Mother, you had me, But I never had you / I wanted you, but you didn’t want me/
So I just got to tell you/ Goodbye — John Lennon
According to the maternal deprivation hypothesis, infants regardless of whether they are puppies, monkeys or humans will not develop normally unless they receive the warm loving attention of a mother figure to whom they can become attached.
Psychologist Lytt Gardner has studied the development of children who are socially and emotionally deprived by hostile and rejecting parents or by parents who are apprehensive about playing with their infants or showing them attention beyond that required for routine care taking activities.
Gardner’s findings correlate with the behavioral patterns of the foundling home children Rene Spitz studied.
Spitz’s term, anaclitic depression, describes the apathy, social ineptitude, physical morbid rigidity and absence of verbal expression prevalent in these foundling home children.
Harlow’s term, catatonic contracture; a bizarre form of social apathy found in rhesus monkeys raised in isolation, is similar to anaclitic depression.
Harlow noted, “The animal exhibits vacant staring and is unresponsive to ordinary stimulation in the environment, such as calls or movement of caretakers.”
Accordingly, the correlation between anaclitic depression identified in foundling home children and catatonic contracture identified in rhesus monkeys raised under isolation conditions, illustrates the maternal deprivation hypothesis.
It is no surprise that maternally deprived children are plagued with stress, as inconsistency in parental treatment of the child, together with frequent and intense changes in mood and reactivity are antecedents to anxiety among young children.
Additionally, children born into circumstances of parental neglect and abuse are often hindered in their ability to adequately explore the environment and interact with others.
According to Erick Erikson, these circumstances may prevent independent behavior and elicit anxiety when confronted with new or challenging situations.
To cope, children may behaviorally withdraw, a frequently used defense of preschool children to avoid threatening situations or people.
Furthermore, studies conducted by Seymour Sarason affirm that negative parental evaluation of the child and the child’s conflicting feelings of aggression towards the parents and the need to be dependent on them, contribute to feelings of omnipresent anxiety.
Ultimately such children are likely to live in the shadows of a social group, listening rather than participating, and preferring the solitude of withdrawal above the interchange of participation.
Clearly, sustained interaction with other members of the species is a requirement for infants if they are to thrive.
Nevertheless, mothers may be deficient or age appropriate peers unavailable in the critical early period of social development.
Socially deprived infants may develop feelings of helplessness and gradually refrain from attempting to control their environment.
Eventually, they may conclude that they do not affect their outcomes and that nothing they do seems to matter to anyone.
Compounding this plight, the critical-period hypothesis controversially contends that the child who does not receive the proper kinds of stimulation within the initial three-year time frame will remain forever deficient, regardless of the experiences or training she may later receive.
On the other hand, in circumstances where interaction is more sufficient, a child with a strong need for nurturing, a high dependency motivation, may work hard to learn various tasks in order to obtain adult nurturing and praise.
In the bleakest scenarios, children reared in institutions, who cannot develop strong or affectionate personal attachments, remain emotionally cold and isolated capable of only the most superficial interpersonal relationships.
Summarily, socially competent children are those who have been exposed to an early social environment that was responsive to their needs, wishes, and actions. Children require consistent exposure to many kinds of novel sensory stimulation and experiences in order to normally respond to the environment and develop into healthy human beings.
The lasting effects of child abuse and neglect are far-reaching. Official statistics based on annual studies by the National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence indicate that more than 2.5 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States annually with hundreds of deaths related to child abuse reported each year.
Those who ‘survive’ are plagued by mental health issues and vulnerable to exploitation and criminal behavior.
Sadly, the vast majority of maternally deprived adults seeking therapeutic treatment evidence signs of relational trauma and present with developmental disasters, addictions, mood disorders and complex trauma.
Given that the aforementioned fundamental absence of love is responsible for such outcomes, it follows that a caring and humanistic therapeutic approach that fosters attachment and trust is critical to the process of recovery.
Mom and infant photo available from Shutterstock