Last Updated 16 Jun 2020

Disruption in Attachment

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Attachments can often be disrupted between an infant and its primary caregiver and these particular children can find themselves growing up and developing outside the traditional family environment. Thus not forming attachments can have serious impacts on the development of the infant. Disruptions to attachments can take place due to the lack of physical and emotional attachment (Privation) and separation from the primary caregiver. In disruption of attachments there are long-term and short-term effects of separation.

In short-term effects of separation, the infants are likely to respond to the separation from their primary attachment figure with a behaviour pattern in three stages; Protest, Despair and Detachment. Robertson and Bowlby investigated the effects of infants separated from their mothers and found that the distress felt by the infants fell into three categories (PDD). Conversely other researchers such as Barrett have argued that the childs initial response to separation is actually the effort to cope with the feelings produced due to separation.

Protest is the beginning, when the child starts to cry, scream and protest with rage when the parent leaves them. The infant at this point will try to cling on to the parent and will reject all attempts by others to try and pick them up. Despair, is when the infants anger seems to have calmed down although they may still feel a little upset, the infant will lose interest in the environment around him and will again reject attempts by other people to console the infant.

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Lastly there is detachment, at this point if the separation has continued the infant will have started to engage with other people but may still seem cautious, they will also reject the caregiver on reunion and engage with signs of anger. The reaction to short-term was shown by Robertson’s in their study of 17 months old John who was placed in a residential nursery for nine days, where he was neither mothered by the nurses nor protected from other children who attacked him, eventually he became very distressed and at reunion with his mother he rejected her.

A few long-term effect of separation are; separation anxiety, extreme clinginess (the child will try their best to stay with the primary caregiver as much as possible, wherever they may go), detachment (the child will refuse any physical love such as being hugged, this may be to prevent the primary caregiver from leaving next time), the child will also be more demanding of their attachment figure. On the other hand not all children respond the same ay to separation, some infants may become more stressed or less distressed than others, factors that affect the child’s response are: the age of the child, the type of attachment they share with their primary caregiver, the gender of the child, with whom the child is left with and the quality of care they receive, the infants experience of previous separations. Schaffer and Callender studied the behaviour of 76 babies aged between 3 and 51 weeks of age.

Their findings where that the seven months showed little clinging and upsetting behaviour however between 12 and 18 months of age the strength of the infants response had increased primarily due to the fact that they may have developed the idea that their primary attachment figure always returns. A securely attached child has a higher chance of coping with separation than an insecure-ambivalent type. Lastly, boys seem to react more strongly to separation than girls.

A small number of children experience privation, which is the lack of any attachment at all in their early childhood development. The two types of studies carried out in order to inform us about the severe effects of privation are; case studies of infants who have been brought up in very bad conditions where they were also unable to form any attachments, and the studies of children who have been raised in institutionalised care.

Koluchova reported a case study of twin boys who were born in Czechoslovakia and brought up in care soon after their mother had died and their father and step-mother had inhumanely treated them, they were severely malnourished, when they were discovered they had no speech and they were also beaten and starved in an unheated cellar away from human activity, this caused them extreme health conditions. They were later adopted by two sisters and gained average intelligence, they attended a mainstream school and there early damage had been repaired with no cognitive issues.

Case studies can raise a major ethical issue of making the children who were involved feel as if they were just part of a psychological experiment and were used merely as objects of research, later on in life. Case studies may not always appear accurate, because digging up the past of the participants and concluding from case study research may not always be accurate. However in natural experiment this issue is overcome foe example: Tizard and Hodges study of the long-term effects of emotional privation.

Institutionalisation refers to the various behavioural patterns of children who have been raised in institutions, orphanages and children’s care homes. Tizard and Hodges carried out a natural experiment where 65 children were brought up in a children’s home until they were four. For this period of time the children and staff were prohibited from forming attachments with one another, only so the children would not get upset if the person left. Due to the lack of attachment the children did not show fear of strangers, they ran to any adult that entered and cried when they left.

This behaviour pattern is known as a disinhibited attachment. When the babies were restored, adopted or remained in the children’s home they were given (participants, teachers, peers, parents etc. ) assessments to complete via questionnaires or interviews. Tizard and Hodges found that the adopted group formed stronger bonds with their parents than the restored infants. This may have been because the restored children felt neglected. The restored children also had worse relationship with their siblings.

Nonetheless, all three groups formed very weak peer to peer relationships. The study uses a range of research methods to collect information which is very beneficial for a final conclusion. One major disadvantage of a longitudinal study is the problem of participant attrition, and this was also a problem for Tizard and Hodges research. Ethical issues involved high sensitivity when it came to family relationships and the researchers had to make sure they were extremely cautious during the follow up interviews.

They also had to make sure that the participants were in no pressure to continue with the research. In spite of the severe effects of institutionalisation and privation, if infants are removed at six months such as the Romanian orphans (Rutter et al study) tend to make better developmental progress. Children are able to recover from these only if they are placed under a loving and caring environment after institutionalisation/ privation and they need an opportunity to form a strong bond with an adult who provides them with sufficient attention.

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Disruption in Attachment. (2017, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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