aqa  Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation. 

Definition of Deprivation: “When the child’s attachment with their primary caregiver is broken (e.g. when a child is left in hospital)”


Bowlby (1951) stressed the importance in the early years of the child’s relationship with its mother (or mother substitute. Bowlby also thought that children who experienced separations from the mother in their first two and a half years, when the attachment bond was developing, risked psychological disturbance and difficulties in relating to others in later life.

Deprivation – Bowlby’s 44 Thieves (1944)

Bowlby carried out a retrospective study of the early lives of 44 juvenile offenders, aged 5-16 years, who were guilty of theft. He found that 17 of them had been separated from their mothers for at least six months in the first five years of life. In a comparison group of 44 unstable, neurotic, non-thieves, only two had experienced such separation. Furthermore, 14 of the thieves were described as having affectionless psychopathy in that they seemed unable to experience affection, warmth or concern for anyone else, and 12 of these had experienced long maternal separation. Bowlby concluded that these outcomes were due to disruption of the attachment bond brought about by separation experiences.

Deprivation – Robertson’s Case Studies (1952)
  • Robertson studied Little John who was looked after in a residential nursery for 9 days while his mother was in hospital. He went from a happy, well-adjusted child to a distressed, withdrawn child. When his mother returned to collect him he rejected her.
  • Robertson also studied Laura, who had to go to hospital. Parents weren’t allowed to visit very often and when they did she begged to go home. She had trouble controlling her emotions and was distressed.
  • Validity was high because it was in naturalistic settings and he recorded what he saw to prevent observer bias. However, results can’t be generalised because they are all British children from urban communities. So not all children will act in the same way.

Supporting Research

  • Reactive Attachment Disorder Assessment Research (RADAR). In a re-examination of Bowlby’s work, Follan and Minnis (2010) used his records to examine separation experiences and maltreatment of the original 14 affectionless psychopaths and compare them to a control group. They found that, compared to only 9% of controls, all of the 14 children had experienced both separation and much disruption of attachment in their early years, and were showing symptoms of what is now called reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Follan and Minnis then recruited 38 children thought to be at risk from RAD and compared them with 39 controls. They found that 25 of the first group had experienced separation, and 22 of these had also suffered disruption because of neglect, abuse, or parents’ substance abuse. None of the controls had experienced these things.  They concluded that they had supported Bowlby’s original findings in the present day, but with the following elaboration:
  • Separation alone puts attachments at risk, but the key to predicting later problems is whether they are disrupted by maltreatment
  • Bowbly saw problems as largely environmentally determined, but children whose cases are also biologically complex (e.g. health problems or other disabilities) are at particular risk.
  • Insecure attachment does not inevitably lead to later problems, but should be regarded as a risk factor.
  • The main root of RAD may be ‘failure of attunement’ between the infant and the mother figure rather than a problem with attachment alone.


  • Correlation or Causation? As we cannot remove infants from their mothers deliberately, due to ethical reasons, evidence in this area is only correlational. This means that many other uncontrolled variables could also be involved in the association. For example in Bowlby’s 44 thieves study, information was collected retrospectively; it may have lacked accurate detail about the children’s individual circumstances, such as the quality of their attachments, their own temperament and whether they had had good-quality mother substitutes.
  • Separation does not inevitably disrupt the attachment bond: In some of her case studies Robertson showed that separation from the mother did not inevitably lead to disruption of the attachment bond, As a foster mother she familiarised children with her home before their stay and, while they lived with her, they kept in contact with their own mother through visits and phone calls. Robertson’s good quality emotional care protected these children’s attachment bonds. They were content whilst being fostered and happy to see their mothers afterwards.

Bowlby’s findings are thus robust over time and encourage new research to improve our understanding of attachment and the effects of deprivation.


Extension Resources

Here are some great