No area in psychology has given rise to such widely differing assertions as the topic of ‘maternal deprivation’. While it has been recognize that the experiences subsumed under ‘maternal deprivation’ are complex, there has been a tendency to regard both experiences and outcomes as a syndrome which can be discussed as a whole. However little progress is likely to occur until the basic variables indiscriminately combined under this term are differentiated and separate effects of each determined. The implication is that different psychological mechanism may account for different outcome.
In ‘Maternal Deprivation Reassessed’, Rutter explore this possibility in the light of available evidence from research by comparing the present state knowledge with the extant at the time of Bowlby’s review of the field in 1951. The outcomes are considered only in terms of childhood experiences and no reference is made to the associations between childhood experiences and adult psychiatric disorder.
The material of the book is divided into three parts; the first dealing with the qualities of mothering considered necessary for normal development, the second with the short-term effects of ‘deprivation’ and the third with the long-term consequences.
In his initial claim, Bowlby argued that it was essential for mental health that an infant or young child should experience a warm intimate and continuous relationship with his mother. This has often been misinterpreted and wrongly used to support the notion that 24 hours’ care by the same person is good enough. On the other hand, others have emphasized the importance of a stimulating interaction with the child. Putting all these together, Rutter considers the six characteristics that have usually been said to be necessary for adequate mothering to establish which features are important for development and which might be affected by deprivation. These are a loving relationship which leads to attachment which is unbroken which provide adequate stimulation in which the mothering is provided by one person and which occurs in the child’s own family.
Though they are all necessary qualities , Rutter concludes that ‘mothering’ is a general term which include a wide range of activities not yet discussed and because of the differences in these activities performed by the mother it is unlikely that each have the same role in the child’s psychological development. Hence Rutter makes one of his main task in later chapters to identify the separate consequences of different types of ‘maternal deprivation’.
Furthermore despite the strong emphasis on those aspects of the relationship that are supposedly specific to mothering, it is also evident that many of these qualities apply to other relationships experienced by the child. Hence for Rutter, concentrating on the various requirements for development seems more preferable than to attempt any artificial separation of functions which are specifically those of the mother.
In terms of the short terms effects studied with respect to children admitted to hospital or to residential nursery, it is well established that many (though not all) children go through the phase of protest, despair and detachment, what remains controversial of these reactions is their clinical significance and the psychological mechanism involved. Rutter considers this by first examining the factors modifying the reactions (age, sex, temperament of child, previous relationship with mother, previous separation experience , duration of separation, different effect of separation & strange environment, presence of persons other than the mother and the nature of circumstances during separation / deprivation).
It is concluded that the syndrome of distress is probably due a disruption or distortion of the bonding process (not necessarily with the mother). But whether it’s the loss of a particular person to whom the child is attached to or rather the general loss of any opportunity to develop attachments is more important, remains uncertain. The syndrome of developmental retardation appears explicable in terms of a privation of environment stimulation although it is uncertain which is of the most important (social, perceptual, linguistic).
In reviewing the long-term effects, Rutter is careful to distinguish between various types of deprivation. Rutter does acknowledge that many areas of research lack sound data and that it is inappropriate to draw any firm conclusions but by putting the main findings together, he concludes that a nutritional deficiency is probably the main factor responsible for the syndrome of ‘deprivation dwarfism’ while a deficiency in ‘stimulation’ and necessary life experiences is likely to be largely responsible for those cases of intellectual retardation.
Distorted intra-familial relationships involving both lack of affection and hostility or discord are associated with development of later antisocial behaviour and delinquency. Unfortunately, less is known about the syndrome of ‘affectionless psychopath’ but the little evidence available suggests that the most tenable hypothesis is that a failure to develop attachments in early childhood is the main factor.
Although many of the suggestions given by Rutter still remain hypothesis which require rigorous testing, what is important is that it is clear that the different elements in a child’s early life experiences play quite different parts in the development process, so that the end results of an insufficiency or distortion of each are equally dissimilar. I think that by identifying the different psychological mechanisms involved in the long and short term effect of ‘maternal deprivation’, Rutter has made a good contribution in helping us to focus on the very important questions of why and how children are adversely affected by those experiences included under the term ‘maternal deprivation’ rather than spending time on whether they are affected since this has already been established.
By identifying the different mechanisms, it has also been possible to revise Bowlby’s claim of bonding in regards to children’s distress upon separation and with the rather rare syndrome of ‘affectionless psychopath’ which he seemed to suggest arise in a similar way. The evidence shows that while distress arise through disruption of bonds, ‘affectionless psychopath’ arises because bonds fail to develop. It has also shown that although the bond formed with the mother may be stronger than other bonds it is not different in kind. As a reader I have come to acknowledge that the whole concept of maternal deprivation can be misleading as Rutter has shown that in most cases the deleterious influences are not specifically tied to the mother and are not due to privation.