are that Genie's father beat her if she vocalized, and he barked and growled at her like a dog in order to keep her quiet. He also rarely allowed his wife and son to leave the house or even to speak, and he expressly forbade them to speak to Genie.

Genie was discovered at the age of 13 when her mother left her husband and took Genie with her. Could not stand erect and had a vocabulary of about 20 words. She scored as low as a normal one year old on a social maturity scale. She could only understand her own name. Didn’t socialize, didn’t know how to chew, salivated constantly, and was not toilet trained. Within a few months of therapy, she had advanced to one-word answers and had learned to dress herself. But Genie didn’t progress the way normal children would do as in she never asked questions, did not understand grammar, and had no advancements in vocabulary.

After considerable therapy from doctors, Genie later learned to vocalize and express herself through sign language. Her demeanor changed considerably, and she became social with adults she was familiar with. Genie had a strange "bunny walk", in which she held her hands up in front, like paws. However, she never reached any sort of normal cognitive or emotional development. Genie now lives in a sheltered accommodation in an undisclosed location in Southern California; it is at least her sixth adult foster home. Her mother died in 2003.

In 1975, Genie was returned to the custody of her mother, who wished to care for her daughter. After a few months, the mother found that taking care of Genie was too difficult, and Genie was transferred to a succession of six more foster homes. In some of the homes she was physically abused and harassed, and her development regressed severely.

Czech Twins Case Study – Koluchová (1976)

Andrei and Vanya are identical twin boys born in 1960. The twins lost their mother shortly after birth, and were cared for by a social agency for a year, and then fostered by a maternal aunt for a further six months. Their development was normal.

Their father remarried, but his new wife proved to be excessively cruel to the twins, banishing them to the cellar for the next five and a half years and beating them from time to time. The father (who was quite possibly of limited intellectual ability) was for most of the time absent from home because of his job, and the economic condition of the family was far below the average low-working classes.

On discovery at the age of seven the Koluchová twins were dwarfed in stature, lacking speech, suffering from rickets and did not understand the meaning of pictures. The doctors who examined them confidently predicted permanent physical and mental handicap.

Removed from their parents, the Koluchová twins first underwent a programme of physical remediation, and entered a school for children with severe learning disabilities. After some time, the boys were legally adopted by exceptionally dedicated women. Scholastically, from a state of profound disability they caught up with age peers and achieved emotional and intellectual normality.

After basic education they went on to technical school, training as typewriter mechanics, but later undertook further education, specializing in electronics. Both were drafted for national service, and later married and had children. They are said to be entirely stable, lacking abnormalities and enjoying warm relationships. One is a computer technician and the other a technical training instructor.

Further Information

Privation and Genie privation


How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Privation and Attachment. Retrieved from

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