Maternal Deprivation Versus Attachment Privation. Which Is Worse?

Rutter defines privation as the complete failure of the child to develop an attachment/emotional bond with anyone at all. This may occur when the child has many different, transient carers e.g. a succession of unsatisfactory short term foster carers) or when there is severe family discord. One major set of studies Rutter carried out, known as the Isle of Weight Studies, found that boys but not girls who had experienced time in care homes were more likely to suffer psychiatric disorders in later life, though Rutter attributed this to the young persons’ return to dysfunctional families rather than their experiences of being in care homes per se. 

Deprivation, on the other hand, can be viewed as the loss of an attachment/emotional bond or damage to an attachment/emotional bond. Rutter regards privation as more damaging than deprivation. 

Rutter also points out that the quality/existence of an attachment with the mother is not the only type of attachment to affect the child’s psychological development but also the quality/existence of attachments with fathers, brothers, sisters, peers, and even inanimate objects such as ‘security blankets’ and soft toys. 

Rutter stresses that it is necessary to consider the specific type of attachment problems the child faces in relation to attachments (in this regard his approach was more nuanced than Bowlby’s work on attachment theory): e.g. separation; loss; failure to develop any attachments, all of which, in Rutter’s view, have different effects. (For example, deliberate rejection is likely to be more damaging to a child than separation from a mother due to a protracted stay in hospital due to physical illness beyond anybody’s control). 

He also argues it is the quality of the child’s attachment bond which is of paramount importance rather than, as Bowlby asserted, whether the child had suffered maternal deprivation during the critical period of development (originally, Bowlby stated this period was 0 to 2.5 years of age but later changed this to the first 5 years of life).

Rutter suggests that privation (the complete failure of the child to develop an emotional bond, see above) can lead to various undesirable outcomes including:

  • dependent behavior
  • indiscriminate friendliness 
  • attention-seeking behaviors
  • an inability to maintain relationships
  • a lack of feelings of guilt
  • a disregard for rules
  • impaired intellectual development
  • antisocial behavior
  • language disorders
  • affection less psychopathy

These problems, Rutter claims, are exacerbated by the lack of intellectual and social stimulation that an inability to form attachments entails. 

On a positive note, however, Rutter believes such problems can be overcome if appropriate psychological support is provided. 

In conclusion, then, we can say that Rutter is of the view that privation (the complete failure to build attachment) is more likely to lead to psychological problems in young people than maternal deprivation in the first 5 years of life (as Bowlby believed). 


For a summary of Rutter’s work (PDF), click here (external link).