Bowlby's Theory of Maternal Deprivation

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In this essay I intend to analyse the attachment theory of well-known British psychiatrist Dr John Bowlby. I will examine both the primary and secondary research behind the theory and look at some of the arguments against it before going on to explore the impact Bowlby’s research has had on the early years setting.

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was born in London on February 26th 1907 to a fairly upper-middle class family. His parents were of the belief that too much parental affection would in fact spoil a child and therefore spent very little time with him, as little as one hour per day. His primary care-giver was the family nanny until, when he was four years old, the nanny left. Bowlby later described this as being:

“as tragic as the loss of a mother” (www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=10104&cn=28)

He was then sent away to boarding school at the age of seven. It is therefore entirely comprehensible that he became increasingly sensitive to children’s suffering and how it appeared to be connected to their future mental health. Bowlby began his study at Trinity College Cambridge where he studied psychology. He excelled academically and spent time working with delinquent children. He then went on to study medicine at University College Hospital and enrolled in the Institute of Psychoanalysis. Upon his graduation he began working at Maudesley Hospital as a psychoanalyst. It was while studying medicine that he volunteered in a children’s residential home and began to develop his interest in children who appeared to him to be emotionally disturbed. While working in the residential home he encountered two particular children who intrigued him. The first of these was a very isolated, affectionless teenager who had no permanent, stable mother figure and the second was a young boy of seven or eight who followed Bowlby around constantly. This led him to speculate that there was a possible link between a child’s mental health problems and their early childhood experiences.

It was generally believed by many early theorists that the need to make a bond with a mother or mother substitute was part of our ‘biological inheritance’ and Bowlby’s experience and observations lead him to whole-heartedly agree. The resulting body of work and research carried out by Bowlby became known as the attachment theory. It was his firm belief that babies are ‘biologically programmed’ to be dependant on their mother. He went so far as to say that there was a ‘critical period’ in a child’s life from birth to age three where the child would be irreparably damaged psychologically by a prolonged absence from the mother. He referred to this absence as ‘maternal deprivation’. He wrote in his book, first published in 1953;

“Prolonged breaks (in the mother-child relationship) during the first three years of life leave a characteristic impression on the child’s personality. Such children appear emotionally withdrawn and isolated and consequently have no friendships worth the name” (pg 39, Bowlby J. Child Care and the Growth of Love, 1974)

While working at the Child Guidance Clinic in London in the 30s and 40s Bowlby began to suspect that not only was a child’s mental health affected by the lack of bond with their mother but there may well be a correlation between delinquent behaviour in children and ‘maternal deprivation’. This led him to carry out his own study between 1936 and 1939 to try and prove this to be the case. The resulting scientific paper was published in 1946 and entitled 44 Juvenile Thieves. The study involved Bowlby selecting 88 children from the clinic. Of this group of children 44 had been referred to him for theft and 44 had been referred due to emotional problems. Half the children in each group were aged between five and eleven years of age and the other half were between twelve and sixteen. There were thirty-one boys and thirteen girls in the first group and thirty-four boys and ten girls in the second. The...
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