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Deprivation is a term used to describe the loss of a formed attachment between a child and primary caregiver. 

According to Bowlby's Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis, any disruption to the continuity of the loving and mutual bond can be potentially damaging to a child's emotional, intellectual and social development. 

Short-term Deprivation

Before Bowlby's work became influential, the conventional wisdom surrounding children in hospitals was that provided their physical care was good, they would experience few difficulties. 

It was standard practice for parents to be allowed very little access to their children when they were in hospital.

  • Robertson & Bowlby (1953): created a stir when they filmed 2 year old Laura in hospital for 8 days for a minor operation. Laura deteriorated throughout her stay and by the end was severely withdrawn and no longer showed trust or affection towards her visiting mother. Bowlby realised that this film was important evidence that young children suffer enormously without their attachment figure near, so the sampling of the child was random and a clock showed the real time of the filming. 

Following this and other observations, they proposed 3 stages that all children go through when experiencing this type of separation from their attachment figure:

1. PROTEST - children at first were often panic-stricken and upset. They cried frequently and tried to stop their parents leaving, often kicking, screaming and struggling to escape. This is an outward and direct expression of the child's anger, fear, bitterness and bewilderment. Bowlby thought that this might be a survival instinct (loud protest to attract the attention of the caregiver).

2. DESPAIR - in time, children cried less frequently, but became apathetic and uninterested. They kept feelings of anger and fear locked up and wanted nothing to do with other people. The children no longer anticipated the return of their caregiver, and barely reacted to others' offers of comfort, preferring to comfort themselves by rocking, thumb-sucking, etc. 

3. DETACHMENT - children eventually began to take an interest in their surroundings and on the face of it, appeared to have adjusted. However, if they reached this stage, children frequently rejected their primary caregiver. They tended to treat everyone alike and rather superficially. However, if reunited with a primary caregiver at this stage, the child may have to 're-learn' its relationship with the carer and may 'reject' them, as they themselves were 'rejected'. 

James and Joyce Robertson's observations/research supports this:

  • In 1968, the Robertsons observed the behaviour of a 17-month old boy, John, who was staying at a residential nursery whilst his mother had a second child. James recorded John's behaviour after being left by his mother for 9 days. In the first few days, John tried but failed to form attachments with the nursery staff. He began to protest and cry, but eventually because quiet and unresponsive to the staff and other children around him. He was often found to be hugging a teddy bear and rolling around in despair. When collected by his mother, John ignored her…


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