The effects of disruption of attachment.

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According to Bowlby, attachment is essential for healthy social and emotional development.

Key terms:

  • Separation: A child spends some time away from their primary care giver either for a short of long period. Usually given some form of substitute care.
  • Deprivation: The loss of something wanted/needed (the loss of mother or attachment figure). Being deprived of emotional care - no substitute care provided.
  • Privation: A failure to form any attachments.
  • Institutionalisation: A place dedicated to a particular task such as looking after children where you live for a long period of time (eg. an orphanage).


  • Observations on Little John, a child aged 17 months, put into a fairly typical residential nursery for 9 days. Four of the five other children at the nursery had been there almost all their lives. They were noisy, demanding and aggressive. John seemed troubled by the noise and fighting  going on and tried to approach one of the nurses for some attention.
  • The nurses spent most of their time with the more demanding children and therefore John was left out. Even when he had managed to obtain their attention, they soon had to put him down to look after one of the other children.
  • Johns protests and anger were ignored; after some days, his distress worsened. He started to cry pitifully, for long periods of time. This distress lasted for several days. The nurses gave John all the attention they could but it was no where near enough. 
  • He began to refuse food and he wouldn't sleep. With each day that passed, John's condition worsened. His cries of distress became huge sobs of despair.
  • As the separation neared it's end, John's behaviour changed again; he stopped trying to be near the nurses and began to play with whatever toys he could, particularly a large cuddly toy. He began to ignore his father on his nightly visits. John slowly became emotionally detached.
  • When his mother came he didn't seem to want to know her. He wouldn't look at her, go to her, and resisted her attempts to comfort him.
  • The Robertsons suggest that children who are separated from their mothers for several days will pass through the same sequence of behaviour as John.


  • Validity: it can be argued that the research was high in external validity. It was a naturalistic observation of real life events in a realistic setting.
  • The way the observational record for the study was designed meant any observer bias was ruled out.


  • PROTEST: during the first few hours, the child will protest by panicking, crying, calling out. In the study, his 'protests and anger were ignored'.
  • DESPAIR: after a day or 2, the child will star to lose interest in surroundings, becoming more…


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