Bowlby’s Theory Of The Damaging Psychological Effects Of Maternal Deprivation

 

Bowlby stressed that what is crucial for mental health is that the baby/infant/young child experiences warm and loving nurturing from his/her mother (or primary carer) which is reliable, dependable and continuous and which both mother and offspring find gratifying.

According to Bowlby, if the baby/infant/young child does not receive this warm and loving nurturing in a reliable, dependable and continuous fashion s/he will suffer from ‘maternal deprivation‘ and this deprivation will adversely impact his/her developing mental health.

CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH MATERNAL DEPRIVATION MAY OCCUR:

  • When the baby/infant/young child is physically separated from his/her mother for a protracted period (e.g.institutionalization, foster care).
  • When the mother, despite being physically present, is unable to sufficiently nurture her offspring (e.g. due to severe mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism).

Other problems affecting the relationship between the child and the parent which can potentially damage the child’s long-term mental health are, according to Bowlby :

  • When the parent is excessively dependent upon and demanding of the child for emotional support (e.g. reassurance and demonstrable expressions of love) – see my article on ‘PARENTIFICATION‘.
  • When the parent is unconsciously rejecting of the child.
  • When the parent derives an unconscious satisfaction from the child’s ‘acting out’. 

THE EFFECT OF THE BROKEN HOME UPON THE CHILD’S MENTAL HEALTH, ACCORDING TO BOWLBY:

Bowlby theorized that harm done to a child’s mental health is not the DIRECT result of living in a ‘broken home’ environment’ but rather as a result of the damage done to the parent-child relationship that may occur as a result of a parental split/separation/divorce.

HOW HARLOW’S FAMOUS EXPERIMENT ON RHESUS MACAQUE MONKEYS PROVIDES EVIDENCE FOR BOWLBY’S THEORY OF THE VITAL IMPORTANCE OF THE MOTHER/CHILD RELATIONSHIP:

Harlow’s study on baby rhesus macaque monkeys helps to illustrate the critical importance of the mother-child bond (see immediately below):

HARLOW’S STUDY:

Baby rhesus macaque monkeys were separated from their mothers and raised individually in cages with access to both an artificial ‘surrogate mother’ constructed out of wire and another one which was made from soft cloth.

EITHER the wire surrogate OR the cloth surrogate (NOT BOTH) were fitted with a ‘feeding nipple’ allowing the baby monkeys to feed when desired.

RESULTS OF HARLOW’S STUDY:

The baby monkeys demonstrated a strong preference for the surrogate made from soft cloth and spent long periods of time clinging to it. Importantly, this was the case even when the wire surrogate possessed the feeding nipple and the cloth surrogate did not.

RESOURCE:

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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