Disruption of attachment

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The effects of physical seperation

In the 1930s and '40s psychologists studied children who had experienced prolonged separations from their families. They observed that children were often profoundly disturbed and lagged behind in intellectual development. For example, Spitz and Wolf observed that 100 'normal' children who were placed in an institution became severely depressed within a few months. Skeels and Dye found that similar children scored poorly on intelligence tests.
These effects were quite a surprise because, before these studies, no one really thought about the effects of separation on infants and children. It was assumed that a good standard of physical care was all that would be required when infants and children were separated from attachment figures. The work of James Robertson, and his wife Joyce, increased our understanding of the effects of separation and, in particular how the negative effects might be avoided. The Robertsons made a landmark series of films of young children in situations where they were separated from their primary attachment figure.

A two-year-old goes to hospital
In the first film James Robertson used a cine camera to meticulously record his observation of daily life in a hospital ward, focusing on one little girl who was admitted to hospital for an eight-day stay. The film shows her alternating between periods of calm and distress. She is visited occasionally by her parents and begs to go home, but as time goes on tries to cope with disappointment of having to stay. Laura's obvious struggle to control her feelings over the course of the film is hard to watch. 

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The effects of physical seperation

Jane, Lucy, Thomas, Kate and John
Jane, Lucy, Thomas, Kate and John were all under 3 years of age and placed in foster care for a few weeks with the Robertsons while their mothers where in hospital. The Robertsons endeavoured to sustain a high level of substitute emotional care and keep routines similar to those at home. Fathers' visits were arranged regularly to maintain emotional links with home. Kate was taken to visit her mother in hospital and was much more settled after this. All the children seemed to adjust well. They showed some signs of distress, for example Thomas rejected attempts to cuddle him but in general they slept well and did not reject their mothers when reunited. Some were reluctant to part with the foster mother, demonstrating the formation of good emotional bonds.John's experience were quite different. John was placed in a residential nursery for nine days while his mother was having a baby. His father visited regularly. During the first two days in the nursery, the film shows John behaving fairly normally. Gradually this changes as he makes determined efforts to get attention from the nurses, but cannot compete with the other, more assertive children. The nurses are always friendly but also always busy. When John fails to find anyone who will respond to him, he seeks comfort from an over-sized teddy bear, but this isn't enough. Over the next few days he gradually breaks down and refuses have to food and drink and gives up on trying to get the nurses' attention.In his first week he greets his dad enthusiastically but by the second week he sits quietly when his father is there and doesn't say anything. When his mother came back back, John screams and struggles to get away from here. For many months afterwards he continued to have outbursts of anger towards his mother.

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Physical versus emotional disruption

Physical versus emotional disruption

Skeels and Dye (1966) followed 13 American orphans who were removed from their unstimulating orphanage and placed in the care of subnormal girls in a well equipped school for the mentally retarded.  These orphans showed significant gains in I.Q. compared with those left behind. Could be that the retarded adults enjoyed having the girls to look after and provided the missing emotional care.

Bohman and Sigvardsson (1979) also found evidence that emotional ill effects can be reversed. They studied over 600 adopted children in Sweden. At the age of 11, 26% of them were classified as 'problem children'. In a follow-up study ten years later, none of the children were any worse off than the rest of the population. This would suggest that early, negative effects were reversed. The research therefore indicates that disruption of attachment can have negative effects but these can be avoided or reversed when alternative emotional care is provided.

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